Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

The novel demonstrates virtues in action. There are major instances of faith, hope, and love in Rukmani’s life, but of these, hope is the greatest theme. Between the marriage of Rukmani (with its symbols of fertility and good fortune) and her widowhood lie many dire tests of this hope, but Nectar in a Sieve is characteristically Indian in its vindication of suffering and the attitude that, no matter what, life can go on.

The novel cleverly combines opposite symbols from the outset as if to suggest the pivotal conflict between hope and fear. The dry mango leaves garlanding the doorway to Rukmani and Nathan’s hut presage a barren future. Yet Nathan has a rich hoard of grain to counterbalance the pessimistic fear. Then, the three women who make themselves part of Rukmani’s village life combine opposites again: Kali’s ample size and sensuality and Kunthi’s physical allure are, at first, positive qualities in contrast to Janaki’s homeliness. They see only gain in the creation of the tannery—and so are opposed to Rukmani’s fear for the loss of pastoral innocence. Their false hope for a golden future is counterpointed by Rukmani’s fear for an irretrievable past, but by the end of the story, it is the trio who are defeated in various ways by life, whereas it is Rukmani who survives her afflictions.

Nature tests human hope by magnifying people’s fears, but in the end, though never subdued by man, nature is not granted the ultimate victory. Its savage agitation does destroy its victims, and its cruel force is best resisted by a quiet spiritual force. This battle of nature against spirit is typified in the cycle of seasons, where hunger and despair are often consequences of nature’s assault. Where nature’s force is quick and brutal, the spirit is slow and patient. It takes Rukmani virtually a lifetime to learn her lesson of hope. Ironically, just as nature punishes the spirit, it also supplies the metaphor for uplifting it: As Rukmani puts it, “The sowing of seed disciplines the body and the sprouting of the seed uplifts the spirit.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

Change
Rukmani experiences the changes typical of a young woman in her time. She marries a man she does not know, becomes a mother, and as she has more children, learns to share limited resources with more people.

Other changes, however, prove more difficult to accept. When the tannery comes to her town, she is deeply resistant to its effects on the village and its people. She comments, "Change I had known before, and it had been gradual.… But the change that now came into my life, into all our lives, blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye." To her, the tannery is destructive to their peaceful way of life, causes prices to increase, and encourages people to choose wayward paths. Although she eventually takes her husband's advice to be flexible, she does so only because she has little choice.

Getting used to change becomes a necessity in Rukmani's life. By the end of the story, her sons have grown and started their own lives, leaving her with an all but empty household. After her married daughter is returned by her husband for not bearing children, Rukmani considers Nathan's advice to get used to it because it is out of their control. She says:

It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the smell of the tannery; they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future and Ira's lot in it, and thrust it from me; only sometimes when I was weak, or in sleep while my will lay dormant, I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.

Later, when Nathan loses his land, Rukmani faces the daunting prospect of a completely new lifestyle, begun when she is well into adulthood. Looking for one of their sons, Rukmani and Nathan confront the challenges and hardships of a large, unforgiving city. To make matters worse, their son is gone and they have lost all of their possessions and money, forcing them to devise a new plan to earn money for passage back to their village.

Their lives are in complete upheaval, and Rukmani reacts by adapting and remaining as optimistic as possible rather than by giving up altogether. When her husband dies, Rukmani must deal with the profound change of going from wife to widow. Markandaya demonstrates through these drastic changes that Rukmani's life is characterized by uncertainty and instability, but because she establishes constancy within herself, she is able to handle the many changes and surprises that come her way.

Adversity
Rukmani faces many difficulties in her adult life. From the time she arrives at her husband's humble mud hut, she knows that life will be more difficult than she imagined. Her new life requires hard work for little money and few comforts. She finds herself the wife of a poor tenant farmer but takes comfort in the realization that she is happily married to a man who loves her deeply.

When many childless years pass after the birth of their daughter, Rukmani faces the possibility of carrying a social stigma. She solves her problem by visiting Kenny, the foreign doctor in town, whose new methods would not be acceptable to Rukmani's husband. Although she hates keeping secrets from him, she determines never to tell her husband how she came to bear five sons.

Rukmani faces the adversities of natural disaster when a monsoon destroys much of their home and floods the rice paddies on which their livelihood depends. She watches as her children either suffer cruel fates or leave the village to make their own lives. She and Nathan lose their land, and in the end, she is a widow.

Markandaya shows, however, that Rukmani is not a woman who allows adversity to destroy her. She has enough in her life that fulfills her (children she loves, friends, and a happy marriage) to find the will to continue seeking improvement. While she is sometimes struck with despair, she never wallows in self-pity. At the end of the story, she is at peace with herself and her life. She is hopeful and cherishes her memories because she clings to the happiness in her past rather than to the heartache.

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