Paradoxes of Power: Nectar in a Sieve

Kamala Markandaya



            Nectar in a Sieve, set in a rural Indian village, would seemingly provide an easy critique of traditional gender roles.  In patriarchal Indian culture, with its history of colonization and preponderance of poor people in many areas of the nation, women and girls--submissive to husbands, fathers, and sons--suffer most in the process of development.  But Nectar in a Sieve, narrated by Rukmani, a woman embodying many of the book's gender issues and presenting a mosaic of female triumphs despite the inevitable dominance and privileging of males, challenges readers to examine a complex cycle of power shifts.

The narration by a woman-- but one of the novel's many paradoxical gender issues--associates Ruku with literacy and the power of words. There are layers of irony here.  First, her father, a male, saw to it that his children, sons and daughters were taught to read.  Ruku's mother, steeped in the traditions of a patriarchal culture, ridicules her husband and perpetuates the common stereotype that women need not be educated: "'What use,' my mother said, 'that a girl should be learned!  Much good it will do her when she has lusty sons and a husband to look after'" (16).  Though her mother seems unaware of literacy's values, Ruku's father, does not give up his teaching.  "I am certain" [Ruku maintains] "that he knew it would be a solace to me in affliction, a joy amid tranquility" (16).

Nathan, another male, also supports his wife's literacy, though as Ruku acknowledges: "It could not have been easy for him to see his wife more learned than he himself was…yet not once did he assert his rights and forbid me my pleasure, as lesser men might have done" (17). Indeed, Nathan presents another paradox of power.  Ruku's story reveals that while Nathan is poor in many things, he is rich in love and care (8); never does he assert male dominance.  She relates his kindness to her when she is sick on the marriage journey to his village, hours away from her home village.  Nathan's sensitivity is evidenced by the garland of mango, symbol of happiness and good fortune, he has hung over the door to welcome his bride.  He has built their hut, by himself, risking time away from working the land that is his livelihood.  Defying a taboo about killing a sacred animal, Nathan kills a cobra and answers the queries of Kali: "What would she have me do--worship it while it dug its fangs in my wife?" (20).  He consistently praises his wife, for everything from the vegetables she grows to the children she bears; he sooner than Ruku grows to love Irawaddy, their firstborn, a daughter who Ruku initially cries tears of disappointment over, "for what woman wants a girl for a firstborn?" (19).  In Nathan, Ruku found a gentle, supportive soul mate, not a husband who was master: "If I grieve" she says as he is dying, "it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall I endure to live without you, who are my love and my life?" (187). 

Literacy, however, does not always lend strength and create power. Another power shift connected to literacy arises when Ruku's sons become suspect at the tannery where they work.  The very literacy which provided the opportunity for jobs in the tannery and ultimately more money than tenant farmers could ever earn, caused the sons to be fired.  They became victims of the tannery owners who like other oppressors fear the power literacy gives to those under their control.  This theme connects Nectar in a Sieve with other texts and experiences: slave narratives, the writing of Frederick Douglass, and the struggle for education of women that dominates the first century of American history. 

Life on the land, particularly on land worked, but not owned, offers another of the novel's paradoxes of power.  Nature is gendered female; its cruel ironies portray a vengeful woman dallying with those who must ride out the seasons of deluge or drought, waiting for seasons of plenty.  "This is one of the truths of our existence as those who live by the land know: that sometimes we eat and sometimes we starve.  We live by our labours from one harvest to the next… Still, while there was land there was hope" (137). Ruku muses over these ironies acknowledging the contentment when fields are green, there is a good store of grain, and food to feed the family; not even "the clamour which invaded our lives later on" (13) can subdue the memory of land as sustaining.  After the painful period among the city's struggling poor, when Nathan has died, it is the land to which Ruku can return and be restored: "I felt the earth beneath my feet and wept for happiness.  The time of in-between, already a memory, coiled away like a snake within its hole" (188).

Ruku, the woman of words, faces the ultimate irony during the difficult time when she and Nathan, having been forced off the land, live in the city.  She tries to earn their daily food supply by using her skills to read and write; these skills are not in demand and Ruku and Nathan are forced to earn their living by breaking rocks. Yet words empower Ruku to convey her memories and articulate her story.  Her voice, a feminine voice, challenges and surprises, questions and revels, dispels stereotypes of how women, particularly those in a developing nation, must be, and defies the bias of females as the weaker sex. 

Ruku's narration is the central focus of Nectar and a crucial basis for the study of the novel.  Readers must question the role and value of education for women in rural, isolated, or impoverished cultures. Nectar in a Sieve helps readers discover, like Ruku and Nathan who defy simplistic characterization and model the integration of the masculine and feminine, that power can shift and humans can escape the confines of preconceived roles. 


Works Cited

Markandaya, Kamala.  Nectar in a Sieve.  New York, NY: Signet Books, l995.