Academic | Essay Contest
Rukmani and Nathan, the central characters of Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve, suffer terrible loss due to natural disasters in the course of the novel. Yet they endure the worst hardships and continue to love and rely upon the land. This is confusing to readers at first, but Markandaya's skillful writing wins us to a different perspective. Although nature may be destructive to Nathan's and Rukmani's lives at times, it is still a source of hope for them, holding the promise of future harvests. Nature also inspires a kind of reverential awe in the two characters, a sentiment that the readers eventually share.
Natural disasters strike the family and their crops suddenly, harshly, and without warning, "like a wild animal[.]" Unexpected drought deprives Rukmani's family of their food supply for an entire growing season, and her son dies of starvation. Tragic events like this, which seem to accompany every adverse change in the weather, are wrenching to the Western reader. The reader's pain is reflected in the character of Kenny, the Western doctor who observes Rukmani's family's difficulties. Faced by such suffering, Kenny is often frustrated or angry with the family and their quiet endurance of injustice. At one point, Kenny meets Rukmani after the town has been wracked by a terrible rainstorm. Markandaya's vivid language evokes the scene: "Uprooted trees sprawled . . . in ghastly fashion . . . Dead dogs, cats, and rats cluttered the roadside or floated starkly on the waters with blown, distended bellies." When, after this gruesome description, Rukmani calmly tells Kenny that she has rice to feed her family until "times are better," he explodes: "Times are better, times are better . . . Times will not be better for many months. Meanwhile you will suffer and die, you meek, suffering fools." Kenny's outrage at Rukmani's simple acceptance of circumstances drives him from their village after a short stay. The Western reader may also find it hard to identify with the family, their love of the land, and their unquestioning embrace of life despite the "disaster and desolation" around them.
Yet while nature can ruin Rukmani's family, it can also bless them with bounty. In Rukmani's words, despite the lean times, "Still, while there [is] land, there [is] hope." After the family suffers through the drought, they reap a plentiful harvest. As Rukmani says, "there is nothing to equal the rich satisfaction of a gathered harvest, when the grain is set before you in shining mounds and your hands are whitened with the dust of the good rice[.]" Her visceral joy at having enough to eat is evoked by Markandaya's rich image of sifting through grain.
More significant than the physical nourishment Nathan and Rukmani receive from the grain, however, is the spiritual nourishment and the capacity for hope that it brings to them. As soon as the family has gathered in the harvest, they begin planning how to use their grain: "'There will be enough to pay what we owe,' [Nathan] exclaimed, 'and to keep what we want. We can stock the fields with fish as well . . .'" With a good harvest, the family can look forward to a full season of prosperity. Even when the harvest is poor, they can look forward to when "times are better," as Rukmani describes it to Kenny. This may at first seem a small comfort to Western readers, as it does to Kenny, but it is enough for Rukmani and Nathan. Despite feelings of frustration toward them, the reader eventually comes to admire their hope and stoicism.
Besides depending on nature for sustenance and hope, Nathan and Rukmani share a deep reverence for it. Rukmani describes almost all plants, growing things, and natural scenes in the novel with rich, positive imagery. Rice paddies are "green, quiet fields" moving in the wind with "soft whisperings," rice from the field is "white, perfect," and the vegetables from Rukmani's garden are "smooth-skinned," "round and fleshed like young women." This last simile demonstrates the connection Markandaya draws between the land and the human body and soul. Rukmani sees herself almost as a plant and feels kinship with growing things and with the land. Early in the novel as she plants her first garden, she compares the growth of the plants to her own physical growth, and holding seeds in her hand, she says "it seemed to me . . . that each of the dry, hard pellets I held in my hand held the secret of life itself." Later, she and Nathan "sat down together on the brown earth that was part of us." Markandaya's vibrant, descriptive language allows readers to identify with the characters' love of nature.
This only makes the pain sharper when Nathan's land is sold to the tannery. We realize that more than simply losing its livelihood, the family is being deprived of its capacity to hope. Worse still, Nathan and Rukmani are consigned to life in the city, "where all that [is] natural [has] long been sacrificed." The land becomes another of the precious things that Rukmani has lost in her life. The central motif of the novel reappears; once again, Rukmani must struggle to do without, and once again, she somehow perseveres and finds hope and meaning in her life.
In the first pages of the novel, Rukmani says, "While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?" Nature plays a prominent role in this list of ingredients for happiness the store of grain, presumably grown in the family's own fields, represents the joy of a good harvest and the hope for more in the future, and the shining sun and beautiful fields, especially when mentioned alongside descriptions of human beauty and physical happiness, show a spiritual connection between the land and humanity. Despite the ravages of nature described elsewhere in the novel, this quote shows the essence of Rukmani's and Nathan's view of it profound love. As readers, we cannot help sympathizing with this love despite moments of frustration with the characters. Hence, the loss of the land is all the more poignant and painful when it comes. Rukmani and Nathan must face the future without the hope or joy they drew from nature.