Nectar in a Sieve is told in first person, in flashback, as Rukmani reminisces about the truths and trials of her life. The first-person narrative allows us to identify with this Indian peasant woman, to recognize her strengths and appreciate her values. Rukmani’s life is so far removed from that of some readers that her culture could be easily misunderstood. Therefore, Markandaya makes readers dig deep into Rukmani’s character in order to dignify the Eastern traditional lifestyle. By using the reminiscent voice, Markandaya lets the reader see how the people living in south Indian villages came to view the changes that occurred during British rule and the struggle these villagers faced in reconciling Eastern and Western views.
Markandaya sets up a series of contrasts throughout the novel to emphasize the conflicts between cultures. She sets Kenny’s realism against Rukmani’s spiritualism, and she sets Kunthi’s opportunism against Rukmani’s traditional values. By portraying the officials at the tannery as callous and disdainful of village life, she helps us understand the difficulty the Hindus faced during this time in history and the complex issues that challenged the relationship between India and England. Life is not easily divided into black and white but rather demands an intricate balance between them. Achieving that balance became necessary with Britain’s colonization of India; the merging of cultures required a willingness to accept the differences of others and to make compromises. Kenny understands the practicality of Western society, and he struggles to appreciate the virtues of traditional society. Rukmani understands the virtues of her cultural traditions, and she has to learn to accept the practical side of Western industry.
When the tannery first arrives in her village, Rukmani fears that this industry will be the villagers’ undoing, and that it will “spread like weeds in an untended garden, strangling whatever life grew in its way.” But Kenny thinks her refusal to accept change is what will strangle her, and he thinks that her stubborn resignation to her lower-caste status makes her weak and ignorant. He tells Rukmani that she need not suffer in silence, that she can break the bonds that tie her to poverty and hardship. “Do you think spiritual grace comes from being in want, or from suffering?” he asks her. Kenny is frustrated that she puts herself at nature’s mercy rather than accepting the cultural changes the Western industrialists wished to effect in India. As time goes on, Rukmani becomes more accepting of change, yet remains true to her conviction that contentment comes from traditional values. Markandaya makes Kenny a symbol of Western realism and Rukmani a symbol of Eastern spiritualism. Several commentators have suggested that Nectar in a Sieve is a chronicle not of Rukmani’s life and the changes she came to accept, but of India itself and the changes that occurred during British colonization.
Markandaya compares the duality of Western industry to the duality of nature. One is not black and the other white, but both have the ability to create and to destroy. Rukmani and Nathan know that the tannery offers opportunity but also that it eradicates values. They know that water renews the earth after long droughts and allows them to live, but also that it ravages the land and destroys everything in existence. Rukmani and Nathan have no experience with factories, and do not know how to fight the kind of destruction they bring. But they rely on their spiritual beliefs to help them tame nature’s forces. “Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you,” Rukmani says. “So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.”
Markandaya introduces the tannery as a model of Western industry, equally representative of creation and destruction. Is it friend or foe, good or bad for society? Many Hindu peasants must have felt this same confusion when the British colonized India. Markandaya uses an apt analogy when she equates Ira’s loss of innocence with the growth of the tannery, and her acceptance of Ira’s lot with her acceptance of change in general. One gets used to things. Just as Ira got used to being unmarried, and Selvam got used to the albino skin of Sacrabani, Rukmani got used to the tannery and to the Western medicine that Kenny brought to the village. Rukmani says of the tannery, “I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wild in the blast from the town, and I grieved no more, so now I accepted the future…only sometimes when I was weak…I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.” When the British people imposed their Western views on the people of India, the Hindus watched their traditions fade away, and they grieved first, and then accepted the change. And just as Rukmani found herself sometimes rebellious and restless, India too rebelled. The people recognized opportunity, but they hesitated to forsake the customs and values that defined their culture.