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Two men from the tannery bring Raja’s body home. Ruku, weak with hunger and overcome by grief, barely understands that her son died while trying to steal from the tannery. She and Ira prepare the body and the funeral bier is lit. Only ashes remain of her son.
Three days later, two tannery officials visit Ruku and Nathan. They explain Raja had been caught stealing and collapsed when the guards tried to stop him. They claim he was weak and collapsed even though the guards barely laid a hand on him. They warn the grieving parents they have no claim on the tannery and no claim for compensation for Raja’s death. Ruku and Nathan are confused and don’t understand the officials’ meaning.
As they leave, one of the men remarks perhaps the family is better off with one less mouth to feed. The cruel remark has little effect on the dazed parents. One of the men seems sorry for the family and wears a face of shame; the other wishes to make a hasty retreat and glows with satisfaction that the family puts up no fight.
Raja’s death at the tannery is suspicious to say the least. Even if had had been caught stealing and was weak from hunger, he must have been badly beaten to cause his death. The tannery clearly is concerned that the family may file the equivalent of a wrongful death suit and claim compensation for Raja’s death. However, those fears are unfounded as Ruku and Nathan are too stunned by Raja’s death and too ignorant of their rights to do so.
If Kenny or Arjun had been present in this scene, surely they would have cried out against this injustice. As it is, Ruku once again suffers in silence knowing only that her son is dead and she is powerless to change that fact. Like many others in their position, Ruku and Nathan are at the mercy of those with power and money - in this case, those who run the tannery.
It is still three weeks before the rice can be harvested. Ruku worries they may not have the strength to complete the harvest when the time comes but Nathan assures her they will find a way. Most of all, Ruku worries about her youngest Kuti, the weakest of them. She finds herself wondering if death might be more welcome than the pain he suffers.
Over the next few days, Ruku begins to notice a change in Kuti - he rests easier and his face shows less pain. At first, she thinks this is the last flicker of life before death but the improvement continues.
As Ruku lays in her bed thinking of her hopes for the future, she hears someone tip-toeing around the hut. Her thoughts go to Kunthi; only she would have the nerve to do such a thing. When Ruku sees the shadowy form of a woman, she attacks. Nathan pulls her off, screaming. The woman she attacked was her own daughter, Ira. Confused, Ruku tends to her daughter’s wounds, including many cuts from the broken bangles Ira had been wearing. When Ruku takes Ira’s blooded sari to wash in the river, she catches sight of a rupee as it slips from the cloth into the water.
Kuti cries when Ruku returns to the hut. Ira tells her mother to use the money in her sari to buy food for Kuti. Ruku now understands that Kuti’s improvement was due to Ira’s efforts - but where had she gotten the money?
Ira prepares to leave again. Ruku begs her to stay, but Ira insists she must do something to help her dying brother. Ruku demands to know where Ira is going; Ira does not answer. Ruku follows her to the alleys near the tannery. Ira tells her she would not like to know the truth and sends Ruku away.
Nathan too confronts his daughter, telling her he will not have his daughter work as a whore. Ira defies her father and stubbornly insists she will do what she must so as not to starve. Despite her parents’ efforts, Ira continues to go out into the night. Ruku says they grow accustomed to this too as they have so much else.
Ira uses her earning to buy food for the family but Nathan stubbornly refuses to touch it. Despite the milk Ira buys for him, Kuti continues to grow weak. Soon he dies, too weak to sit up and his sight taken by hunger. Ruku cries but feels relief that her youngest child suffers no more.
As Kuti dies, Ruku recalls that he was conceived during one of their happiest times - the Deepavali festival. Now they have only sorrow. Still she is glad that her child no longer suffers.
Ira’s decision to become a prostitute was one made in desperation; out of love for her brother, Kuti, she sold the one thing she had of value. She had always been an obedient and docile daughter, which is why her parents are so shocked when she defies them and continues to work. When Ruku follow Ira into the village, Ira tells her “the truth is unpalatable” - those words echo those of the tannery official who came to report Raja’s death. Perhaps it would have been better for Ira’s parents to remain ignorant of her nighttime activities and to continue to believe it was divine intervention that caused the improvement in Kuti.
Sadly, even Ira’s decision to sell herself can’t save her brother. The remaining family members can benefit from her sacrifice as she feeds them with her earnings. Only her father refuses to eat the food she brings. Ruku wonders if this is Nathan’s way of punishing himself for failing to provide for his family or if it is his way to protest Ira’s shameful defiance. Certainly if Ira had not made the decision she did, more members of the family easily could have starved to death as well.
Ruku notes that she and Nathan grow accustomed to Ira’s comings and goings as they had adapted to so much else. Although this is difficult for them to accept, it must have been even harder for Ira. Unlike a woman like Kunthi who turned to prostitution for her own fulfillment and self-preservation, Ira sacrifices her honor to save those she loved. Her decision is all too common in parts of the world where there is much poverty and suffering as women have little other option to earn money for themselves or their families. Ira’s fate as a single women is now sealed; not only was she rejected as barren by her husband, but now she will be seen as damaged goods fit for no man.
Cite this page:
Sinclair, Meredith. "TheBestNotes on Nectar in a Sieve".
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