A Deconstructive Reading of “Nectar in a Sieve” by Kamala Markandaya (Pt.1)

[I recently had to offer a deconstructive reading of this short novel for one of my professors. What follows below is the first part of my essay. If you want to know more about the book, in addition to what my essay presents, here is a link to online study notes.

The apologetical import of posting this deconstructive reading is twofold: (i.)I want to turn the weapon of deconstruction against the deconstructionists themselves, and (ii.)I want to show the self-contradictory consciousness of the purportedly post-Christian author. Markandaya’s novel is very good, but it is trapped within the self-referentially absurd boundaries of the unbeliever’s mind. On the one hand, Markandaya wants to underscore the resilience of humans to various historical changes; yet on the other hand, the storyline, imagery, and most important characters are deeply rooted in the Christian worldview. Markandaya’s novel only gets off the ground in criticizing the Christian worldview by accepting the Christian worldview as true. Hope you are blessed :)]

The Tale of Rukmani’s Life

or the Tale of Nathan’s “Gentle Passing”?

Like a snake swallowing its own tail, Kamala Markandaya’s novel Nectar in a Sieve starts where it ends and ends where it starts. This beginning/ending, however, is summarized in Rukmani’s (unintentionally?) ironic realization that “What has been taken can never be given back.”1Her words appear to be an open embracing of the many painful events of which her life is comprised – the taking of her land by British colonialists, the taking of her children by death and moral corruption, and perhaps most significantly the taking of her husband Nathan – yet the cyclical nature of the events in Rukmani’s life, in conjunction with the cyclical nature of the novel itself ensure that what is taken is indeed given back. Her opening words seem to draw her readers’ attention to this point. She writes:

Sometimes at night I think that my husband is with me again, coming gently through the mists, and we are tranquil together. Then morning comes, the wavering grey turns to gold, there is a stirring within me as the sleepers awake, and he softly departs.2

Rukmani’s husband, although dead, is present with her as a memory, a fleeting yet indelible imprint of the man with whom she had spent the majority of her life. He is, in other words, present in his absence. Likewise, at the end of the novel, Nathan is present in his absence. For in explaining to her son Selvam that his father’s death was a “gentle passing,” a passing which she “…will tell [him] later…”3, Rukmani is giving back what had been taken from them both.

At the very onset of this novel lies a contradiction: On the one hand, Rukmani’s tale begins/ends by disclosing Nathan’s presence in his absence; and on the other hand, Rukmani’s tale begins/ends by denying that that which is absent can ever be made present again. In addition to this, the cyclical nature of “her” narrative, resembling a snake swallowing its own tail, further complicates the matter by raising yet another question: Is Nectar in a Sieve the tale of Rukmani’s life, or is it the tale of Nathan’s “gentle passing” (i.e. death)?

Nathan’s memory takes on human flesh in Rukmani’s account of their marriage, his provision for her, and his triumphant destruction of the serpent in the garden. Nathan, therefore, takes precedence in this story. Rukmani was Nathan’s wife, but she also stood in a quasi-daughter relation to him, receiving instruction, moral reprimand, and affirmation from her beloved, counselor, and protector. Consequently, even the fabric of her identity is woven through with threads of her masculine other, Nathan. Without Nathan, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Rukmani would not be who she is, nor would her writing have become public.

Yet is this tale told simply to satisfy the desire of her son, or to satisfy some deeper desire that Rukmani leaves unspoken? If it is the former, then why does Selvam seem to be only partially interested in hearing the tale, telling his mother to “…not talk about it…unless [she] must…”?4 If it is not the latter, then why does Rukmani reply with such resoluteness: “ I will tell you later”?5 As Nathan’s ghost hovers over and weaves in and out of the text, from chapter to chapter, the reader cannot but help wondering if Rukmani longs to tell “her” story because Nathan’s presence saves her from the constant cycles of pain, sickness, unfruitful labor by the sweat of her and her childrens’ brows, and death itself. After all, Rukmani compares “the time of in-between” to a serpent “…coiled away…within its hole,”6 and when she is threatened by the serpent in the garden, it is Nathan who boldly enters into the garden, risks his own life, and kills the crafty animal. No, Rukmani is not the subject of Nectar in a Sieve, nor is the story her story. It is Nathan who is the subject; and it is the story of his noble life and gentle passing.

[Part 2]

1p.3

2Ibid.

3p.186

4p.186

5Ibid. (emphasis added)

6Ibid.

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