Temporal Suffering, Pain, and Death: The Real Serpent in the Existential Garden
It is crucial at this point to recall that Rukmani refers to her narrative as “…a memory, coiled away like a snake within its hole.” The significance of this description, lies in its apparently Eastern religio-philosophical connotations. The tale is, as mentioned already, a cyclical one that begins where it ends and ends where it begins. Time and events, although they do repeat themselves, constantly bring about new changes. And Rukmani, at least by her account, has learned to accept and adjust to the inevitable changes that all humans face. Seemingly resigning herself to the whims of fate, she explains that
..one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and smell of the tannery; they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future…and thrust it from me; only sometimes when I was weak or in sleep my will lay dormant, I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.1
Accordingly, only weak-willed individuals, or those who are out of touch with reality (i.e. “asleep”), who wish things were otherwise than they are presently. One must “…bend like the grass, that [one does] not break.”2 Rukmani tells us that she has bent, that she has grown accustomed to temporal suffering, pain, and death.
However, the unapalatable – and hence unutterable and, throughout Rukmani’s narrative, unspoken/unwritten – truth is that Rukmani’s narrative is an expression of her desire to have the serpentine movement of temporal pain, suffering, and death brought to an end by her husband whom she remembers vividly as the beloved, counselor, and protector. It is Nathan who formed Rukmani’s identity, preserved her and attended to her needs, and who has already saved her from the serpent in the garden, a threat which she was powerless to overcome.
Thus, Nectar in a Sieve is not only not about Rukmani, it is also not about how she has learned how to accept change. She hasn’t. The grudging admissions which the reader meets with throughout her narrative are attempts to suppress the truth. If she has accepted temporal pain, suffering, and death, then why does she take “comfort” in the cleanness and soundness of Puli’s stubs, which apparently signify that his disease had been stopped before it infected the entirety of his limbs?3 If she has learned to accept change, to bend like the grass so that she does not break, then why does she “prefer to remember…sweeter, fuller” nights in her married life, in contrast to her awkward and pained childhood marriage day?
Rukmani’s narrative contradicts itself at this fundamental point: On the one hand, her narrative clearly articulates that what has been taken can never be given back; yet on the other hand, she longs for an end to be brought to temporal suffering, for sickness to be healed, for her husband to return to her and kill the serpent in the garden, afterward burying it so that she will never again be upset. Her narrative, therefore, is the story of Nathan’s gentle passing, for it is only in his narrative that the serpent is brought to an absolute end.
Likewise, it is only in his narrative that she finds herself, her identity, as the object of Nathan’s love, care, and protection. Indeed, it is not certain that Rukmani would be knowable apart from her present/absent husband’s lingering spectre. Under his care, Rukmani became an adult, learned to tend and keep the garden, to be fruitful and multiply, and to enjoy the fruit of her labors with the husband of her youth.Who is Rukmani? She is the wife of her beloved, the object of his love, the one for whom he risks his own life to save from certain death. Rukmani is simply the passive voice of one crying:
“This is the story of my beloved’s noble life and gentle passing!”