England and India never did understand one another. (Prasad 37) Undilute East had always been too much for the West; and soulful East always came lap-dog fashion to the West, mutually asking to be not too little and not too much, but just right. (Prasad 37)
The struggle of individuals caught between tradition and modernity, or between India and the west, is a very common theme in Indian literature. This struggle is evident in Nectar in a Sieve, as Rukmani often finds herself battling between her traditional views and opinions, and the various modern forces that seem to be taking over her life. On the one hand, Rukmani yearns for the traditional way of life she has always known and loved, while at certain times she acknowledges the benefits modernity can bring. In contrast, in The Painter of Signs, Daisy is the symbol of modernity as she does her best to fight against traditional ways of life; however, she is met with opposition by people who adhere to a more traditional lifestyle.
The conflict between tradition and modernity becomes a force in Rukmani's life even when she is a young girl. Rukmani's father is the headman of their village, which gives her family prestige. This prestige allows for Rukmani's elder sisters to have grand weddings and marry fittingly. However, with the abolition of zamindari system, "the headman of the village was no longer of consequence" (Srivastava 9). Because of this, Rukmani was without a dowry, and had to be married off below the family status, to a tenant farmer "who was poor in everything but in love and care for [Rukmani]" (Markandaya 8).
After Rukmani has her first child, a daughter named Irawaddy, she does not conceive again for about seven years. This is tragic because in Indian culture it is very important to have many children, especially sons (Srivastava 14). During this time, Rukmani's mother takes her to a temple and together they pray before the deity "imploring for help" to conceive sons (Markandaya 22). Rukmani's mother also gives her a small stone lingam, the symbol of fertility, to wear for good luck. When this traditional approach to conceive does not seem to be working, Rukmani seeks the help of Kenny, the Western missionary-doctor in her village. After Kenny gives her fertility treatment of some kind, Rukmani bears many sons. This becomes Rukmani's first experience with the benefits that modernity can bring to Indian life. Rukmani's greatest struggle against modernity begins with the construction of the tannery in her village. The tannery symbolizes "mechanical power" and it quickly "[changes] the face of [the] village beyond recognition" (Markandaya 135). Not only does the tannery invade the village with "clatter and din," and take away the maidan where the children used to play, and make the bazaar prices too high, but it also causes the beautiful birds such as the kingfishers and flamingoes to be replaced by "crows, kites, and other scavenging birds, eager for the filth and garbage of the town" (Srivastava 10). However, the tannery becomes a greater threat to Rukmani's life on an individual level, as it is, directly or indirectly, responsible for many of the hardships she experiences. Her two eldest sons, Arjun and Thambi, move to the tea plantations of Ceylon for work, after the tannery refuses to give them a raise. Rukmani's other son, Raja, is brutally murdered by "the tannery guards who had caught the lad in the act of stealing" (Prasad 250). Irawaddy ruins herself by turning to prostitution, which was only made possible since the tannery brought men of low morality and non-traditional Indian views with it. The final blow is when Nathan and Rukmani are evicted from their beloved land because their landlord sells it to the tannery owners at a good price (Prasad 250). Even though Rukmani feels so strongly about the destruction that the tannery has caused her village, and especially her family, she is still able to recognize that it did bring some benefits with it....
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