Government in Kamala Markandayas, “Nectar in a Sieve”Onemight think of government as a bunch of sly politicians running the country froma little office in the White House. Or perhaps he or she pictures a mighty kingsitting on the throne of his country, telling his loyal subjects and servantswhat to do. Even though both of these are very common descriptions ofgovernment, neither of them fit the governmental system in the small village ofGopalpur in South India. The book, Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandayadescribes such a village, as well as the governmental system within it.
Thecharacters in the book are used to a government that is quite different fromthose in the United States or Western Europe. In Gopalpur, the rich rule societywhile the poor are left to fend for themselves. And, in addition, the rich donot care about the well-being of the poor villagers. There is no setgovernmental system; it is simply understood that the rich hold all theauthority. The rich posses the money, and therefore, the power to make the rulesby which everyone else must follow. The structure of the village was this: therich owned all the land. They would hire tenants to farm the land for them,since they owned such vast amounts that they could not work it themselves.However, there were so many tenants hired, that the owner could not keep trackof them all.
So he hired overseers to manage the village. Each of theseoverseers were assigned their own districts, which they would manage for theowner of the land in return for a small percentage of the rent. And this systemwas accepted as government in the eyes of the villagers. It was just the waythings were. In her book, Markandaya tells the story of one of these tenantfarmers, Nathan. His wife was called Rukmani, the main character of this novel,and the two of them lived with their family in a small mud hut Nathan hadconstructed for them when they were wed. The mud hut was not at all extravagant,they did not wear nice clothes, and they had only the basics to eat, for theycould not afford any more on the salary they were getting from the owner of theland. But Nathan and his wife were very content.
Rukmani describes the system ofland ownership as this: “In all the years of our tenancy we never saw theZemindar who owned our land. Sivaji acted for him, and being a kindly, humaneman we counted ourselves lucky. Unlike some, he did not extract payment in kindto the last grain; he allowed us to keep the gleanings; he did not demand fromus bribes of food or money; nor did he claim for himself the dung from thefields, which he might easily have done.” (35) Sivaji was the overseer ofRukmanis district. As stated, there were many overseers who did not careabout the condition of the tenants.
They would take every last penny even if itmeant starvation for the tenants family. Fortunately, Sivaji was different.He too had a family, and cared about the well-being of the other families in hisdistrict. One year, however, the harvest had not been as good as expected. Therehad not been enough crops to sell in order to pay the rent, and Nathan and hisfamily were barely surviving. Sivaji came to collect the rent money.
“Thereis nothing this year,” Nathan said to him. “Not even gleanings, forthe grain was but little advanced.” “You have had the land,”Sivaji said, “for which you have contracted to pay: so much money, so muchrice. These are just dues, I must have them.
Would you have me returnempty-handed?” “What would you have me do? The last harvest wasmeager; we have nothing saved.” Sivaji looked away, “I do not know. Itis your concern. I must do as I am bid.” (77) The family obviously did nothave enough money, so Nathan and Rukmani gathered up whatever valuablepossessions they could find and sold them to the highest bidder. They sold pots,a trunk, shirts that belonged to their sons, food, and the saris Rukmani hadworn to her and her daughters weddings.
Nathan even had to sell the seed forthe next years crop in hopes that they would eventually be able to buy more.”Rather these should go,” said Nathan, “than that the land shouldbe taken from us. We can do without these, but if the land is gone, ourlivelihood is gone.
” (78) Because Sivaji answered to a higher authority –the wealthy land owner — he collected all of the familys money, plus theirearnings from the items that had been sold. The family was left with nothing.Yet, they understood that Sivaji had a family of his own, and that he was onlydoing his job, so they did not hold a grudge.
But times were still hard and theystill had no food. Later on in the novel, Sivaji came to Nathan and Rukmani andannounced that they were going to have to move. The owner was selling the landto the village tannery, and could no longer employ the tenants. The deal wasdone, the papers were signed, and Nathan and Rukmani had two weeks to leave.This was the “government” structure of the village. The rich owned theland and prospered from it, while the poor simply struggled to survive.
Thetannery was another part of the governmental system in the village. It alsorepresented power, except this time, the power originated from outside thevillage. The tannery was new to the village and it naturally received muchinterest from the people living there. It was run by the white men, who werealso newcomers, but who seemed to control the village based on the fact thatthey were wealthier than the commoners. Rukmani states: “Somehow I hadalways felt that the tannery would eventually be our undoing. It had changed theface of our village beyond recognition and altered the lives of its inhabitantsin a myriad of ways.
And because it grew and flourished it got the power thatmoney brings, so that attempt to withstand it was like trying to stop the onwardrush of the great juggernaut.” (136) But the tannery provided work for themen of the village. It put clothes on their backs and food on the table. On theother hand, it created tension. The village was traditionally a farmingcommunity, and the tannery provided another option as far as the type of workthe men in the village did. Now, sons did not necessarily have to farm the landas their fathers did. They could work at the tannery for better wages and moreattractive conditions.
And Nathan and Rukmanis two eldest sons, Arjun andThambi, did just this. The tannery provided good work. But soon, the men workingthere — including Arjun and Thambi — decided they wanted to be paid more. Whenthe tannery officials heard that the workers were demanding higher wages, theyfailed to meet their requests. In fact, the men were punished by not beingallowed time to eat. And later, when the men went on strike, they were quicklyreplaced by others who were willing to work for the lower wage.
The officials atthe tannery did not care about the welfare of its workers, just that the workwas getting done. It didnt matter who was doing it. Rukmani seemed tounderstand this better than her sons did. She knew that the tannery officialswere the authority in this case, and even questioned Arjun and Thambi: “Howcan you force them to pay you higher wages… Are they not the masters? Forevery one of you who is out, there are three waiting to step in yourplace.
” (69) She knew her sons did not stand a chance against the power ofthe tannery officials. Yet, she could not make them understand. One morning,Raja — Rukmanis son, who also worked at the tannery — left for work, but hedid not return as usual. “At dusk they the tannery officials brought hisbody home slung between two men, one at the head and one at the feet..
. Theylaid him on the ground. They bowed their heads and shuffled their feet and spokein low voices and then they went away.” (93) They said Raja had been caughtstealing from the tannery, and when the watchmen tried to stop him — using somephysical force — he fell immediately to the ground, dead. They said he wasweak, probably from lack of proper nutrition.
“They merely tapped him witha lathi, as he was trying to escape, and he fell. He must have been weak orsomething.” (95) Three days after Rajas death, two officials came toRukmanis home. They made it clear that the watchmen were not to be heldresponsible for Rajas death; that they were only doing their job.
Rukmaniunderstood this. The officials had come to make sure that Rukmani and herhusband did not cause trouble for the tannery. They didnt want her tointerfere in any way with the power of the tannery or its officials as a resultof her sons death.
“Now we do not any trouble from you, you understand.The lad was caught stealing — maybe as you say, for the first time and in amoment of weakness — still, he was caught, and for the consequences thatfollowed, no one was to blame except for himself. He should not have struggled.In these circumstances you naturally have no claim on us.” (95) But Rukmanidid not know why they would have thought she had a claim on them in the firstplace. She did not want compensation. Nothing could compensate for the life ofher son.
Nevertheless, the official went on: “The point is, that no faultattaches to us. Absolutely none. Of course… it is your loss. But not,remember, our responsibility.
Perhaps… you may be the better off..
. You havemany mouths to feed…” (96) The officials obviously did not care aboutRukmani, her family, Raja, or anyone else who worked at the tannery. The onlything that concerned them is that they would not be held responsible for thisdeath. They wanted to stay in business for as long as possible. And why not?They made a good living.
The poor village men worked for next to nothing, whilethe officials lived a life of luxury and watched their profits increase. Therich ruled the poor. That is evident here. “Gopalpur: A South IndianVillage”, an ethnography by Alan R. Beals, actually describes life in avillage such as the one mentioned in the novel by Markandaya. The ethnographydoes not go into much detail about the governmental structure of the village,but it does provide some information on how the land ownership is divided. Itstates that “landlords are the educated men of their villages, theinnovators who introduce new agricultural techniques, the protectors who aloneare capable of dealing with police officials and settling conflicts.
” (82)It also goes on to say that not all landlords follow this traditional structureof society. For example, they might be dishonest or they may not be adequatelyeducated, but even when these roles are not sufficiently met, the land ownersstill receive the usual attention and the respect from the villagers. They havethe money, which gives them the power, which commands the respect. It isinteresting that there is no police system mentioned in the novel. However, thecharacters usually handled disputes among themselves.
And, like in the case ofRajas death, disputes were settled by the white men, officials, or rich landowners — the more powerful disputee — often in their own favor. This alsocoincides with the ideas in the ethnography. The ethnography describes howgovernment officials are now thinking about restructuring the social system ofGopalpur: “The position of the Gaudas prosperous land owners has beenattacked by developing new sources of credit to give financial assistance tofarmers and laborers. The democratic election of village officials, and thedivision of large land holdings, long threats, are soon to become law. Thesemeasures, which are designed in the long run to eliminate the class oflandlords, fall short of replacing them.” (82) The novel does not mentionanything about government officials or the making of laws, or even lawsthemselves, for that matter.
The only officials it recognizes are those of thetannery, which could be viewed, in a sense, as government officials. Inaddition, “although the people in Gopalpur would be delighted at anopportunity to divide their Gaudas property among themselves, the prospect ofthere being no Gauda whatsoever fills the people with dismay.” (82) Changeis not easy for anyone. And even though the destruction of the landowner systemwould be beneficial to society, people would not know what to do afterwards.
Thevillage people in Gopalpur have been farming this way all their life, and such adrastic change would affect them greatly. This can perhaps be understood bylooking back at Markandayas novel. When Nathan and Rukmanis land was soldto the tannery, they had nowhere to turn. They had been farming all their lives,and now that the land was no longer theirs, they had to find some other way tosurvive. And that would certainly not be easy.
Rukmani said: “Where therewas land, there was hope. Nothing now, nothing whatever. My being was full ofthe husks of despair, dry, lifeless.
I went into the hut and looked around me…
This hut with all its memories was to be taken from us, for it stood on a landthat belonged to another. And the land itself by which we lived. It is a cruelthing, I thought. They do not know what they do to us.” (137) Theethnography proposes that the land be taken away from the rich Gaudas in orderto better distribute the wealth. But without the land, the villagers would notknow how to survive.
This is clearly illustrated in Markandayas novel.Perhaps history can learn a lesson from fiction in this case. The governmentalstructure in Gopalpur is this: The rich landowners and white men have the powerand the money to govern the village, while the poor commoners — such asRukmanis family — must suffer the hardships of life, and oppression from thelandowners. This is evident in Kamala Markandayas novel, Nectar in a Sieve,and the ethnography by Alan R. Beals, Gopalpur: A South Indian Village.
The richdo not care about the well-being of their poorer tenants or workers. They areconcerned only with how much work the villagers are able to do; and how muchthey are going to profit from their labors. The picture is not a pretty one, yetwithout this structure, the villagers would not know what to do with themselves.They have lived this way all their lives, and change is a hard thing. Thegovernmental structure they have now is familiar to them; traditional. Anythingelse would cause trouble.