Idea Of Government

Government in Kamala Markandayas, “Nectar in a Sieve”
One
might think of government as a bunch of sly politicians running the country from
a little office in the White House. Or perhaps he or she pictures a mighty king
sitting on the throne of his country, telling his loyal subjects and servants
what to do. Even though both of these are very common descriptions of
government, neither of them fit the governmental system in the small village of
Gopalpur in South India. The book, Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya
describes such a village, as well as the governmental system within it. The
characters in the book are used to a government that is quite different from
those in the United States or Western Europe. In Gopalpur, the rich rule society
while the poor are left to fend for themselves. And, in addition, the rich do
not care about the well-being of the poor villagers. There is no set
governmental system; it is simply understood that the rich hold all the
authority. The rich posses the money, and therefore, the power to make the rules
by which everyone else must follow. The structure of the village was this: the
rich 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 track
of them all. So he hired overseers to manage the village. Each of these
overseers were assigned their own districts, which they would manage for the
owner of the land in return for a small percentage of the rent. And this system
was accepted as government in the eyes of the villagers. It was just the way
things were. In her book, Markandaya tells the story of one of these tenant
farmers, 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 had
constructed 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 they
could not afford any more on the salary they were getting from the owner of the
land. But Nathan and his wife were very content. Rukmani describes the system of
land ownership as this: “In all the years of our tenancy we never saw the
Zemindar who owned our land. Sivaji acted for him, and being a kindly, humane
man we counted ourselves lucky. Unlike some, he did not extract payment in kind
to the last grain; he allowed us to keep the gleanings; he did not demand from
us bribes of food or money; nor did he claim for himself the dung from the
fields, which he might easily have done.” (35) Sivaji was the overseer of
Rukmanis district. As stated, there were many overseers who did not care
about the condition of the tenants. They would take every last penny even if it
meant 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 his
district. One year, however, the harvest had not been as good as expected. There
had not been enough crops to sell in order to pay the rent, and Nathan and his
family were barely surviving. Sivaji came to collect the rent money. “There
is nothing this year,” Nathan said to him. “Not even gleanings, for
the grain was but little advanced.” “You have had the land,”
Sivaji said, “for which you have contracted to pay: so much money, so much
rice. These are just dues, I must have them. Would you have me return
empty-handed?” “What would you have me do? The last harvest was
meager; we have nothing saved.” Sivaji looked away, “I do not know. It
is your concern. I must do as I am bid.” (77) The family obviously did not
have enough money, so Nathan and Rukmani gathered up whatever valuable
possessions 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 had
worn to her and her daughters weddings. Nathan even had to sell the seed for
the next years crop in hopes that they would eventually be able to buy more.

“Rather these should go,” said Nathan, “than that the land should
be taken from us. We can do without these, but if the land is gone, our
livelihood is gone.” (78) Because Sivaji answered to a higher authority —
the wealthy land owner — he collected all of the familys money, plus their
earnings 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 only
doing his job, so they did not hold a grudge. But times were still hard and they
still had no food. Later on in the novel, Sivaji came to Nathan and Rukmani and
announced that they were going to have to move. The owner was selling the land
to the village tannery, and could no longer employ the tenants. The deal was
done, the papers were signed, and Nathan and Rukmani had two weeks to leave.


This was the “government” structure of the village. The rich owned the
land and prospered from it, while the poor simply struggled to survive. The
tannery was another part of the governmental system in the village. It also
represented power, except this time, the power originated from outside the
village. The tannery was new to the village and it naturally received much
interest from the people living there. It was run by the white men, who were
also newcomers, but who seemed to control the village based on the fact that
they were wealthier than the commoners. Rukmani states: “Somehow I had
always felt that the tannery would eventually be our undoing. It had changed the
face of our village beyond recognition and altered the lives of its inhabitants
in a myriad of ways. And because it grew and flourished it got the power that
money brings, so that attempt to withstand it was like trying to stop the onward
rush of the great juggernaut.” (136) But the tannery provided work for the
men of the village. It put clothes on their backs and food on the table. On the
other hand, it created tension. The village was traditionally a farming
community, and the tannery provided another option as far as the type of work
the men in the village did. Now, sons did not necessarily have to farm the land
as their fathers did. They could work at the tannery for better wages and more
attractive conditions. And Nathan and Rukmanis two eldest sons, Arjun and
Thambi, did just this. The tannery provided good work. But soon, the men working
there — including Arjun and Thambi — decided they wanted to be paid more. When
the tannery officials heard that the workers were demanding higher wages, they
failed to meet their requests. In fact, the men were punished by not being
allowed time to eat. And later, when the men went on strike, they were quickly
replaced by others who were willing to work for the lower wage. The officials at
the tannery did not care about the welfare of its workers, just that the work
was getting done. It didnt matter who was doing it. Rukmani seemed to
understand this better than her sons did. She knew that the tannery officials
were the authority in this case, and even questioned Arjun and Thambi: “How
can you force them to pay you higher wages… Are they not the masters? For
every one of you who is out, there are three waiting to step in your
place.” (69) She knew her sons did not stand a chance against the power of
the tannery officials. Yet, she could not make them understand. One morning,
Raja — Rukmanis son, who also worked at the tannery — left for work, but he
did not return as usual. “At dusk they the tannery officials brought his
body home slung between two men, one at the head and one at the feet… They
laid him on the ground. They bowed their heads and shuffled their feet and spoke
in low voices and then they went away.” (93) They said Raja had been caught
stealing from the tannery, and when the watchmen tried to stop him — using some
physical force — he fell immediately to the ground, dead. They said he was
weak, probably from lack of proper nutrition. “They merely tapped him with
a lathi, as he was trying to escape, and he fell. He must have been weak or
something.” (95) Three days after Rajas death, two officials came to
Rukmanis home. They made it clear that the watchmen were not to be held
responsible for Rajas death; that they were only doing their job. Rukmani
understood this. The officials had come to make sure that Rukmani and her
husband did not cause trouble for the tannery. They didnt want her to
interfere in any way with the power of the tannery or its officials as a result
of 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 a
moment of weakness — still, he was caught, and for the consequences that
followed, 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 Rukmani
did not know why they would have thought she had a claim on them in the first
place. She did not want compensation. Nothing could compensate for the life of
her son. Nevertheless, the official went on: “The point is, that no fault
attaches to us. Absolutely none. Of course… it is your loss. But not,
remember, our responsibility. Perhaps… you may be the better off… You have
many mouths to feed…” (96) The officials obviously did not care about
Rukmani, her family, Raja, or anyone else who worked at the tannery. The only
thing that concerned them is that they would not be held responsible for this
death. 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, while
the officials lived a life of luxury and watched their profits increase. The
rich ruled the poor. That is evident here. “Gopalpur: A South Indian
Village”, an ethnography by Alan R. Beals, actually describes life in a
village such as the one mentioned in the novel by Markandaya. The ethnography
does 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. It
states that “landlords are the educated men of their villages, the
innovators who introduce new agricultural techniques, the protectors who alone
are capable of dealing with police officials and settling conflicts.” (82)
It also goes on to say that not all landlords follow this traditional structure
of society. For example, they might be dishonest or they may not be adequately
educated, but even when these roles are not sufficiently met, the land owners
still receive the usual attention and the respect from the villagers. They have
the money, which gives them the power, which commands the respect. It is
interesting that there is no police system mentioned in the novel. However, the
characters usually handled disputes among themselves. And, like in the case of
Rajas death, disputes were settled by the white men, officials, or rich land
owners — the more powerful disputee — often in their own favor. This also
coincides with the ideas in the ethnography. The ethnography describes how
government officials are now thinking about restructuring the social system of
Gopalpur: “The position of the Gaudas prosperous land owners has been
attacked by developing new sources of credit to give financial assistance to
farmers and laborers. The democratic election of village officials, and the
division of large land holdings, long threats, are soon to become law. These
measures, which are designed in the long run to eliminate the class of
landlords, fall short of replacing them.” (82) The novel does not mention
anything about government officials or the making of laws, or even laws
themselves, for that matter. The only officials it recognizes are those of the
tannery, which could be viewed, in a sense, as government officials. In
addition, “although the people in Gopalpur would be delighted at an
opportunity to divide their Gaudas property among themselves, the prospect of
there being no Gauda whatsoever fills the people with dismay.” (82) Change
is not easy for anyone. And even though the destruction of the landowner system
would be beneficial to society, people would not know what to do afterwards. The
village people in Gopalpur have been farming this way all their life, and such a
drastic change would affect them greatly. This can perhaps be understood by
looking back at Markandayas novel. When Nathan and Rukmanis land was sold
to 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 to
survive. And that would certainly not be easy. Rukmani said: “Where there
was land, there was hope. Nothing now, nothing whatever. My being was full of
the 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 land
that belonged to another. And the land itself by which we lived. It is a cruel
thing, I thought. They do not know what they do to us.” (137) The
ethnography proposes that the land be taken away from the rich Gaudas in order
to better distribute the wealth. But without the land, the villagers would not
know how to survive. This is clearly illustrated in Markandayas novel.


Perhaps history can learn a lesson from fiction in this case. The governmental
structure in Gopalpur is this: The rich landowners and white men have the power
and the money to govern the village, while the poor commoners — such as
Rukmanis family — must suffer the hardships of life, and oppression from the
landowners. This is evident in Kamala Markandayas novel, Nectar in a Sieve,
and the ethnography by Alan R. Beals, Gopalpur: A South Indian Village. The rich
do not care about the well-being of their poorer tenants or workers. They are
concerned only with how much work the villagers are able to do; and how much
they are going to profit from their labors. The picture is not a pretty one, yet
without 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. The
governmental structure they have now is familiar to them; traditional. Anything
else would cause trouble.