Where It All Goes Down
Rural India, a city in India
Part One of the novel takes place in an unnamed village in rural India, while Part Two takes place in an unnamed major city in urban India. Markandaya’s decision to avoid specifics is deliberate: the fact is that the first part of the story could take place in any part of any agricultural nation, and the second part in among any sector of the urban poor. This lack of specificity opens the scope of Nectar in a Sieve: this story could apply to families other than Rukmani’s. The important thing is that our characters go from subsistence living in a largely agricultural economy, to barely making a living in a city economy.
Times are changing, and industrialization is encroaching on the rural areas, so the agriculture and working classes are forced to move into similar situations of poverty in urban landscapes. This could be just as easily be a story in today’s world: imagine a Montana man’s family’s corn farm being bought out by big agri-business, forcing him to move to an unfamiliar factory job in a city. The plight of modernity is universal, and while the details are rooted in India, the story belongs to anyone who’s ever moved from country to town as a result of poverty.
This element of moving also makes the story something of a pastoral: one of those tropes where the country life is represented as sometimes idyllic and generally better than city life. In this novel, the beauty of the landscape is almost a reflection of the goodness of the people on the land. Though bad things do happen in Ruku’s village, people in the city seem infinitely worse-off. Only in the city does Ruku see people push the crippled and scrounge for food like animals. The implication is that people are most natural in rural surroundings. When they are taken out of these surroundings and thrust into the dirty artificiality of the city, they lose a bit of their.
It’s notable that the novel’s most evil character, Kunthi, proudly argues that she’s not tied to the earth, whereas morally upstanding Ruku celebrates and reveres the earth. In this pastoral reading, the goodness of the earth is a moral reflection of the goodness of people, and a polluted earth (i.e. the city) is a stronghold for the morally weak, thieves, crooks, and generally antagonistic people.
Markandaya avoids a specific timeframe in the novel, which makes the notion of time ambiguous. There is, however, a lot to interpret in the ambiguity. One argument can be made is that that the book anticipates India’s colonial independence (so it’s before 1947). On the other hand, some say that Markandaya’s fictitious world may be a reflection on the country after India’s independence.
India was a colony of Britain from 1858 until 1947, but the movement had begun much earlier. Markandaya’s novel was published in 1954 but it was most likely written earlier, when Indian independence was a controversial topic. Most critics locate the work relative to that important year of 1947: the year of Indian independence and the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Though Markandaya avoids dates, we get some details that are helpful in locating the book within the broader history of India.
However, you could argue that the events of the novel take place post-independence. The fact that Muslims are regarded as foreign, and that the economy is moving from being solely agricultural to more in line with international industrial practices hint that this might be a post-colonial India. (For more on this, see the Historical Shout-Outs section.)
Still, there’s a case to be made that Ruku’s India is about the time before Independence. Ruku’s attitude towards life is that external circumstances are what they are, and that there’s no reason to fight them. Her attitude towards her sons’ agitation at the tannery for higher wages demonstrates that she often favors passivity in the face of stronger forces. This kind of attitude is exactly contrary to the teachings of India’s great liberation leader, Gandhi. Gandhi encouraged Indians to realize that they could fight for a better life, rather than continuing to accept the status quo of being inferior to the British.
Unlike Ruku, Gandhi talked of rights and justice; her language is more aligned with the pre-Gandhi way of thinking. However, Rukmani’s sons seem to reflect Gandhi’s teachings. Even if they don’t speak specifically of Gandhi, and even if they seem to pre-date Gandhi, this younger generation represented by Ruku’s sons embodies the changing attitude in India. This might mean that independence, and the ideology that came with it, were still on the horizon.
Further evidence that the book dates from pre-independence India might be found in the influence of white people in India. Ruku explicitly says that Kenny has power as a white man. Such an acknowledgment would not be an appropriate belief during a time when India had just forced the white British Empire out of its affairs. Kenny’s entire hospital endeavor is also exemplary of the kind of projects the British set up in their colonial campaign to "civilize" the Indian natives. Kenny might be a modern Peace Corps volunteer, spreading the benefits of modernity to the rest of the world.
This novel’s relationship to a specific time in India’s political history is unclear; there is certainly more than one time period in which the work can be situated. The take-home message, though, is that Markandaya explicitly avoids having this political conversation, and in some ways, tries to elevate the book beyond political details. Without anchors in a specific time or place, the novel is allowed to be a more universal story about a family trying to make it against great odds. Without the burden of politics and history, we can focus on the emotional and dramatic import of the story.