Nectar in a Sieve is Kamala Markandaya’s first published novel. This narrative focuses on the story of one woman living in poverty in rural India during a time of great change. Though the book meticulously avoids specifics about the time and place of the story, some context clues give us a sense that the work is an exploration of socioeconomic and political issues in the novelist’s contemporary India. We see these often controversial issues addressed by the protagonist, Rukmani (who is also called Ruku).
India’s political situation isn’t explicitly discussed, but there is enough to glean that Markandaya is writing about the changing political and economic situation in her country. She published Nectar in a Sieve in 1954, seven years after India gained colonial independence from Britain.
Many traditions in India were eroded by British rule, and the developments brought upon by the industrial revolution lured many young Indians away from their traditional roles to participate in a new economy. Such is the case with the arrival of the tannery in Rukmani’s village, and the decision of her sons to leave the land for work of a different nature.
Ruku’s literacy also points to reforms in India launched during the colonial period. The British introduced an educational system that allowed many Indians to explore the importance of justice and freedom. Ruku’s sons rely less on traditional religious notions of the good of suffering, and more on ideas about the importance of political freedom and economic security.
Starvation was a certainty that Markandaya knew firsthand. In 1943 starvation in Bengal of epidemic proportions claimed the lives of over three million people. Markandaya describes hunger in Nectar in a Sieve with reference to a starving people, who are sometimes willing to do anything in order to feed themselves. People’s attitude towards the new spectrum of economic opportunities is tempered by the cruelty of the natural environment on which they rely.
Tension between Hindus and Muslims are subtly addressed in Nectar in a Sieve. This kind of tension between two very different religions and cultures was and continues to be a controversial issue. India’s independence also coincided with the creation of Pakistan, a new state largely populated by Muslims who had left India. This departure of Muslims resulted in India being a largely Hindu nation. Rukmani’s interactions with the Muslim woman in the novel reveal to our protagonist that many different kinds of lives can be contained in one country. Social roles for women were also changing in post-independence India, and what a woman valued, as well as how she herself should be valued within society, are raised as questions in the novel.
The book also investigates the teachings of Gandhi, leader of India’s freedom movement. Markandaya discusses such issues as the importance of freedom and rights alongside the importance of spiritual purity and goodness. All of these religious, cultural, economic, social, and political issues are deftly crafted into this personal narrative. Ultimately, Nectar in a Sieve provides infinite doors through which to explore these universal themes in the face of a changing society.
Ever wonder how the other half lives? It’s a common enough question, suggesting that there are the have’s and the have-not’s. The “other half,” in this case, are them that ain’t got nuthin’, at least compared to the better-off half of the world. We imagine someone like Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island talking about the “other half,” what with his fancy-shmancy ascot and his rich, refined ways.
Well, let us just tell you a thing or two, Mr. Howell, in your silk pajamas and your keen straw hats. Compared to you, the other half lives, well, badly.
Really, that’s the main message you might take away from Nectar in a Sieve. The characters suffer crushing poverty. They're stripped of their dignity, hope, and at times their very lives in the face of huge global changes that have left them behind. And reading this book can help you learn what its like to face the day-in-and-day-out struggle for your very survival.
Now, we don’t mean to paint everyone with the same brush. (Really, we’re just not that good at art.) Still, no matter how hard a time you might have had in life, odds are that it can’t stack up to the struggles of Ruku and her family. We mean, have you ever gone out into a flooded field to try and hunt fish for dinner? We sure haven’t.
Still, you might be asking why you should care about the desperate straits of fictional strangers living halfway around the world. But we're here to tell you that it's because their story, like anybody’s, has value.
This book is a great reminder that, no matter where we may be, the quest for survival is a driving force in all of us, and these characters' struggles have parallels in our own lives. No matter what hardships we may face—from famine to flood to factory-closings—as a species, we struggle on. And that struggle is something fundamental that defines us all, in every part of the world.
So, go ahead. Dive in to Nectar in a Sieve. You just might recognize a small part of yourself in that “other half” that once seemed so far away.
Nectar in a Sieve has not had a film version, but if you’re looking for a similar story, check out Pather Panchali, by acclaimed director Satyajit Ray. It’s Ray’s directorial debut, about a family living in poverty in an unnamed time in an unnamed part of rural India. (Sounds familiar, huh?) Domestic loyalty, agriculture, the beauty of the land, and writing are significant parts of this film, making it an interesting parallel to Nectar in a Sieve.
A young Kamala Markandaya
An older Kamala Markandaya
Perspectives on Indian Fiction in English
Excerpts from the chapter on Kamala Markandaya of M. K. Naik’s critical study, called Perspectives on Indian Fiction in English.
The New York Times Obituary of Kamala Markandaya, with an interesting note on her relevance in changing Indian literature.
"Work Without Hope"
An interesting, albeit brief, analysis of Coleridge’s poem used for the title and epigraph.
Some background on Kamala Markandaya, as reflected upon at her death.