Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve
by Kamala Markandaya

eNotes: Table of Contents
1. Nectar in a Sieve: Introduction
2. Nectar in a Sieve: Kamala Markandaya Biography
3. Nectar in a Sieve: Summary

Nectar in a Sieve: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part One, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part One, Chapters 2-4: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part One, Chapters 5-11: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis
¨ Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Summary and Analysis
Nectar in a Sieve: Quizzes
¨ Part One, Chapter 1: Questions and Answers
¨ Part One, Chapter 2-4: Questions and Answers
¨ Part One, Chapters 5-11: Questions and Answers
¨ Part One, Chapters 12-17: Questions and Answers
¨ Part One, Chapters 18-23: Questions and Answers
¨ Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Questions and Answers
6. Nectar in a Sieve: Themes
7. Nectar in a Sieve: Style
8. Nectar in a Sieve: Historical Context
9. Nectar in a Sieve: Critical Overview
Nectar in a Sieve: Character Analysis
¨ Rukmani
¨ Other Characters
Nectar in a Sieve: Essays and Criticism
¨ The Positive Message of Inner Triumphs
¨ Harmony and Fulfilment
Nectar in a Sieve 1
¨ March to Autonomy
12. Nectar in a Sieve: Suggested Essay Topics
13. Nectar in a Sieve: Sample Essay Outlines
14. Nectar in a Sieve: Compare and Contrast
15. Nectar in a Sieve: Topics for Further Study
16. Nectar in a Sieve: What Do I Read Next?
17. Nectar in a Sieve: Bibliography and Further Reading
18. Nectar in a Sieve: Pictures
19. Copyright
Nectar in a Sieve: Introduction
Nectar in a Sieve is Kamala Markandaya's first novel to be published, although it is actually the third novel
she wrote. It became a best-seller around the world and was translated into seventeen languages. In 1955, it
was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association.
The novel was published in 1954, less than a decade after India won its independence from Britain. Nectar in
a Sieve is clearly influenced by this event, portraying some of the problems encountered by the Indian people
as they dealt with the changing times. Markandaya never mentions a specific time or place, however, which
gives the story universality. Some of the struggles that the main character, Rukmani, faces are the result of the
changing times, but they are the kinds of struggles (poverty, death, loss of tradition) that are experienced by
many people for many reasons.
Far beyond its political context, the novel is appealing to modern readers for its sensitive and moving
portrayal of the strength of a woman struggling with forces beyond her control. It is a story about the
resilience of the human spirit and the importance of values.
Nectar in a Sieve: Kamala Markandaya Biography
Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, who often wrote under the name Kamala Markandaya was born in Bangalore India
in 1924, and died in England in May 2004. Her family was Brahman, the highest caste in Hindu society.
Markandaya made an effort to know not just the city in which she lived but also the rural areas. She was
educated at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, and worked briefly for a weekly newspaper before
emigrating to England in 1948. There she met her husband, with whom she lived in London. They had one
Markandaya made England her home, but she made many visits to India over the years, returning to stay in
touch with her culture and to find inspiration and information for her fiction. As a writer, Markandaya is
respected for her accessible writing style and the range of experience expressed in her novels. Critics
generally commend her portrayals of personal relationships, social consciousness, and the desire for
While Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of a peasant woman facing an array of difficulties, Markandaya's other
novels range in subject matter from the middle class to the urban poor to the struggle between Western and
Indian ideas and ways of life. Because her own life did not include all of these experiences, Markandaya has
been criticized by some Indian reviewers for a lack of true connection to the poor. Other critics have accused
Markandaya of losing touch with her identity by living in England. Markandaya's response was that her adult
life in England—her choice to be an outsider—gave her an objective perspective on her native culture.
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
Nectar in a Sieve: Summary
Part One
Nectar in a Sieve is a first-person narrative told by Rukmani, the widow of a poor tenant farmer in India
during the early 1950s. She begins her story with her marriage to Nathan. The marriage is arranged, and
because Rukmani is the fourth daughter and there is very little dowry, her best match is to a poor rice farmer.
She begins her life with him and finds him to be very kind and loving. He is so understanding that he is not
threatened by her ability to read and write.
Soon, she gives birth to their first child, a daughter named Irawaddy ("Ira"). She is worried, however, when
many years pass and no more children come. Just prior to her mother's death, Rukmani meets the man caring
for her mother, a Western doctor named Kennington ("Kenny"). She talks to him about her inability to
conceive, and he helps her. Rukmani never tells Nathan that the reason she gives birth to four sons in four
years is because of Kenny's help. The family is very happy, despite having little food or money.
Years later, a tannery is built in the small village where Rukmani and her family live. While many villagers
welcome it, Rukmani is resistant because of the changes it brings to the community. When her two oldest sons
go to work in the tannery, she is forced to accept it.
Ira is now fourteen and old enough to marry. Rukmani has a matchmaker find a good husband, even though
there is a small dowry. A favorable match is made, and Ira moves to the home of her husband.
Five years later, a terrible monsoon destroys Rukmani's home and rice paddy. For a long time, they survive on
very little food. Unfortunately, Ira's husband returns her because she has failed to give him any children.
Rukmani arranges for Kenny to provide infertility treatment for Ira, but Ira's husband has already taken
another wife.
Rukmani gives birth to another child, a boy named Ruki. Ira nurtures him, and when lack of food threatens his
life, Ira becomes a prostitute to earn money to feed him. Still, the child dies.
Meanwhile, Rukmani's sons have lost their jobs in the tannery and decide to answer a call for laborers on tea
plantations on the island of Ceylon. Another of Rukmani's sons has taken a job far away as a servant.
When a drought hits, the family struggles once again. Rukmani and Nathan are forced to sell everything they
have of value just to buy food for the family. When the rain finally comes, it is too late for that year's crop.
One of the neighbors' wives, Kunthi, arrives at Rukmani's house, demanding rice and threatening to tell
Nathan about Rukmani's secret visits to Kenny. Afraid that Nathan will not understand that the visits were for
Ira's infertility, Rukmani gives Kunthi some rice, even though it means that her own family will have too
little. Rukmani learns that Kunthi also blackmails Nathan for rice, threatening to tell Rukmani that two of
Kunthi's sons were fathered by Nathan.
One of Rukmani's sons is killed at the tannery for trying to steal a pelt to sell. Soon after, the paddies are
finally harvested, and the family has money again. The youngest of Rukmani's sons, Selvam, breaks the news
that he is not interested in a life of farming and has decided to accept a job with Kenny at the new hospital
which is being built.
Ira becomes pregnant and gives birth to an albino child. Rukmani knows that as hard as life would have been
for Ira, it will be more difficult with an illegitimate child whose appearance frightens many of the villagers.
Selvam loves the child and supports his sister.
Nectar in a Sieve: Summary 3
The man who owns the land Nathan works informs them that he is selling the land to the tannery owner.
Nathan is almost fifty-years-old and knows no other life but farming. Having few choices, Rukmani and
Nathan decide to go find their son Murugan (who is a servant far away) and live with him and his wife.
Part Two
Rukmani and Nathan take the hundred-mile journey to find Murugan. When they arrive, they find that he
changed jobs two years previously. When they go to find him, they meet his wife. She tells them that he has
abandoned her, and now she must work as a housekeeper to support herself and her children. Rukmani and
Nathan have no place to stay, and their possessions and money have been stolen, so they go to the temple
where beggars are fed once every day and given a place to sleep. They meet a boy named Puli, who is a
streetwise orphan. He shows them where they can break stones for money, and they eventually save enough to
return home. Unfortunately, Nathan collapses before they leave and dies.
Rukmani returns to her village, bringing Puli with her, and stays with Selvam and Ira. She is exhausted upon
arrival and simply tells them that Nathan died peacefully.
Nectar in a Sieve: Summary and Analysis
Part One, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Rukmani: A Hindu woman who lives as a tenant farmer outside a small village in India and is the first-person
narrator of this story.
Nathan: A tenant farmer and Rukmani’s husband.
Hanuman: Owner of the general shop in the village.
Kali: Rukmani’s neighbor, a woman who is prone to gossip but who has a good and helpful nature.
Janaki: Another neighbor woman who is the wife of a shopkeeper.
Kunthi: A young neighbor woman who takes a disliking to Rukmani.
Nectar in a Sieve opens with an old woman, Rukmani, who lives in a small town with her sons and daughter,
recalling her life. In her younger years, she lived with her husband and children on a paddy field on the
outskirts of the village. Her husband is now dead. Rukmani begins to tell the story of her life, starting with the
arrangement of her marriage. She was the youngest of four daughters; her three older sisters were married off
before she was, leaving her with no dowry. Her parents had no choice but to marry her, at the age of twelve, to
a poor tenant farmer—that is, a farmer who did not own his land. It is a source of shame for her and her family
because the tenant farmer is of a lower social status than her family.
Rukmani’s new husband, Nathan, brings her to their new home, which is a two-room mud hut with palm
leaves for a roof. It stands at the edge of the paddy field that Nathan tends. Rukmani views it with private
disdain because she is used to better living. She is despondent at having to leave her family behind and move
into a poor farmer’s unfurnished home; but Nathan tries to gently comfort her. Later, a neighbor will tell her
that Nathan had built the house especially for her, and she will feel both gratitude towards him and shame for
her initial snobbery.
Nectar in a Sieve: Summary and Analysis 4
A week after moving in, Rukmani meets her new neighbors at the stream where the clothes washing in done:
Kali, a gossipy but good-natured woman; Janaki, the wife of a shopkeeper; and Kunthi, who regards Rukmani
with a coolness that Rukmani does not understand. Eventually, Rukmani becomes used to life with Nathan,
who is a gentle, patient, and loving husband to her, for which she counts herself lucky. He is skilled at raising
and harvesting rice in the fields, and she is able to afford luxuries such as ghee, sugar, and curds, which she
purchases from the small village. Rukmani slowly learns the ways of farming as well; she discovers her talent
for gardening and raises a prodigious crop of vegetables, of which she and Nathan are very proud. Rukmani
becomes content in her life and says, “While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to
the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of
grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask
for?” During these early months of their marriage, Nathan and Rukmani prosper and are able to save and to
eat plentifully.
The opening paragraphs of the novel reveal a great deal about the customs of Rukmani’s world, especially as
they pertain to social classes and the role of women. In Rukmani’s society, women must rely completely on
their fathers and husbands for their livelihood, and girls are married off at an age that we generally view as
young: Rukmani, for example, was married at the age of twelve. Daughters are a burden to a family because
they require a dowry—that is, a payment to the husband or husband’s family. The bigger the dowry, the more
prosperous a husband can be negotiated. Like Rukmani and her sisters before her, the women do not have a
say in whom their husbands will be; it is up to their father to make the decision. While Rukmani’s sisters
were able to make better matches, she, as the youngest daughter, is left without any dowry and thus has no
choice but to be betrothed to a man of a lower class than she.
The account of her low marriage also reveals changes that are undergoing Rukmani’s society as well. Her
father, for instance, used to have significant influence as the headman of the village; from this fact it can be
assumed that the village had a great deal of autonomy. However, outside forces, embodied in the form of a tax
collector, now wield control over Rukmani’s village, and Rukmani’s brother bitterly notes that their father
no longer has the power he used to.
Although Rukmani is at first disdainful of the life she was being forced into, she soon gets used to it and
comes to find great beauty in the farming way of life. Even though subsistence farming will bring Rukmani
and her family a great deal of hardship and will never be able to provide fully for their wants, Rukmani
steadfastly describes their way of life as ideal: her idealization of farming, especially in contrast to the
factories, towns, and cities she will encounter later, is a constant theme throughout the novel.
Part One, Chapters 2-4: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Irawaddy (also known as Ira): Nathan and Rukmani’s first-born child and a girl of exceptional beauty.
Kennington (also known as Kenny): A white doctor who befriends Rukmani and her family.
Biswas: The village moneylender, described by Rukmani as oily and unpleasant in character.
Old Granny: An old vegetable lender who lives in the streets of the village.
Arjun, Thambi, Raja, and Selvam: The sons of Nathan and Rukmani.
Kannan the chakkli: A cobbler who lives in Rukmani’s town.
Part One, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis 5
Rukmani, herself now pregnant, helps her neighbor Kunthi give birth to her first son, in spite of Kunthi’s
mysterious but adamant attempt to refuse her help. Implored by Nathan to rest for the duration of her
pregnancy, Rukmani takes up writing which her father had taught her. It is a skill that is rare and even
nonexistent in her village and which her neighbors view with both curiosity and scorn. Nathan, who cannot
read or write himself, nevertheless encourages her, much to Rukmani’s gratitude. She tends her garden as
well, an activity that provides her with an endless source of wonderment.
After being frightened by a cobra, Rukmani goes into an early labor and delivers, to her and Nathan’s
dismay, a girl; in their society, girls, who require a dowry and are married off to live with other families, are
far less desirable than boys, who can help their fathers work the land and look after their parents in their old
age. They name her Irawaddy, and she grows to be a child of exceptional beauty to the surprise of Rukmani,
who admits that both she and Nathan are not handsome people. Despite their initial disappointment, they both
grow to love their daughter deeply.
However, Nathan and Rukmani become worried when the years pass and Rukmani is unable to conceive
another child. When Ira is about six years old, Rukmani meets a white doctor, Kenny, who had tended to her
mother until she died of consumption. When he hears of her fertility problems, Kenny suggests that Rukmani
come to him for treatment. Despite her misgivings about white doctors and her reluctance to deceive her
husband, Rukmani takes his treatments out of desperation and successfully bears a son, whom she and Nathan
name Arjun. She then goes on to bear four more sons in as many years—Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam.
Nathan never learns of the fertility treatments, and Rukmani lives with the nervous fear that he will hear of it
some day.
To provide for her growing family, Rukmani no longer keeps the vegetables she grows, but sells them in the
village—first to Old Granny, a poor vegetable vendor, then to Biswas, the moneylender, whom she dislikes but
does business with because he pays a much higher price. Because of her dealings with Biswas, Rukmani is
able to slowly save money for Ira’s dowry. In the meantime, she and her husband continue to harvest the rice
as well as the fish that swim in the rice paddies and the coconuts from their tree. Though her family does not
have vegetables and milk anymore, they still are able to eat well.
One day Arjun, the oldest of the boys, brings word back from the village that there is a great commotion:
hundreds of workers have arrive in bullock carts, set up their camps, and have begun building an enormous
building that will eventually house a tannery. The workers, who are Indian, work beneath a white foreman.
The construction continues for two months and brings great changes to the village; the villagers are able to
sell their produce to the workers at a higher price, but at the same time, the prices are driven too high for them
to be able to afford the goods they once could buy. When the workers leave, Rukmani is happy to see them go
because their arrival has made her family’s lives difficult, but her husband reminds her that workers will
return to run the tannery and that she must learn to accept the changes.
Nathan is right; workers do eventually return, and the village grows into a small bustling town. Rukmani’s
neighbor Kunthi, who had not been brought up as a villager and has always held her nose up at their way of
life, is glad to see the growth, but Rukmani still holds disdain for the bustle, dirt, and odd smells the new town
brings, and she is upset at how her peaceful and clean village has changed. She seems to understand that the
coming of the tannery is a direct threat to their farming way of life and, therefore, to their security.
To Rukmani, the farming life and the land that they depend on are not just sources of livelihood but are also a
source of beauty, wonder, and perfection. She writes of her garden: “With each tender seedling that unfurled
its small green leaf to my eager gaze, my excitement would rise and mount; winged, wondrous.”
Part One, Chapters 2-4: Summary and Analysis 6
However, Chapter 4 opens with the words, “Change I had known before, and it had been gradual.… But the
change that now came into my life … blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an
eye.” Rukmani speaks here of the construction of the tannery in the village and of all the changes that brought
to the culture and livelihood of her family and neighbors. The sudden creation of the town and Rukmani’s
description of its bustling business, its smells, and its coarse people is contrasted sharply with her earlier
descriptions of the tranquility of her farm and garden. Her family’s innocence is even marred by the arrival of
the tannery. Ira, at age thirteen, cannot go about with the carefree freedom to which she is accustomed
because there are now too many strange men around. The restriction of Ira’s innocence mirrors the loss of the
village’s purity with the arrival of the tannery.
Part One, Chapters 5-11: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Sivaji: The collector for the landlord.
Kuti: Rukmani’s youngest son.
Ira, now fourteen years of age, is ready to be married, and Rukmani obtains the assistance of Old Granny as a
matchmaker. Because Ira is exceptionally beautiful, Old Granny is able to get her a very good match to the
first son of a landowner without a significant dowry. On the day of her wedding, Rukmani dresses her
daughter in her own red wedding sari, and Nathan and Rukmani hold a very festive wedding for her, complete
with musicians. Ira is taken away to her husband’s new home; she will not see her parents for several years to
Bad times come upon the family soon after Ira’s marriage. The season after Ira’s wedding brings with it an
early and violent monsoon. The rains completely destroy the rice crop, Rukmani’s gardens, and even the
coconut tree, leaving the family, as well as the rest of the village, to face the prospect of starvation. Rukmani
is able to eke by on a very meager store she had laid by for hard times, and though the time is difficult, the
family survives. Eventually, they are able to drain the paddy field and harvest the fish for salting. They have
survived without starving.
In the meantime, the tannery continues to grow. Many of the boys of the village turn from farming and go to
work at the tannery instead, which offers higher wages and greater security than the rented land. But the
growth of the tannery continues to make living difficult for the villagers, for as it grows, the town grows, and
the cost of living continues to rise. Rukmani is unable to keep up with the rising prices, and the small
businesses of the old village, including Janaki’s husband’s shop, are forced to close by the larger bazaars and
shops that move in. Kunthi, however, enjoys the growth of the town. Having always had a reputation as a
loose woman, she takes to flaunting herself in the streets and enjoying the attention of men.
Some years after Ira’s marriage, Ira shows up at Rukmani’s home with her husband, who is returning her
because after five years of marriage she has not had any children. He divorces her and leaves her with her
parents. Nathan and Rukmani take her back without blaming either their daughter or their son-in-law; they see
the reason for the divorce as reasonable. Ira becomes despondent over her rejection.
In the meantime, Arjun, who has grown into a teenager, has taken a great talent for learning. When he was a
child, Rukmani had taught him to read and write, and he increased his knowledge and skill on his own. To his
parents’ dismay, however, he decides to join the tannery, as does his younger brother Thambi, reasoning that
they can make a better living and provide better for the family than they could by gambling on the yield of the
land and remaining forever at the mercy of their landlord. Their reasoning hurts their parents and especially
Part One, Chapters 5-11: Summary and Analysis 7
their father, who had looked forward to teaching his sons the way of the land and always hoped to someday be
able to purchase the land himself. His sons go to the tannery anyway. There they are able to earn quite a bit
more money and help the family improve their standard of living. He buys extra things for the family like
clothing, milk, vegetables, and chilies; and for the first time during Deepvali, the great Hindu festival of
lights, Rukmani is able to buy fireworks for her children. The family rejoices in the prosperous times. Nathan,
dancing around the bonfire at the Deepvali celebration, twirls his wife in the air and says, “I am happy
because life is good and the children are good, and you are best of all.”
One day when Nathan is away, Rukmani takes the opportunity to take Ira to Kenny for fertility treatment in
the hopes that her husband will take her back. On her way home in the evening, Rukmani runs into Kunthi
who, to Rukmani’s great shock, is dressed like a prostitute. Kunthi, who has always been rude to Rukmani,
insinuates that Rukmani must be prostituting herself to Kenny and threatens to tell Nathan, thus provoking
Rukmani’s anger.
Despite the treatments, Ira’s husband does not take her back because he has taken a new wife. Ira is
despondent and depressed, but when Rukmani bears her final son, Kuti, it gives Ira a reason to live again as
she comes to adore the child and cares for him as if he is her own.
Still, Rukmani worries for Ira, who will have no children to care for her in her old age. When she discusses
her fears for Ira with Old Granny, the older woman says that an old woman such as herself, with no family or
home, must accept her fate.
The tannery represents a complexity in Rukmani’s life. Its arrival has made their way of life as farmers much
more difficult by changing the economics of their town; but at the same time, because her sons have accepted
the change, it now provides them with a higher standard of living.
Nevertheless, Nathan and Rukmani both are hurt by their sons’ decision to leave farming for the tannery.
Even though they know that farming barely provides for their family’s needs, they cannot imagine leaving
this life for anything else. The farm is what they put their hope in—hope for an abundant harvest next season
and hope that someday they will be able to buy the land. To be able to hope is an important facet of these
characters’ lives. The farm not only represents hope but also provides the family with a security of place.
Because they have land, even though they do not own it, Rukmani and Nathan do not have to wander
aimlessly as laborers. The connection to the land represents a firm foundation and home for their family.
The devaluation of women in society is very evident in Ira’s unfortunate story. Her husband divorces her
because she cannot bear children. While nobody blames Ira, nobody blames the husband either, because it is
accepted that a man takes a wife solely to provide him with children. Her divorce, however, is a source of
shame for her because she is unable to fulfill the chief duty of a wife—to bring heirs to her husband. None of
the characters view Ira’s plight as unjust, however, but they rather view it as an act of fate that must be
accepted. Though Rukmani is saddened by the fate of her daughter, she nevertheless accepts it without
questioning its injustice.
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis
Arjun and Thambi, who have been working at the tannery for many months, lead a workers’ strike against the
tannery owners to demand higher wages. Rukmani, who believes that their wage of one rupee per day is
ample, does not understand their complaints. When the tannery announces that those who will not return to
work will be replaced, Arjun and Thambi stick to their principles, but many others return. The strike fails, and
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis 8
Arjun and Thambi are left unemployed. Nathan becomes the sole provider for the family, and once again the
family faces poverty.
When word is sent that there is need of laborers in Ceylon, an island to the south of the Indian subcontinent
and far from their village, Arjun and Thambi, rather than staying and “wasting [their] youth chafing against
things [they] cannot change,” heed the call. In the meantime, Murugan, Rukmani’s third son, is sent by
Kenny to work as a servant at a white doctor’s home in another faraway village. The family’s inability to
sustain themselves solely by the land is causing them to disperse, to the sadness of both Nathan and Rukmani.
Nathan, unlike Rukmani, is more accepting of their sons’ leaving. “You brood too much and think only of
your trials, not of the joys that are still with us,” he says to Rukmani. “Look at our land—is it not beautiful?
The fields are green and the grain is ripening. It will be a good harvest year, there will be plenty.” The paddy
is beautiful, but it is greatly changed because of the coming of the tannery. While there had once been
flamingoes and kingfishers and many other types of birds, the construction and pollution has driven them
away, and now only crown and other scavengers are attracted to the area.
The year that Arjun, Thambi, and Murugan leave, the rains fail and completely wither the rice crop and the
vegetable garden, leaving Nathan and Rukmani destitute and unable to pay their rent for the year. Nathan
convinces Sivaji, the collector, to give him time to collect half the payment, and he and Rukmani sell all of
their belongings in the town, including the wedding sari and the bullocks they use for plowing the fields. The
rains finally come, but it is too late to do the shriveled and dead paddy any good. Rukmani, Nathan, and their
family are left with no food and no means of making any money in the foreseeable future. They set to
resowing the paddy field right away. Rukmani is forced to use her emergency store of grain, dividing the rice
into twenty-four small handfuls, figuring that the family will then have something to eat for twenty-four days.
Kuti, the youngest boy, is already sick, and it is clear that they are all slowly starving.
One day, Kunthi, who was starved to the point of looking like a skeleton, comes to the house and demands
food from Rukmani, threatening to tell Nathan that Rukmani has been having an affair with Kenny. Although
it is a lie, Rukmani gives Kunthi seven days’ worth of their ration out of fear. She now has enough left for
nine days.
However, the next day when she goes to get the store, there is only a small handful left. Upon confronting her
family, Nathan admits to having given rice to Kunthi. It turns out she blackmailed him as well. Nathan admits
to Rukmani that he is the biological father of Kunthi’s two sons. Though she is angry with her penitent
husband, Rukmani places the blame on Kunthi, whom she views as an evil temptress, rather than on her
husband. The family continues to starve, with Kuti being the sickest despite Ira’s efforts to soothe him.
It is during this time of great want that the next-to-youngest son Raja is murdered by the guards at the tannery
for attempting to steal a hide. The only sons left now are Selvam and the baby, Kuti, who has been very sick
from lack of food, but as of late has been looking healthier. Rukmani believes his improvement is by the
mercy of God.
One night, Rukmani awakens to see a woman creeping into their hut. She attacks her, only to discover that it
is her own daughter Ira. Ira has been escaping during the night to prostitute herself in the town, and with her
earnings she has been buying food for Kuti, which explains his sudden improvement. Her parents try to stop
her, but she continues to go back to the town. And while Rukmani is grateful for the food she brings back,
Nathan refuses to touch any of it.
Despite Ira’s desperate attempt to save him, Kuti does not survive. He dies before the harvest, and Rukmani
grieves for her loss, although she is grateful that her son is finally spared his suffering. The harvest comes too
late to save Kuti, but it is very plentiful, and Rukmani and her family, who have been reduced to skin and
bones, are restored in hope and look forward to being restored in health. They have enough to pay their rent
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis 9
and have a surplus with which to purchase goods, to restock the paddy field with fish, and to save up for more
difficult times in the future.
Rukmani and her husband find their children dispersing from the family home. Arjun and Thambi travel to
another country to find work while Murugan is sent to another village to work as a servant. Their tenant
farming life has not succeeded in providing a means for their sons to have families of their own. Arjun and
Thambi leave the tannery after attempting a workers’ strike to demand more wages. While their mother,
Rukmani herself, does not understand their greed, Arjun and Thambi nevertheless clearly detect the difference
in lifestyle between those who manage and own the tannery, and its workers. For example, while Arjun and
Thambi are able to provide for their parents and siblings to have a little bit extra material goods, they are
unable to save enough to be able to hope for families of their own. On the other hand, they see the wives of
the managers walking about the town laden in jewelry. Unfortunately, Arjun and Thambi are unable to
succeed in raising their wages because the demand for work is greater than the demand for workers. Although
Arjun and Thambi attempt to change their fate, the economic circumstances of their society are too large for
them to overcome. It is significant that they are unable to change the unjust socioeconomic structure of their
town; their attempt to force change serves somewhat as an answer to the question of why their parents, and the
others in the village, firmly believe in the acceptance of their fate rather than try to cause change.
Despite the slow dispersal of their family, Nathan and Rukmani both take delight in the land, but it is the
dependence on the land that brings them to the brink of starvation. Still, they are portrayed not as characters
rebelling against their circumstances but as doing the best they can with what little they have—which, at its
worst, amounts to just a few handfuls of rice to feed a whole family. While Nathan and Rukmani tend the land
and continue to hope for the promise of a harvest, Ira is driven to desperate measures to try to save the family
by becoming a prostitute.
There is a marked difference between the two prostitutes of this novel, Ira and Kunthi. Because Ira’s
prostitution is based solely on need and not on a sexually wanton nature, she is portrayed as good and noble,
and her prostitution is portrayed as an act of sacrifice. Kunthi, on the other hand, is portrayed throughout the
novel as greedy, selfish, and mean, as well as vain. Her prostitution is a result not of need but of her sexually
wanton nature and her pride in her physical beauty. While Ira is portrayed as good, Kunthi is portrayed as an
evil temptress. It is because Rukmani sees Kunthi as evil that Rukmani is able to forgive her husband for his
Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Sacrabani: Ira’s albino son who is the product of her prostitution.
Kenny had mysteriously disappeared from the village during the time of the drought, but he has now returned.
When he returns, Rukmani fills him in on the hardships they faced from the recent draught. They had all
nearly starved to death, she has lost two sons, and now Ira faces an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Rukmani indicates that she accepts what fate brings her, but Kenny interprets her acceptance of fate as
complacency. When she says that they “are taught to bear our sorrow in silence, and all this is so that the soul
may be cleansed,” he grows angry and frustrated with her philosophy, retorting, “Do you think that spiritual
graces come from living in want?” He does not understand how she can accept starvation while not fighting
against the circumstances of their lives.
Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis 10
Rukmani, in return, finds Kenny’s life equally incomprehensible. When she learns of his wife, whom he has
left in England, she cannot understand why Kenny would leave his home and risk losing his wife. At the same
time, because she believes a woman’s place is with her husband, she cannot understand why his wife would
not join him in India. Kenny is unable to explain it to her. Although Kenny is devoted to his work in India it is
clear that there is a cultural divide between his life philosophy and the life philosophy of the Indian people
around him.
Kenny has returned to the tannery town to build a hospital. He sees that Selvam is not cut out for working the
land but that he nevertheless shows great academic potential, and he takes him as his apprentice and assistant.
Ira’s child is born. To Rukmani’s dismay, the baby boy is a pure albino. She secretly wonders if his
deformity is due to the circumstances of his birth. The poor child, who is named Sacrabani, becomes a
curiosity for the neighbors; and as he grows older, he is ostracized from the other children of the village, not
just because of his albinism but also because he was born out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Ira refuses to see his
disfigurement and lavishes her love on the child, and the rest of the family strives to treat him as they would
any of their children.
Meanwhile, slow progress is made on the hospital, as Kenny is able to obtain funding from the mysterious
outside sources. Before the hospital is completed, Old Granny is found dead next to her vegetable stand.
Rukmani grieves for her and for the fact that she died alone and destitute.
Time passes, and it is now four years after the birth of Sacrabani, and Nathan’s health is failing. However,
when Kenny tells Rukmani that Nathan needs more than the plain rice that they normally eat, she reminds him
that food like vegetables and milk are luxuries. But worse news than Nathan’s ailing health comes to them
from Sivaji the collector: their land is to be sold to the tannery, which has steadily been consuming the
property abutting them. Nathan and Rukmani have two weeks to vacate. Having no choice, Rukmani and
Nathan decide to go to live with Murugan while Ira and Sacrabani are to stay with Selvam and Kenny.
Rukmani is greatly saddened by the loss of their home, where she and her husband built a family and proudly
worked the land. For a farming family, it is a great blow to have land taken away, especially at their
advancing age. She is also very worried about Nathan, who has still not recovered from his illness.
Rukmani and Kenny contrast markedly in their life philosophies, as shown in their conversations in Chapters
18 and 19: Kenny grows angry and frustrated at Rukmani for her fatalistic philosophy and sees it as a
complacent sort of helplessness. He says to her, “You must cry out if you want help. It is no use whatsoever
to suffer in silence.” He even goes so far as to call her and those like her “acquiescent imbeciles.” But
Rukmani rebukes him by saying, “What if we gave in to our troubles at every step! … Is not a man’s spirit
given to him to rise above his misfortunes? … Want is our companion from birth to death, familiar as the
seasons or the earth, varying only in degree. What profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot
change?” The difference between Kenny’s philosophy of seeking change, and Rukmani’s philosophy of
accepting fate, can be seen to be a product of their very different life circumstances. While Kenny presumably
comes from a well-to-do English background and has had the means and freedom to not only become a doctor
but to also travel the world as he pleases, Rukmani is born into a society that constricts her movement and her
livelihood to subsistence farming, a livelihood that by its nature does not provide enough to keep a family
from wanting. But since want is a fact of her life, her fatalistic attitude helps her to cope with it.
Although Sacrabani is a small child, he must also accept his fate. He is born into a society that not only
ostracizes him because of his deformity but also will not accept him because he is a bastard child. The
circumstances of Sacrabani’s life portray a sad double standard in Rukmani’s society: on the one hand, the
society tacitly accepts prostitution by providing a market for it, but on the other, it shuns the children that are
its product, as well as their mothers.
Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis 11
Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Puli: An orphaned street child afflicted with leprosy who befriends Nathan and Rukmani.
Birla: A female doctor for whom Murugan worked as a servant.
Das and his wife: Servants who work for Birla.
Ammu: Murugan’s wife.
Nathan and Rukmani pack their few belonging, sell what they do not need, and travel by bullock cart for
several days to the city in which Murugan lives. The hustle and bustle of the big city, in which cars, bicycles,
and bullock carts clog the roads, is much different from their small town and makes it impossible for Rukmani
and Nathan to get around. Unable to find Murugan’s address, Rukmani and Nathan, both faint from lack of
food, head towards the temple where the city’s poor go for a free meal in the evenings. Rukmani manages to
push through the crowds to get a dish of food, which she shares with Nathan. However, in all the commotion,
their possessions and money are stolen, leaving Rukmani and Nathan in a strange city with nothing but the
clothes on their backs. They continue to try to find Murugan’s home, and during their wanderings, they meet
Puli, a cunning street orphan whose fingers have been eaten away by leprosy. He offers to guide them to
Murugan’s home in expectation of payment at a later date.
The doctor for whom Murugan worked, a woman named Birla, informs them that Murugan was a good
worker, but he had left to seek better wages elsewhere. Nathan and Rukmani are both surprised by the fact
that Birla is a woman and that she wears trousers instead of a dress. The doctor offers them a meal, which they
take with Das, another servant, and Nathan and Rukmani are grateful for their kindness.
Nathan and Rukmani seek Murugan at the collector’s house on Chamundi Hill. Here they find Murugan’s
young wife, Ammu, with their two children, but Ammu informs them that she has not seen her husband in two
years and that she believes he will not return. She is bitter and blames his abandonment on the lure of
gambling and whores. Rukmani and Nathan are heartbroken. They cannot stay with Ammu, who barely can
support herself and her children, so they have no choice but to return to the temple where they face the
resentment of the other poor for returning. Both Rukmani and Nathan long to return to their village and leave
the bustling city that they have grown to detest, and in order to earn enough money to make the trip, Rukmani
attempts to sell her skill as a reader and writer on the streets. She is only able only to earn enough to buy a
small bit of breakfast for her and Nathan each day. In the meantime, Nathan’s health grows steadily worse.
One day, the orphaned boy Puli returns to Rukmani and Nathan to ask for the payment they owe him, but
when he sees their dire situation, he shows them where they can earn money breaking stones at a quarry. The
work is hard, especially for the sickly Nathan, but the two of them return to the quarry daily in order to save
enough money to return to their village. In the meantime, Rukmani and Nathan grow fonder of Puli, who is
both tough and independent, but still childlike. While the prospect of returning home is on the horizon,
Nathan grows increasingly sick to the point of not being able to stomach even the small amount of food they
have. Still, even though the incessant rains of the monsoon have come, he insists on working in the quarry
with Rukmani, determined to earn enough money to return home.
But Nathan will not see his village again. One day, after work at the quarry is done, he collapses at the side of
the road in the mud. Some people help Rukmani transport him back to the temple, but he dies later that night
with his head in Rukmani’s lap.
Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Summary and Analysis 12
Rukmani, now alone in the city, manages to finally earn enough money to return home. Having grown very
fond of Puli, who has remained by her side compassionately after Nathan’s death, she entices him to return to
the village with her by promising him healthcare at Kenny’s hospital. She arrives home with Puli and is
greeted with joy by Selvam, Ira, and Sacrabani. It will come to pass that Puli will be healed and will grow into
a healthy adult, and Rukmani will live to an age old enough to recount this story.
Throughout Part One of the novel, the time period is not made clear. The events could be occurring at any
time during the British colonial period in India or it could be later. The lack of clarity regarding timing serves
to make the messages and themes of the novel, including the portrayal of poverty, timeless. However, Part
Two gives some clues to the time period. There are automobiles in the city, and Birla is a female doctor who
wears trousers instead of a skirt. These small details place the novel well after the turn of the twentieth
Rukmani and Nathan are impoverished because they, as subsistence farmers, were unable to adapt to the
economic changes that overtook their town. Also, as Nathan says to his Selvam, there are no laws in place to
keep the tannery from turning him out of his home. However, with the change in scenery from the rural to the
urban, Markandaya shows, through the masses of poor people Rukmani and Nathan encounter in the city, that
poverty is a pervasive and more complex problem. The character of Puli, a young orphan who lives in the
streets and is severely afflicted with leprosy, is representative not only of the poverty of the entire city but also
of the unchecked but curable sickness and disease that Kenny is trying to combat through the building of
The novel ends tragically with the death of Nathan, but also happily, for Rukmani has succeeded in making it
back to her village and to her children and with her adopted son Puli. Kenny once remarked to Rukmani that
although she was economically impoverished, she possessed the riches of a close family. The novel ends with
Rukmani saddened by her husband’s death, but with the rest of her family surrounding her, and the bright
potential for a new life for Puli.
Nectar in a Sieve: Quizzes
Part One, Chapter 1: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. When Rukmani is a child, why does her mother worry about her future?
2. When Rukmani is married off to Nathan, why do people say that the match is below her?
3. Where does the novel take place?
4. What is a dowry?
5. How does Rukmani describe her husband?
1. In Rukmani’s society, a woman’s security is based on the prosperity of her husband. However, for a
woman to obtain a prosperous husband, her family must provide a significant dowry. Rukmani, as the fourth
daughter, is left with no dowry after the marriages of her three older sisters, which means that Rukmani
cannot hope for a prosperous match.
Nectar in a Sieve: Quizzes 13
2. Rukmani is the daughter of a village headman, a position of high status. Nathan, who is a poor tenant
farmer who does not own his land, is of a lower social status than Rukmani.
3. The novel opens in a poor village in India where a tannery factory is located. The exact time of the novel is
not made clear.
4. A dowry is a sort of payment given by the family of a woman to the family of a man as part of the
arrangement of their marriage. A larger dowry can help to get a more materially prosperous marriage for a
5 Rukmani describes Nathan as a patient, gentle, and hardworking man. She delights in the fact that he sees
beauty in her and praises her work and small accomplishments. He makes her happy.
Part One, Chapter 2-4: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why are Rukmani and Nathan disappointed when their first child is a girl?
2. Who is Kenny?
3. Why does Rukmani hide her fertility treatments from her husband?
4. How does the opening of the tannery affect the villagers?
5. Why does Rukmani decide to sell her vegetables to Biswas instead of Old Granny? And how does this
make her feel?
1. Rukmani and Nathan are initially disappointed that their firstborn child is a girl because a female child, who
requires an expensive dowry and eventually leaves the family to join her husband, is less desirable than a son,
who can inherit the father’s livelihood and can care for his parents in their old age.
2. Kenny is a white doctor, presumably British, who befriends Rukmani and provides her with fertility
3. Rukmani is afraid that Nathan will be angry with her for allowing herself to be examined by a white, male
4. The arrival of the tannery completely changes the village. The tannery attracts a large population of
workers to the area, and while the villagers are able to sell their goods at a higher price to the tannery workers,
the price of goods goes up, and they are unable to afford the products they once could. The new businesses
that open in the town also cause the old businesses to be driven away.
5. Biswas the moneylender is able to offer Rukmani more than double what Old Granny would pay her for her
vegetables. Rukmani feels guilty for not doing business with Old Granny any longer, but she realizes that she
must do so in order to support her family.
Part One, Chapter 1: Questions and Answers 14
Part One, Chapters 5-11: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Who is the matchmaker that finds a husband for Ira?
2. Why does Ira’s husband return her?
3. Why do Arjun and Thambi decide to join the tannery?
4. What does Old Granny say to Rukmani when she worries about Ira’s fate?
5. What is Deepvali?
1. Old Granny serves as Ira’s matchmaker.
2. Ira is unable to conceive a child, and therefore she serves her husband little purpose.
3. After the monsoon, which almost drove the family to starvation, Arjun sees that farming does not offer
security. Thambi also realizes that his father will not be able to ever save enough to purchase his land, and he
would rather work for the tannery and earn more money than farm another man’s land. The tannery offers
higher wages than what they would earn as farmers.
4 Old Granny reminds Rukmani that one should accept one’s fate and that one can get used to one’s lot in
5. Deepvali is the festival of Light, which is a major holiday in the Hindu tradition.
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why do Arjun and Thambi leave their jobs at the tannery?
2. What is the cause of the failure of the rice crop, and what happens as a result?
3. What is Rukmani’s reaction when she finds out about Nathan’s infidelity to her with Kunthi?
4. Why is Raja murdered?
5. What does Ira do to try to save Kuti from starving to death?
1. Arjun and Thambi feel that their tannery wages are unfair, and they attempt to lead a workers’ strike
against the tannery. When the strike fails, Arjun and Thambi are left without work. They have no means to
rent more land to farm, and their parents’ farm will not support all of them, so the two sons travel to Ceylon
to work as laborers.
2. An extended drought kills the crop. Since Rukmani and Nathan completely depended on the crop for their
livelihood, they are left with nothing to eat and with no means by which to purchase any goods.
Part One, Chapters 5-11: Questions and Answers 15
3. Rukmani briefly feels anger and betrayal when she finds out that Nathan is the father of Kunthi’s sons, but
she is quick to forgive him and instead blames Kunthi for tempting her husband, calling her “evil and
4. Raja, out of desperation for food, attempted to steal a skin from the tannery in order to sell it. The guards
who caught him beat him to death.
5. Ira secretly prostitutes herself in the town during the night to earn money.
Part One, Chapters 18-23: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why do the other children in the village ostracize Sacrabani?
2. Kenny had been gone from the village for many months. What was the purpose of his trip?
3. Why does Selvam decide to work as Kenny’s assistant?
4. While Rukmani is pleased that Selvam will work as Kenny’s assistant, she is worried. What does she
worry about?
5. What bad news does Sivaji bring to Nathan and Rukmani?
1. Sacrabani is afflicted with albinism, and the other children tease him because of his appearance. They also
taunt him by calling him a bastard because he was born out of wedlock.
2. Kenny had returned to England to raise funds to build a hospital in the town, and he has now returned to
oversee its construction.
3. Selvam, although he has tried, realizes that he has no talent as a farmer. However, he is very intelligent and
has independently advanced in academic studies, and he welcomes the opportunity to learn medicine from
4. Rukmani worries that people will degrade Selvam by insinuating that he was given the apprenticeship
because they believe, wrongly, that Rukmani is Kenny’s mistress.
5. Sivaji informs Nathan and Rukmani that their land is going to be sold and that they must vacate it.
Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why do Nathan and Rukmani leave their village and go to the city?
2. Who is Puli?
3. Who is Birla, and what surprises Nathan and Rukmani about her?
4. What do Nathan and Rukmani find when they arrive at Murugan’s home?
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Questions and Answers 16
5. Why do Nathan and Rukmani go to work at the stone quarry?
1. Nathan and Rukmani are forced off their land because it has been sold to the tannery. Since they have no
other place to stay in the village, they go to the city to live with their son, Murugan, who is married and works
as a servant.
2. Puli is a young orphan who lives in the streets of the city. He befriends Nathan and Rukmani and helps
them get around. He is severely afflicted with leprosy. Eventually Rukmani, who has grown to love the boy,
convinces him to return to the village with her, and he becomes her adopted son.
3. Birla is the doctor to whom Kenny recommended Murugan for work. Nathan and Rukmani are surprised
that Birla, whom they know to be a doctor, is a woman, and they are also surprised that she wears trousers
instead of a skirt.
4. Nathan and Rukmani find that Murugan has abandoned his young wife and children and has not been seen
for two years.
5. Nathan and Rukmani are determined to return to their village, so they work at the stone quarry to earn
enough money to return home.
Nectar in a Sieve: Themes
Rukmani experiences the changes typical of a young woman in her time. She marries a man she does not
know, becomes a mother, and as she has more children, learns to share limited resources with more people.
Other changes, however, prove more difficult to accept. When the tannery comes to her town, she is deeply
resistant to its effects on the village and its people. She comments, "Change I had known before, and it had
been gradual.… But the change that now came into my life, into all our lives, blasting its way into our village,
seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye." To her, the tannery is destructive to their peaceful way of life,
causes prices to increase, and encourages people to choose wayward paths. Although she eventually takes her
husband's advice to be flexible, she does so only because she has little choice.
Getting used to change becomes a necessity in Rukmani's life. By the end of the story, her sons have grown
and started their own lives, leaving her with an all but empty household. After her married daughter is
returned by her husband for not bearing children, Rukmani considers Nathan's advice to get used to it because
it is out of their control. She says:
It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the smell of the tannery;
they no longer affected me. I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast
from town, and I grieved no more; so now I accepted the future and Ira's lot in it, and thrust it
from me; only sometimes when I was weak, or in sleep while my will lay dormant, I found
myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.
Later, when Nathan loses his land, Rukmani faces the daunting prospect of a completely new lifestyle, begun
when she is well into adulthood. Looking for one of their sons, Rukmani and Nathan confront the challenges
and hardships of a large, unforgiving city. To make matters worse, their son is gone and they have lost all of
their possessions and money, forcing them to devise a new plan to earn money for passage back to their
Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Questions and Answers 17
Their lives are in complete upheaval, and Rukmani reacts by adapting and remaining as optimistic as possible
rather than by giving up altogether. When her husband dies, Rukmani must deal with the profound change of
going from wife to widow. Markandaya demonstrates through these drastic changes that Rukmani's life is
characterized by uncertainty and instability, but because she establishes constancy within herself, she is able
to handle the many changes and surprises that come her way.
Rukmani faces many difficulties in her adult life. From the time she arrives at her husband's humble mud hut,
she knows that life will be more difficult than she imagined. Her new life requires hard work for little money
and few comforts. She finds herself the wife of a poor tenant farmer but takes comfort in the realization that
she is happily married to a man who loves her deeply.
When many childless years pass after the birth of their daughter, Rukmani faces the possibility of carrying a
social stigma. She solves her problem by visiting Kenny, the foreign doctor in town, whose new methods
would not be acceptable to Rukmani's husband. Although she hates keeping secrets from him, she determines
never to tell her husband how she came to bear five sons.
Rukmani faces the adversities of natural disaster when a monsoon destroys much of their home and floods the
rice paddies on which their livelihood depends. She watches as her children either suffer cruel fates or leave
the village to make their own lives. She and Nathan lose their land, and in the end, she is a widow.
Markandaya shows, however, that Rukmani is not a woman who allows adversity to destroy her. She has
enough in her life that fulfills her (children she loves, friends, and a happy marriage) to find the will to
continue seeking improvement. While she is sometimes struck with despair, she never wallows in self-pity. At
the end of the story, she is at peace with herself and her life. She is hopeful and cherishes her memories
because she clings to the happiness in her past rather than to the heartache.
Nectar in a Sieve: Style
Figurative Language
Throughout Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya uses a variety of literary devices to bring her story to life. Her
inclusion of insightful similes (a figure of speech used to compare two unlike things), well-designed
allegories, and vibrant imagery enable Western readers to understand and enjoy this novel whose setting,
people, and culture are completely unfamiliar. These devices also help the reader to connect with the events of
the book through the universality of the experiences and images.
Markandaya frequently uses similes. When Rukmani recalls running through her garden when she was
pregnant, she says, "I realized I must have looked like a water buffalo, running in such a frenzy." In an
extended simile, Rukmani remarks,
Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant
and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an
instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.
During the festival of Deepavali, Rukmani watches in wonder at the brilliant fireworks, noting, "Now and
then a rocket would tear into the sky, break and pour out its riches like precious jewels into the darkness."
In a moving scene in which Nathan brings her outside to sit, Rukmani sees her own experience paralleled in
the landscape. At this point, she is grateful for the blessings in her life but is saddened because her children
are becoming adults and leaving to start new lives. Markandaya creates a brilliant image, both melancholy and
Nectar in a Sieve: Themes 18
He coaxed me out into the sunlight and we sat down together on the brown earth that was part
of us, and we gazed at the paddy fields spreading rich and green before us, and they were
indeed beautiful.... At one time there had been kingfishers here, flashing between the young
shoots for our fish; and paddy birds; and sometimes, in the shallower reaches of the river,
flamingoes, striding with ungainly precision among the water reeds, with plumage of a glory
not of this earth. Now birds came no more.
Rukmani tells her story in the past tense. She is a mature woman, remembering back to her childhood and
relating the events of her life. From time to time, she interjects thoughtful observations that come from the
reflective nature of her recollection. For example, she tells about the birth of her daughter, remembering how
kind and helpful her friend Kali was. She observes,
When I recall all the help Kali gave me with my first child, I am ashamed that I ever had such
thoughts [that Kali did not understand what it was like to have only a daughter, because Kali
had three sons already]: my only excuse is that thoughts come of their own accord, although
afterwards we can chase them away.
Clearly, at the time of telling the story, Rukmani has chased away her resentful thoughts of her friend. Later,
she thinks back on her years of motherhood, observing, "How quickly children grow! They are infants—you
look away a minute and in that time they have left their babyhood behind."
Nectar in a Sieve: Historical Context
India's Independence from Britain
The British had controlled India since the early 1800s, but on August 15, 1947, the Indian Independence Act
established the self-sovereignty of India and Pakistan. Hindus lived in India, and Muslims lived in Pakistan,
although people were free to travel between the two countries.
After British governmental power was dissolved, India's Constituent Assembly chose a republican
constitutional form of government (very similar to the American system). A constitution was drafted, its
length exceeding that of any existing body of law in the world. Among the provisions of the new constitution
was the abolition of the ancient caste system, which had brought great disadvantages to millions of Indians.
The first president was Rajendra Prasad, one of Mahatma Gandhi's (an Indian nationalist, moral and spiritual
leader in India's struggle for independence from Great Britain) followers and an experienced politician. A
cabinet was also formed, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime minister.
The first years of India's new government were both trying and dynamic. India chose to remain neutral during
the tensions of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. This unwillingness to get
involved made it difficult to acquire famine relief from the United States when a series of natural disasters
(drought, earthquakes, and floods) ravaged India in 1950. The American government eventually approved
famine relief in 1951, however, with terms that were acceptable to India's political leaders. Soon after, Nehru
organized government programs to encourage birth control in an effort to curb overpopulation. He also
designed a five-year plan to expand irrigation and hydroelectric programs for farming.
Daily Life in an Indian Village
In Indian villages, now as at the time of the novel, it is common for extended families to live in the same
house or nearby. This arrangement requires patience and respect, as struggles over privacy, responsibilities,
Nectar in a Sieve: Style 19
and resource allocation are a way of life. On the other hand, families are extremely close, which discourages
members from going far away. Traditionally, a woman's role has been to maintain the home, rear the children,
cook, and oversee religious and cultural observances. Men earn money to support the family and also teach
their sons their trades so that one day they can take over the father's work.
Especially in the past, married couples were expected to have children; if they did not, they would lose social
standing and respect. Further, without children, the couple would have limited prospects for the future. The
arrival of a child was a celebratory event, but the arrival of a son was particularly joyous at the time of the
novel. A son would learn his father's trade and assume the business responsibilities for his father, while a
daughter could not earn money for the family yet required a dowry for marriage.
Hinduism is the prevalent religion in India, although Islam and Christianity are not uncommon. Hinduism
involves many rituals and the recognition of various gods and goddesses. Festivals such as Deepavali are an
important part of Hinduism and provide a communal aspect of the religion to complement deeply personal
practices, such as meditation and prayer. To Hindus, the cow is a sacred animal, so they do not eat beef or
touch any part of a slaughtered cow. This is an important consideration with regard to the tannery in the novel
because it explains why so many Muslims initially worked at the tannery and, in part, why Rukmani was
disappointed that her sons went to work there.
Nectar in a Sieve: Critical Overview
Upon its 1954 publication, Nectar in a Sieve was embraced by critics and readers alike. The book was praised
for its sensitive and artful depiction of life in an Indian village as it changes in the wake of industrialization
and modernization. Western readers found the book accessible, despite its unfamiliar physical and cultural
setting. A contributor to Contemporary Novelists declared Markandaya "one of the best contemporary Indian
Man working in a tannery in India
Critics note that although Markandaya wrote the book in English, the language never seems at odds with the
themes or the characters' speech. This is an accomplishment because although English is one of the official
Nectar in a Sieve: Historical Context 20
languages of India it is not the language of daily life, especially the daily lives of poor people such as those
portrayed in the book. Markandaya manages to write a distinctly Indian story in a Western language. William
Dunlea of Commonwealth described Markandaya's use of English as "fresh and limpid, only slightly ornate in
Many critics were especially impressed by Markandaya's accurate portrayal of life in a rural Indian village. In
a 1955 review, Donald Barr of the New York Times Book Review wrote, "Nectar in a Sieve has a wonderful,
quiet authority over our sympathies because Kamala Markandaya is manifestly an authority on village life in
India." He adds that, after all, "everything that is of final importance in life can happen in a village."
Reviewers comment on how Markandaya makes village existence come to life in the minds and hearts of
Western readers, allowing them to look inside the minds of people whose experiences are vastly different
from their own. J. F. Muehl of Saturday Review, for example, noted,
You read it because it answers so many real questions: What is the day-to-day life of the
villager like? How does a village woman really think of herself? What goes through the
minds of people who are starving?
Only a few of Markandaya's contemporaries found the book lacking. Dunlea, for example, commented,
"Nectar in a Sieve is true without being revealing, promising but not remarkable." Most critics and readers,
however, are drawn to the rich cultural landscape, the realistic characters, the well-wrought themes, and the
lively language.
Since the publication of Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya has written nine other novels, yet this one continues to
be the subject of much critical analysis and acclaim. That female Indian writers today are compared and
contrasted with Markandaya is further evidence of her staying power.
Nectar in a Sieve: Character Analysis
The narrator of the story, Rukmani is the widow of a poor tenant farmer. She tells the story of how she came
to marry him and of the many struggles they faced over the years. Rukmani is literate, which is unusual for a
woman in her position, and she teaches her children to read and write. Sensitive and loving, Rukmani quickly
adapts to life as a poor man's wife and helps with the work in the rice paddy. She also grows her own garden
to provide additional food for her family or, when necessary, something she can sell in town for money.
Rukmani never complains about the poverty in which she lives, but she is vocal when she does not agree with
something that happens in her community. When the tannery comes, for example, she makes her disapproval
very clear to her friends and family. Still, once she realizes that she cannot change something (like the
presence of the tannery), she accepts it.
Rukmani loves her family above all else and worries about her children as they leave home. As much as she
despises Ira's prostitution, she never loves her any less for doing it. When her sons announce that they are
leaving the village to take jobs in distant places, she is saddened but makes no real effort to stop them.
Rukmani is also a religious woman, participating in the Hindu festivals and praying to the gods. She makes
offerings to the gods and goddesses when she prays to them, as is the custom.
What is most striking about Rukmani is her acceptance of extraordinarily bad luck. Whether suffering a
drought, a monsoon, or being stranded in an unfamiliar city with no money, she never allows herself to
wallow in self-pity. She feels despair and frustration just as anyone would, but her reaction to crisis is to think
Nectar in a Sieve: Critical Overview 21
of a plan to solve it. When necessary, she can be assertive and strong, such as when she fights her way to the
front of the line for food at the temple.
Other Characters
Rukmani's first son, Arjun is an energetic boy who grows into an impassioned man. He and his brother
Thambi go to work in the tannery, but when they organize the workers in an effort to demand more money,
they lose their jobs. Because money beyond what the young men can earn locally is so necessary to a decent
standard of living, he and Thambi take jobs on the distant island of Ceylon and are never seen again.
Biswas is the moneylender in town and the only character who never seems to suffer from a lack of resources.
Rukmani finds him untrustworthy and unpleasant because of his flippant manner of speaking and his
suggestions that Rukmani and Kenny have an inappropriate relationship. Because Biswas has money,
Rukmani sells him some of her garden produce, and she has no choice but to go to him when she has to sell
her fine saris.
See Irawaddy
Irawaddy ("Ira") is Rukmani's only daughter. She is beautiful, hard-working, and nurturing. She is married at
the age of fourteen but fails to produce children and so is returned home. She cares for her baby brother Kuti
in a maternal way, resorting to prostitution to earn money to feed him. Later, she becomes pregnant and gives
birth to an albino son, Sacrabani, whose abnormalities she seems not to see. She sees him with a mother's eyes
and resents the hurtful comments made by some of the villagers.
Kali is the wife of a farmer who works a neighboring field. She is very gracious to Rukmani when she has her
daughter, helping her through labor and taking care of the house while she recovers. Although she likes to
exaggerate stories and is a bit gullible, Kali is likeable and loved by Rukmani. In later years, however, the
women drift apart, and when Kali arrives to see Ira's baby, she makes rude remarks. The years seem to have
stripped her of her sensitivity and kindness.
Kennington ("Kenny") is the white doctor in town who provides modern medical care for the poor people of
the village. He is not there year-round, however; he explains that he can only stand to be there for certain
spans of time. He becomes frustrated with many of the local customs, and seeing so much poverty weakens
his spirit. Kenny cares for Rukmani's mother in her last days and then addresses Rukmani's infertility
problem. Rukmani is forever grateful, and Kenny becomes a friend of the family. When he visits, he
sometimes brings milk or food. He helps one son secure a job as a servant in a distant city and offers another
son a job as an assistant in a new hospital that is being built.
Little is said about Kenny's own family, except that he has a wife and children whom he refuses to allow to
restrict his "come and go" lifestyle. At one point in the novel, he tells Rukmani that his wife has left him. He
seems saddened by this, but his is a solitary way of life, and he accepts loneliness. Kenny's calling is to treat
the sick and help the poor as evidenced by the way he raises funds for the hospital while he is gone from the
Rukmani 22
See Kennington
Kunthi is the wife of a neighbor. When Rukmani first arrives in the village, Kunthi is distant and rather
unwelcoming. Still, Rukmani stays with her when she is in labor with her first child. When the tannery is
built, Kunthi takes advantage of her good looks and attractive figure to make money by entertaining men. She
soon gains a reputation and later loses her husband. On the brink of starvation, she resorts to blackmailing
Rukmani and Nathan separately to take some of their precious rice. She blackmails Rukmani by threatening to
tell Nathan about her secret trips at night to see Kenny. (Rukmani does not want her husband to know that the
Western doctor is treating her for infertility.) She also blackmails Nathan by threatening to reveal to Rukmani
that two of her sons are his. Her character and bleak circumstances have made her a pitiful and desperate
Rukmani's sixth son, Kuti is much younger than his siblings. He is born after his sister, Ira, returns home, and
she cares for him like a mother. He is severely weakened by the lack of food brought on by the drought, and
even though Ira prostitutes herself to earn money to buy him food, he dies.
Rukmani's third son, Murugan takes a job a hundred miles away as a servant. He rarely writes to his family, so
when his parents try to find him, they discover that he left the job as a servant years previously. When they go
to his house, they meet his wife, who tells them that he abandoned her for a life of women and gambling and
that he never writes.
Nathan is Rukmani's husband. His real name is never given; Rukmani explains that she will simply call him
by this name because it is inappropriate for a woman to call her husband anything but "husband."
Nathan is an extremely hard-working man who is dedicated to supporting his family to the best of his ability.
Before he brings his new wife home, he builds a new mud hut for her with his own hands. He is poor and
merely rents the farmland that he works, never earning enough to be able to buy his own land. His marriage to
Rukmani is arranged, but he truly loves her and treats her with affection and respect. He does not discourage
her reading and writing and rarely discourages her from speaking her mind. He is a good companion for
Rukmani because when she is stubborn or passionate about something, he advises her in a calm and wise way
without discounting her feelings. He is equally loving to his children, and although he is disappointed that
none of his sons chooses to take up farming, he does not impede them in pursuing their goals.
Old Granny
Old Granny is a kind woman who sells guavas and peanuts on the street in town. She buys some of Rukmani's
garden produce but also understands when Rukmani must sell it to those who can pay higher prices. When it
is time for Ira to marry, Rukmani chooses Old Granny as the matchmaker. Despite Ira's small dowry, Old
Granny is able to make a good match, and everyone in town is impressed. After Ira and her husband separate,
Old Granny feels responsible for what happens to Ira. Although she has almost no money, she gives a rupee to
Ira's albino baby. Old Granny is a poor woman who lives on the street. In the end, unable to survive the
drought, she dies of starvation.
Puli is an orphan boy whose fingers are missing due to a disease. He is cunning, streetwise, and opportunistic.
Rukmani and Nathan meet him when they go in search of their son, and Puli helps them find ways to make
money to get back home. Puli agrees to go with Rukmani, who provides him with a home and medical care
Other Characters 23
for his skin condition.
Rukmani's fourth son, Raja is killed by a watchman at the tannery after he is caught trying to steal a pelt to
sell for money. The family is on the brink of starvation, so they assume he only meant to try to feed them.
Sacrabani is Ira's albino son.
Rukmani's fifth son, Selvam reads more than his siblings do. This is partly why Kenny chooses to train him as
his assistant in the new hospital. After the hospital opens, Selvam begins seeing patients with minor ailments.
He is very protective of his sister, Ira, and her baby and offers to care for them when Rukmani and Nathan
lose their farmland.
Rukmani's second son, Thambi joins his brother Arjun to work in the tannery and later in Ceylon.
Nectar in a Sieve: Essays and Criticism
The Positive Message of Inner Triumphs
Although Nectar in a Sieve is an Indian story, it was written in English for Western readers, perhaps to give a
glimpse into the hardships endured by people in Asia. The subject matter, however, threatens to distance
readers from the work because of the pervasive hopelessness that runs throughout the novel. For Western
readers, especially Americans, this bleakness may overshadow Markandaya's attempt to create a story about
the triumph of the human spirit. Markandaya's portrayal of life for the rural poor in India may be accurate, but
the absence of a single character who rises above his or her bleak prospects tends to eclipse the author's
positive message. While some of the characters overcome adversity in some of its guises, they never
overcome their hopeless situations, which is not a fate to which American readers are generally receptive. By
reviewing the experiences of Rukmani, Nathan, their family, and other villagers, it will become clear that each
character's life is marked by hopelessness. But, by briefly exploring the Eastern experience and mindset, it
will also become clear that inner triumphs are possible, even amid unrelenting circumstances.
Prior to marrying Nathan, Rukmani lives a comfortable life. Her family is not wealthy, but they have the
resources to live free of worries regarding food, clothing, or shelter. Her oldest sister had a handsome dowry
and a grand feast for her wedding, which indicates that the family had at least a modest income. Rukmani is
the fourth daughter, and although her dowry is small, she has something to offer her future husband.
Once Rukmani marries Nathan, a poor tenant farmer, however, her life becomes a series of hardships and
heartaches. As the wife of a farmer, she soon learns to work very hard with her husband in the rice paddy. As
hard as they work, their lifestyle remains very humble. She faces the real possibility of her family's starvation
when the weather claims their crops. In fact, her youngest son does not survive a drought; he dies of weakness
from malnutrition. Because she is poor, Rukmani must humble herself before a man she despises in an effort
to sell her wedding sari and other nice clothes because she needs money to feed her family. Nathan does not
earn enough money to save up and buy his own land, so when the landlord tells them to leave because he is
selling the land to someone else, they have no recourse. Worse, they have no other means of supporting
themselves. In search of their son, they find themselves helpless and lost in a strange city where their
belongings and money are stolen. Having nowhere to go, they sleep in the temple at night with all the other
beggars, and, having no income, perform backbreaking work in a quarry to earn the money to return home. In
Nectar in a Sieve: Essays and Criticism 24
the end, Nathan dies before they begin their journey home, and Rukmani is left a widow. For Rukmani, life is
constant struggle and worry about her children. For Nathan, even his life of relentless work is ultimately taken
from him. They never get an opportunity to improve their condition, and they are forced to live day-to-day,
reacting to each disaster as it comes.
Because Rukmani's children come from an impoverished family, their futures are limited and they suffer their
own hardships. Ira, the daughter, seems to find the road to happiness and financial comfort when she marries a
man who is the only son of a landowner. Five years later, however, she is returned to her parents because she
has failed to produce any children. Ira becomes depressed until Rukmani gives birth to a son, whom Ira
mothers. When the child's health declines steadily from lack of food, Ira resorts to prostitution to earn money
to feed him. As if this were not tragic enough, her little brother dies anyway. Later, Ira becomes pregnant out
of wedlock, a serious social stigma in Hindu society. The baby is born and he is albino, meaning that all by
herself, Ira will have to raise a son who is the subject of ridicule and fear and will likely never marry.
Rukmani's sons also suffer cruel fates. Her two eldest sons take jobs in the tannery, which enables them to
earn good money for the family but requires them to engage in a business that processes the remains of
slaughtered cows, sacred animals to Hindus. When they lose their jobs, they decide to answer a call for
workers in Ceylon. Although their culture encourages families to stay as close together as possible (especially
sons, who have a choice), the call of money is too strong for them, and they never see their families again.
Their story is sad because they grew up in a happy family with parents who loved each other, but the poverty
was so distasteful to them that they were willing to sacrifice their relationships with that family for the sake of
The third son takes a job a hundred miles away, as a servant in a house owned by a wealthy female doctor.
Rukmani and Nathan arrive only to find that he has left to take a job with higher wages. From there, he took
up a life of women and gambling and abandoned his wife and children. This story shows that, for this man, as
for his two older brothers, the lure of money was stronger than that of family or stability. First, he left his
happy (but poor) family, then he left a job working for a generous and compassionate woman (the doctor), and
then he sank into a life of gambling, forsaking his responsibility to his own immediate family.
Rukmani's fourth and sixth sons die; one is killed when he attempts to steal a pelt from the tannery to sell, and
the other dies of malnutrition.
The fifth son takes a job as Kenny's assistant at the new hospital. Because his mother educated all the children
to read and write, they could have found opportunities not open to everyone, but the fifth son is the only one
who takes advantage of this. His seems to be the most promising story, but his job pays very little. It is
unlikely that he will make a comfortable income in the career he has chosen. Besides, he seems to be punished
for his decision when the construction of the hospital takes seven years to complete. Each of the children's
stories is colored by the poverty and hopelessness of their collective situation, and in the end none of them
seems to find a way out of it.
Markandaya's portrayal of the other villagers offers little hope that their futures will be brighter. Kunthi, a
neighbor's wife, loses her husband when he learns that she has been prostituting herself to the tannery
workers. She loses her beauty, her virtue, her reputation, and her friends, and has to resort to blackmail to get
Rukmani and Nathan to give her food. She reasons that if she can only regain some of her health, she will be
attractive enough to resume her work. Kali, another neighbor's wife, is a good friend to Rukmani when they
are young. She is faithful, kind, and comforting to Rukmani in times of uncertainty and fear. In later years,
however, she seems to have become insensitive and thoughtless. She makes rude, inappropriate remarks about
the albino baby and is no longer welcome in Rukmani's house. The years of trial change her basic good
character. Old Granny is an endearing character who sells fruit and peanuts to scrape out a meager living. She
has no home and is forced to live on the street, but remains friendly and as generous as she is able to be. In the
The Positive Message of Inner Triumphs 25
end, she dies of starvation on the street.
Without a single character to give the reader hope, the message seems to many Westerners to be that a life in
dire poverty is a life in which no effort is worthwhile and no victories are possible. The best any of these
characters hope for is to survive another day to face another misery. And the Western experience, both in
literature and in life, has left Western readers unwilling to accept such a reality. Western readers, especially
Americans, are drawn to stories of people who are in devastating situations yet find a way to a better life.
Stories of underdogs who rise above their circumstances through hard work, cunning, good luck, and the
kindness of others are popular and lasting in Western culture. Examples include the title characters in the
American classic Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the English classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and
the character Jean Valjean in the French classic Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. These literary heroes are not
wholly make-believe figures but are echoes of the Western experience. America (and to a lesser extent
Western Europe) has offered to poor people opportunities for material advancement unparalleled in history. In
the West, being born to poverty does not mean, necessarily, dying in poverty. Young nations rich in natural
resources and capital, blessed not just with political but also with economic freedom, have provided countless
routes to material comfort for many of those willing to work as hard as Markandaya's characters toil. Readers
who have known nothing but opportunity find it difficult to understand or accept the kind of destitution that is
not diminished, even by heroic effort. Unfortunately, many readers will miss the fact that Markandaya does
have a positive message here.
The positive message of Nectar in a Sieve is grounded in the Eastern idea of an internal overcoming.
Easterners are not accustomed to the ever-expanding material opportunities bestowed on Westerners. They are
well acquainted with the grinding, unchanging poverty faced by Markandaya's characters. They know that, for
some, the only ground on which victory is possible is the interior landscape of the mind and heart—a victory
that is won by remaining, as Rukmani does, sane, loving, compassionate, gentle, and even hopeful in the face
of every reason to be otherwise. This is an unfamiliar victory to Western readers, but surely a noteworthy one.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Nectar in a Sieve, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is
an independent writer specializing in literature.
Harmony and Fulfilment
The depiction of man-woman relationship in Kamala Markandaya is different from what we have observed in
the novels of Anita Desai. Her protagonists are strong-willed and courageous, but they do not suffer from the
existentialist dilemma of saying the "Yes" or the great "No." They are often conformists who accept life and
surrender themselves to its vagaries. Unlike the sophisticated heroines of Anita Desai, love means living for
them. Hence, they cherish their relationship for the sense of security, companionship, belongingness and
fulfilment it provides them in the face of cruel social, economic or political upheavals. The fictional world of
Kamala Markandaya is no utopia. Disillusionment and despair; disappointment and frustration abound in the
lives of her protagonists also. But they are no idealists; they know that all mortals are fallible; and believe that
the great courage lies in "bending like grass" and not in saying the great "No." They are no relentless seekers
of individual identity and thus, not afraid of involvement and surrender. They are, indeed, great heroic figures
in their capacity to rise above their misfortunes. However, those who cannot adapt or adjust, face dissonance,
disillusionment and disintegration in Kamala Markandaya's world also.
In Nectar in a Sieve Kamala Markandaya is mainly preoccupied with the sufferings of peasants in Colonial
India. She, therefore, views the problem of human relationships in this novel, in the context of economic
forces, social evils and vagaries of cruel nature. The novel also dramatises the tragedy of a traditional Indian
village and a peasant family assaulted by industrialisation. Nevertheless depiction of human relationships is
Harmony and Fulfilment 26
her cardinal concern.
Nectar in a Sieve is a woeful tale of the trials and turbulations [sic] of a peasant couple. Rukmani, the
youngest of the four daughters of a village headman, is married to Nathan, "a tenant farmer who was poor in
everything but in love and care for … his wife." Reconciled to her lot, she lives with her husband in a hut built
by his own hands, and facing utter penury, she bears him children.
Rukmani and Nathan, like archetypal figures, Adam and Eve, are pitted against the forces of industrialisation,
social evils and natural calamities. Despite the crushing weight of these forces, the tender human relationships
between Nathan and Rukmani make Nectar in a Sieve a fictional epic on Indian life. These unsophisticated
peasant characters become grand tragic figures because their matrimonial bond is characterised by
understanding, self-sacrifice, and above all a deep faith in all humanities.
The relationship between Rukmani and Nathan is angelic and almost divine. Their life together, for the major
part of it, is miserable, unhappy and disappointing, yet they face it with full confidence and trust in each other.
Rukmani feels Nathan to be with her even after his death. The novel opens with Rukmani telling us:
"Sometimes at night I think that my husband is with me again, coming gently through the mists, and we are
tranquil together. Then morning comes, the wavering grey turns to gold, there is a stirring within as the
sleepers awake, and he softly departs."
Nectar in a Sieve can be described as a novel about the economic implications of human relationships. The
dwindling financial position of Rukmani's father forces him to marry her to a tenant farmer. The glaring
disparity between the financial and social status of a village headman and a tenant farmer is obvious to
Rukmani even at the tender age of twelve. Rukmani's three elder sisters were married in a befitting manner,
but as luck would have it the headman is no longer of any consequence and hence Rukmani "without beauty
and without dowry" is given away to Nathan—a tenant farmer. Everybody takes pity on her. She herself feels
humiliated and has apprehensions about her future happiness:
And when the religious ceremonies had been completed, we left, my husband and I. How well
I remember the day, and the sudden sickness that overcame me when the moment for
departure came! My mother in the doorway, no tears in her eyes but her face bloated with
their weight. My father standing a little in front of her, waiting to see us safely on our way....
And I was sick. Such a disgrace for me.... How shall I ever live it down? I remember thinking.
However, Nathan is immensely rich in regard to his love and care for his wife. His loving and caring ways
make Rukmani overcome the disgrace and shame she felt at the time of her wedding. Nathan's limited
financial resources and his landless status does not come in the way of their happiness and contentment.
Rukmani says, "I haven't forgotten, but the memory is not sour. My husband soothed and calmed me." It
happens because he "was poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife.… Our relatives, I know,
murmured … 'A poor match,' they said, and not always quietly. How little they knew, any of them!"
Unlike the couples in Anita Desai's novels, Rukmani and Nathan have mutual understanding. Right from the
beginning a deep understanding exist between the two. Nathan is aware of her anguish and disappointment
when the young bride comes to his mud hut. He realises that she is used to better living. He makes sincere
efforts to cheer her up, assuring her of better times to come. His loving concern and good conduct dispel her
doubts and misgivings.
This mud hut, nothing but mud and thatch, was my home.... I sank down. Nathan's face filled
with concern, as he came to hold me....
Harmony and Fulfilment 27
He said, "Perhaps you are frightened at living here alone—but in a few years we can
move—maybe even buy a house such as your father's. You would like that?"
There was something in his voice, a pleading, a look on his face....
"No," I said, "I am not frightened. It suits me quite well to live here." ...
"Such harvest as this," he said, sliding the grains about in his hand, "and you shall not want
for anything, beloved."
These are not mere hollow words to sooth and calm the agitated mind of Rukmani. Nathan's concern for
Rukmani's happiness is genuine. He makes preparations for the welcome of his new bride. He builds, with his
own hands, a sort of cozy nest where he plans to start a life of married bliss. There is a vast difference
between the imposing house of an erstwhile village headman and his humble hut of mud and thatch. He,
therefore, does not tell his wife that he himself with love and care, built her home. Kali reveals this to the
amazement of Rukmani: "The fuss your husband made! Why, for weeks he was as brittle as a bamboo before
it bursts into flame! He built your hut with his own hands.… He had made our home himself, and I had felt
only fear to live in it."
This love or consideration forms a solid foundation for a fulfilling relationship between the two. Rukmani's
heart is filled with ecstasy; she is proud to have such a loving and sensitive husband. She frankly tells him: "'I
am glad she told me. Should I not be proud that you have built this house with your own hands?'" There is no
disappointment, she considers herself the most fulfilled woman, supremely blessed and perfectly contented in
that Arcadian atmosphere. Nathan's humble hut and the green paddy fields become her most prized
While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eyes, and your
husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain
laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a
woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light.
As Rukmani and Nathan evaluate each other positively, their relationship is strengthened with the passage of
time. Rukmani loves, rather adores Nathan, because he is not a male chauvinist. Nathan, in her eyes, is an
efficient, hard-working and loving husband who shows great patience towards his ignorant, plain, child bride.
She learns many household jobs from Kali and Janaki. Nathan does not snub her either for her plain looks or
her lack of accomplishments. Unlike Gautama (in Cry, The Peacock), he does not belittle her for her
ignorance. All this makes Rukmani confess: "For myself, I am glad I married 'beneath me,' for a finer man no
one could have had.… I know, for I was ignorant of the simplest things.… Not one cross word or impatient
look, and praise for whatever small success I achieved."
Admiration or regard for each other's qualities makes for a positive, reciprocal relationship, says Stott. If
Rukmani is happy with Nathan, Nathan is equally proud of Rukmani whom he considers the best of all
women. This opinion remains unchanged even after many years of married life. After Ira's wedding, on a
Divali day, they all enjoy themselves in a carefree manner around the bonfire. Nathan abandons himself to the
joy and gaiety of the moment and lifting up Rukmani he says, "I am happy because life is good and the
children are good, and you are the best of all."
Rukmani and Nathan have unflinching faith in each other. She considers him her friend and guide. All
confusion and misery dispel under his steady assurances of a happier future. Rukmani is sad when her sons,
Arjun and Thambi, leave for Ceylon to work there in tea-plantations. She cries bitterly and feels shattered at
the thought of being separated from her sons. Nathan comforts her by diverting her mind to a bright future:
Harmony and Fulfilment 28
"You brood too much," Nathan said, "and think only of your trials, not of the joys that are still
with us. Look at our land—is it not beautiful? The fields are green and the grain is ripening. It
will be a good harvest year, there will be plenty.... We may even make enough to visit our
son—would not that be good?"
Thus he sought to comfort me, and after a time I was with him, thinking pleasuraby of
harvesting, and of plucking the pumpkins swelling on the vine, and visiting our son—and so
we made our plans.
Rukmani has an absolute trust in Nathan and does not take offence if he loses his temper or uses harsh words.
She believes that he cannot be inconsiderate to her. She interprets his outburst of anger or impatience as the
outcome of his concern for her welfare or his being distracted by something really beyond his control. Being
unable to pay the amount they owed to the landlord, Nathan decides to sell everything including the seed for
the next crop. Rukmani does not agree to this proposal. Nathan feels crossed and shouts at her: "'Do you think
I am blind and do not see, or so stupid as to believe that crops are raised without seed? Do you take me for a
fool.…' He was not shouting at me but at the terrible choice forced upon us.… I thought, smothering my sobs.
He is distracted and does not mean to be harsh."
At times devotion and trust; love and concern for each other make the spouses secretive. This tale of ideal
conjugal relationship has its own share of lies, concealment and deceit. Nathan, like other mortals, falls a prey
to the evil charms of Kunthi and sires her two sons. Nathan is mortally scared of Kunthi lest she might tell
Rukmani about it. He is aware of the trauma it can cause to the innocent Rukmani. The fear of betrayal forces
him to steal the rice that Rukmani has hidden underground. When Rukmani comes to know about the theft,
she takes the children to task. Nathan can no longer bear it, he confesses his guilt, crying bitterly:
"Kunthi took it all, I swear it. She forced me, I did not want you to know."
"She has a strange power this woman," I said, half to myself.
"Not strange," Nathan said. "I am the father of her sons. She would have told you, and I was
Nathan's frank confession of his clandestine relation with Kunthi is the cruelest surprise in Rukmani's life. She
is torn asunder by a bewildering variety of negative emotions that come surging upon her one after the other.
It is an unexpected turn of events revealing to her that Nathan is a fallible mortal: "Disbelief first;
disillusionment; anger, reproach, pain. To find out, after so many years, in such a cruel way. Kali's words:
'She has fire in her body, men burn before and after.' My husband was one of those men. He had known her
not once but twice."
Faithlessness on the part of the spouses is the rudest jolt to even the most fulfilling of matrimonial
relationships. However, Rukmani's courage, self-control and level-headedness save her from being swept
away by a sense of mortification. She feels cheated, but she does not give vent to her anguish because she also
has feet of clay. She herself has practised concealment and deceit; of course for valid reasons, and has not
been absolutely honest with Nathan about her relationship with Kenny, the doctor. In spite of her best
intentions she has sinned by flouting the moral code of absolute honesty of deed and thought in matrimonial
ties. That Kunthi is powerful, she knows herself because she has also been blackmailed by her into giving her
the rice for not divulging her secret about Kenny. Nathan is Rukmani's most precious possession, and she does
not want to lose him at any cost: "'I need you, I cried to myself, Nathan, my husband. I cannot take the risk,
because there is a risk since she is clever and I am not."
Harmony and Fulfilment 29
Nathan's uninhibited revelation hurt Rukmani, no doubt, but it infuses her with moral courage to be honest
and open; to throw away the crushing weight of her foolish silences. She feels immensely relieved from
Kunthi's sinister hold, and tells Nathan how Kunthi had extorted rice from her also. She feels more
comfortable as: "it seemed to me that a new peace came to us then, freed at last from the necessity for lies and
concealment and deceit, with the fear of betrayal."
The Kunthi episode, though not moulded into a dramatic context, reveals an important fact about human ties.
Howsoever intimate a relationship may be, there is much that remains unknown, unseen and untold to the
individuals concerned. The complete knowledge of the deeds and personality of an individual is impossible
even in the case of the most intimate of human bonds. Each one is an island. Thus a complete sharing of our
life with each other, in the real sense of the term is a myth. Nevertheless the Kunthi episode is a touchstone of
the real strength of the relationship between Rukmani and Nathan. It is an example of what sociologists term
as "external stress" introduced into a relationship. These external factors can prove disruptive if the ties
between two individuals are weak or shaky. A strong, healthy relationship of some duration has the capacity
to adapt to such an extra-system load. By the time this unsavoury fact comes to light, Rukmani and Nathan are
already happily adjusted with each other, and no dislocation is caused in their daily life or relationship.
Although Nathan and Rukmani are unsophisticated village folks, they understand the significance of their
relationship with each other. They feel that united they stand, divided they fall. Together they have been able
to bear the unequal strife between helpless peasantry and the menacing forces of an unjust social order,
industrialisation and the blood-thirsty moods of wild nature. The ties between them are strengthened because
of their mutual trust and empathy. They suffer together and try to mitigate each other's suffering. Their
eviction from the land is the cruelest blow of all. Rukmani is terribly afflicted, she knows that a landless
labour has nowhere to turn to. Nathan is also upset. But his presence by her side makes the misery bearable:
"Together there was more strength.… I knew neither could have borne it alone."
During the long years of togetherness Nathan and Rukmani achieve the coveted "interpersonal fusion" that
makes them heroic and brave. The love, faith and trust they have for each other invest them with a stoic calm
to face the worst in their life. They vacate their fields, and their hut—the mute spectators of their joys and
miseries; prosperity and penury for thirty years. Rukmani feels dizzy, her "throat is dry. I lean against my
husband, he is already leaning on me, together we achieve a kind of comfort." Once uprooted from the land,
their life becomes a nightmare. On their way to their son's house in the city they first lose their meagre
belongings and then the money they have. Penniless they reach his place, only to find out he has gone away.
To earn money for their return they become stone-breakers. A tenure of thwarted hopes, deprivations, hunger
and tragedies, takes toll of Nathan's life. Their last moments of togetherness are poignant and touching. They
forget the gruesome realities of their unhappy existence, pangs of regret, repentance and sorrow and sit
together enveloped in thoughts of joys and married bliss they had:
Midnight, and as always before, his paroxysms eased....
In the calm stillness I saw him open his eyes, his hand came to my face....
"You must not cry, dearest. What has to be, has to be."
"Hush," I said. "Rest and grow better."
"I have only to stretch out my hand," he said, "to feel the coldness of death. Would you hold
me when my time is come? I am at peace. Do not grieve."
"If I grieve," I said, "it is not for you, but for myself, beloved, for how shall I endure to live
without you, who are my love and my life?"
Harmony and Fulfilment 30
"You are not alone," he said. "I live in my children," and he was silent, and then I heard him
murmur my name and bent down.
"Have we not been happy together?"
"Always my dearest always."
"It is slipping away fast," he said. "Rest with me a little."
Nectar in a Sieve, thus, incorporates an ideal fulfilling man-woman relationship against the backdrop of a life
full of harrowing experiences. The matrimonial bond between Rukmani and Nathan rests serenely on the solid
foundation of trust, faith and understanding. They are not sophisticated like Maya, Sita, Nirode or Nanda
Kaul, but they have the wisdom to accept life and people as they are. Moreover, they prize their relationship
with each other above everything else. "A woman's place is by her husband" is the strong conviction of
Rukmani, she also believes in compromise and one's capacity to rise above his or her misfortunes. "What
profit to bewail that which has always been and cannot change."
Source: Usha Pathania, "Harmony and Fulfilment," in Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita
Desai and Kamala Markandaya, Kanishka Publishing House, 1992, pp. 54-63.
March to Autonomy
The foregoing chapter dealt with the analysis of the filial bonds in the novels of Anita Desai. In her writing
these ties, no matter whether stifling or fulfilling, continue to affect the sensibilities of her protagonists. Their
severance is a painful experience. In Kamala Markandaya too, this relationship is significant. For her also,
these equations persist in life. The basis of exchange between parents and children changes throughout the life
cycle, depending on each side's circumstances, but its importance remains. External factors such as economic
hardships and changing values and attitudes, very often, adversely affect these fundamental ties. Nevertheless,
these bonds are sacred, powerful and enduring. Even when the solidarity is affected, these ties, in her novels,
do not become a noose around one's neck. Kamala Markandaya favours greater freedom, trust and
understanding between the parents and children. The filial ties, therefore, are no insufferable bondage for her
characters. Their march towards autonomy is consistent, smooth and inevitable.
Nectar in a Sieve deals with human relationships in their variegated aspects. The chronicle of Rukmani and
Nathan's life illuminates the multicoloured, everchanging nature of filial ties. The children are the flesh and
blood of their parents. Theoretically, this should make the ties strong and permanent. However, the hard facts
of human existence, as depicted in the novel, highlight the impact of money on filial ties.
As sociologists like Graham A. Allan maintain, kin-relationships provide one with a sense of security. In
Nectar in a Sieve, the social and financial status of Rukmani's father gives her a sense of confidence and
makes her hopeful of a bright future. She is proud to be the daughter of a village headman. She is the youngest
of the four daughters. Rukmani's mother worries about her dowry, as the earlier three marriages have
squeezed them dry. Nevertheless, being a village headman's daughter, Rukmani is confident of her future
happiness. In order to cheer her mother, she tells her: "'I shall have a grand wedding.… Such that everybody
will remember when all else is a dream forgotten.… For is not my father head of the village?' I knew this
pleased my mother, for she would at once laugh, and lose her look of worry." Her brother tells Rukmani that
her father is no longer of consequence since the power now vests in the collector and the persons he appoints.
This shocking revelation naturally frightens her. She feels insecure and anxious: "This was the first time I had
ever heard that my father was of no consequence. It was as if a prop on which I leaned had been roughly
kicked away, and I felt frightened and refused to believe him."
March to Autonomy 31
Sociological research points out that "positive concern" for each other's happiness is mutual in filial bonds.
However, this is also a proven fact that daughters feel more involved with their parents and show greater
affection and consideration towards them. At the tender age of twelve, Rukmani displays considerable
understanding of her parent's limitations. She is considerate towards them and does not want to hurt their
feelings. She accepts their decision regarding her marriage ungrudgingly, as she does not wish any misery to
her helpless parents. She remembers her wedding day when her mother in the "doorway, no tears in her eyes
but her face bloated with their weight" bids her farewell.
Rukmani's thwarted expectations of a suitable marriage could have created dissonance. However, she
continues to be attached to her parents. She does not complain or show any resentment, for being married
beneath her. "To reduce dissonance, people emphasize the positive aspects of the chosen object while
emphasizing the negative and deemphasizing [sic] the positive aspects of the unchosen object." Rukmani
appreciates the positive contribution of her parents towards her proper upbringing. She is proud of her father
and appreciates his foresight, as she remarks: "It was my father who taught me to read and write. People said
he did it because he wanted his children to be one cut above the rest; perhaps so, but I am certain that he also
knew that it would be a solace to me in affliction, a joy amid tranquillity."
Loving and caring parents are believed to do anything for their children. Gifted with foresight at times,
parents cultivate tastes and skills primarily for their children's sake. After her marriage with Nathan, an
illiterate peasant, Rukmani's ability to read and write is of no avail. Nevertheless, she practises writing
purposely so that "when my child is ready … I will teach him too; and I practised harder than ever lest my
fingers should lose their skill."
The birth of her daughter does not weaken the attachment between Rukmani and her mother. She gets busy
with her child and now finds the journey to her parent's house tiring. Yet she visits them though at longer
intervals. "Since there was so much to be done in my own home; and my mother, knowing this, did not
reproach me for the long intervals between my visits."
Parents care and pray for their children even when they are grown-up and can look after themselves.
Rukmani's mother feels unhappy when, for many a year after Ira's birth, Rukmani does not bear a child.
Despite her own failing health, she tries her best to help Rukmani. This concern on her mother's part
profoundly impresses Rukmani, who many years later vividly remembers and reproduces the words spoken by
her mother on her death bed:
"When Ira was nearing six, my mother was afflicted with consumption, and was soon so
feeble that she could not rise from her bed. Yet in the midst of her pain she could still think of
me, and one day she beckoned me near and placed in my hand a small stone lingam, symbol
of fertility.
"Wear it," she said. "You will yet bear many sons. I see them, and what the dying see will
come to pass … be assured, this is no illusion."
Rukmani and Nathan are the product of a culture where the birth of a son is a blessing and that of a daughter a
sort of curse. Rukmani, though quite liberal in her views, is not free from this bias. As luck would have it, her
first child is her daughter Irawaddy. She is sad when on uncovering the small form she finds it to be a girl's
body. She tells, "I turned away and, despite myself, the tears came, tears of weakness and disappointment; for
what woman wants a girl for her first-born?" Nathan does not express his disappointment, his behaviour,
however, shows his preference for a son. Initially he pays scant attention to her, as he had wanted "a son to
continue his line and walk beside him on the land, not a pulling infant who would take with her a dowry and
leave nothing but a memory behind."
March to Autonomy 32
Nectar in a Sieve depicts the life of a by-gone era with all its social norms and cultural attitudes. During those
days, son always had a place of pride in the family. Parents loved their daughter, but they were proud of their
sons. Nathan, Rukmani and even her father are no exception. When Rukmani gives birth to her first son,
Arjun, Nathan is besides himself with joy and celebrates the occasion by hosting a grand feast to the whole
My husband was overjoyed at the arrival of a son; not less so, my father....
"Your mother would have been glad," he said. "She was always praying for you."
"She knew," I told him. "She said I would have many sons."
As for Nathan, nothing would do but that the whole village would know—as if they didn't
already. On the tenth day from the birth he invited everybody to feast and rejoice with us in
our good fortune.
Nectar in a Sieve stresses the fact that the preference for sons is often on theoretical grounds. Rukmani and
Nathan are, no doubt, keen on having a son for various reasons, yet, the shock of getting a daughter as their
first child is temporary. Daughters are equally dear to parents. They also love their parents no less than the
sons. The discrimination between son and daughter disappears as the child starts responding to the parents.
Nobody can ignore the loving advances of a child—whether a son or a daughter. Nathan is overwhelmed when
Ira "at the age of ten months she called him 'Apa,' which means father, he began to take lively interest in her."
Rukmani and Nathan are affectionate parents who inspire trust and confidence in the heart of their children.
Ira accepts her parents' choice with her usual docility, but she frets at the thought of leaving her parents, the
impending separation from them makes her sad. Once she asks a little wistfully: "How frequently I would be
able to visit her, and, although I knew such trips would have to be very rare since her future home lay some
ten villages away, I assured her not a year would pass without my going to see her two or three times."
The real worth and strength of a relationship is judged in the times of need and adversity. Parental obligation
is not over by simply marrying away their daughter. The prime concern of parents is to see their children
happy and blessed with all the good things of life. Rukmani and Nathan bring up their daughter Ira
affectionately, and marry her well. Unfortunately, she is not destined to enjoy married bliss because of her
being barren. She is abandoned by her husband and has to live with her parents. They are wise, understanding
parents, who never, by word or deed, make her feel an unwanted burden.
All this, however, should not make one forget that jealousy and rivalry affect the most intimate human
relationships. The children, howsoever, devoted they are, at times resent the parents enjoying or achieving
something which is denied to them. Ira has been deserted by her husband for her inability to conceive.
Consequently, the advancing pregnancy of Rukmani is unpalatable for her. She envies her mother, and
Rukmani is well aware of her resentful looks; "Sometimes I saw her looking at me with brooding, resentful
eyes and despite myself I could not help wondering if hatred lay behind her glance."
Financial implications often determine the nature and quality of interaction between the parents and children.
The relationship between Ira and her parents in Nectar in a Sieve suggests that children are obedient, meek
and submissive as long as the parents are responsive to their needs. When the children have to look after their
parents, their attitudes undergo unbelievable changes. They tend to become defiant. With the sons gone and
starvation engulfing them from all around, Ira takes to prostitution to ward off hunger. This reversal of role
matures her into a woman who defies her father. To Nathan's utter dismay she goes out of the house despite
his efforts to check her. Hunger has converted her into a revolting volcano, the fury of which astounds both
Nathan and Rukmani:
March to Autonomy 33
"Where do you go at this hour?"
"It is better not to speak."
"I will have an answer."
"I can give you none."
Nathan's brows drew together: she had never before spoken to him in this manner. Looking at
her, it seemed to me that almost overnight she had changed....
"I will not have it said—I will not have you parading at night—"
"Tonight and tomorrow and every night, so long as there is need. I will not hunger any more."
I think he laid a restraining hand on her, for I heard her say, "Let me pass," and there was a
slight rustling sound as she withdrew from his grasp.
The bookish norms of propriety and filial obedience operate under congenial and placid circumstances. A
hungry man is forced to surrender his values; to act against his cherished convictions. Bhabani Bhattacharya
views the theme of hunger in its wider perspective. It makes people helpless and wretched. In So Many
Hungers, owing to utter helplessness, Kajoli's neighbours give in and "sell" their daughter, and Kajoli also at
one time gives in, primarily to help her family. In the fierce struggle for survival, all becomes fair. Rukmani
and Nathan helplessly bow to Ira: "Well, we let her go.… We had for so long accepted her obedience to our
will that when it ceased to be given naturally, it came as a considerable shock; yet there was no option but to
accept the change, strange and bewildering as it was, for obedience cannot be extorted."
However this bewildering change is a transitory phase. The bond of love between Ira and her parents remains
intact. Nathan remains kindly disposed towards her. One day Ira's son asks her about the name of his father.
This upsets Ira. Rukmani tries to pacify her agitated mind by suggesting to Ira that she should have declared
him dead. The conversation hurts Nathan, who asks Rukmani to discontinue it. As a father he can imagine the
compound feelings of guilt, hurt, and remorse that are lossing [sic] and tumbling in his daughter's mind:
"Leave it, leave it," said Nathan. "Do not upset the girl any more."
He put out his hand to Ira, but she shied away from him. I saw her leave the hut.
"It is no use going to her," Nathan said sadly. "Such comfort as there is to be had must come
from her own spirit."
Nevertheless, after a little while he did go to her and his gentleness melted her last remnants
of control, for she began to weep. I heard her crying for a long time.
Ira's rejection by her husband, her taking recourse to prostitution to save herself as well as others, and the birth
of an albino child have rather too much for her to endure. But a deep understanding and kindness on Nathan's
part assuage Ira's emotional trauma.
For Erich Fromm, the most important role of a father is parental love and guidance. According to Gandhiji,
the best teacher is father and the best school is home. Nathan is an ideal father to his sons. Arjun and Thambi
work in the tannery but on holidays they help their father on the land. Nathan teaches them various
agricultural activities in the field. He values and enjoys their company and his superiority to them in regard to
March to Autonomy 34
his knowledge makes him feel good:
One day in each week ... Arjun and Thambi would help their father on the land, and this gave
Nathan a great pleasure. He liked to see his sons beside him, to teach them the ways of the
earth: how to sow; to transplant; to reap; to know the wholesome from the rotten, the
unwelcome reed from the paddy; and how to irrigate or drain the terraces. In all these matters
he had no master, and I think it helped him to know he could impart knowledge to his sons,
more skilled though they were in other things, and able to read and write better than any in
the town.
Like all other emotional bonds the filial relationship grows and develops through many stages. A time comes
when the parents lose their hold upon the thoughts and acts of their own children. With their first step into
adulthood, the children are inclined to judge and evaluate themselves. They tend to march towards autonomy
and independence. This happens with Nathan's sons also. Arjun and Thambi hand over their wages to
Rukmani, their mother, to spend as she likes. However, a strike in the tannery makes Rukmani and Nathan
realise that Arjun and Thambi have grown up, though neither of them has touched twenty. They are aware of
their rights and have already started thinking of their posterity. Rukmani vividly describes the conversation
that reveals a lot about their grown up sons:
"What has happened?" we ask with trepidation. They are still our sons, but suddenly they
have outgrown us.
"Trouble," they say. "We asked for money and they took from us our eating time."
I bring out some dried fish and rice cakes. They are ravenous. "More money?" I say. "What
for? Do they not pay you well already?" "What for?" one echoes. "Why, to eat our fill, and to
marry, and for the sons we shall beget." And the other said, "No, it is not enough."
The grown-up children often become strangers to their parents. The phenomenon of generation gap in terms
of expectations and attitudes is bound to enter into the parent-child relationship. Nathan, wise as he is, realises
that the best course is not to interfere and let them make their choice, their decisions. He advises Rukmani
also not to be sentimental at this juncture. "I do not know what reply to make—these men are strangers. Nathan
says we do not understand, we must not interfere. He takes my hand and draws me away. To his sons he is
At times human relationships, howsoever intimate, do not afford an opportunity to scan other's thoughts and
acts. Much remains unseen, unknown even in intimate bonds. Rukmani's sons, though obedient and loyal,
keep certain secrets from their parents. They do not want to disturb the calm lake of their parent's lives by
tossing the stones of revolutionary thinking. Rukmani narrates:
Looking back now, I wonder how it came to pass that not until that fateful day did we realise
the trouble that had been brewing. No gossip, not a whisper, had come to us of the meetings
the men had held at which my sons had been spokesmen; nor of the agitation that followed;
nor of the threats by the owners.... All this we heard only later.
As the bonds are strong, the parents defend their children at all costs though they cannot evaluate objectively
the act of their children. Nathan defends his sons when the villagers accuse them of inciting others: "Enough?"
he shouted. "More than enough has been said. Our children must act as they choose to, not for our benefit. Is it
not enough that they suffer?"
March to Autonomy 35
Separation from children is unbearable for parents. Arjun and Thambi cannot remain idle in the face of
economic hardships. They leave for Ceylon to work as labourers in a tea plantation. Nathan, as a man, bears
the pangs of separation silently, but for Rukmani this is unbearable. She makes desperate efforts to dissuade
her sons from going away:
"If you go you will never come back," I cried. "The journey costs hundreds of rupees, you
will never have so much."
The tears came, hot and bitter, flowing and flowing.... They spoke soothingly—of how much
they would earn, and how one day they would return—as one does to a child....
They left at first daylight ... each before he went kissed Nathan's feet, then mine, and we laid
our hands on them in blessing. I knew we would never see them again.
Nathan is a level-headed, practical man, who is fully aware of the fact that the deteriorating economic
condition warrants the departure of their sons. As a sole provider for the family of eight people, what moral
right has he to force his sons to stay with him? Like Michael in Wordsworth's poem of the same title, Nathan
knows full well:
If here he stays,
What can be done? Where everyone is poor,
What can be gained?
They restrain themselves, and as Michael sends Luke away telling him, "but it seems good / that thou
should'st go," Rukmani and Nathan bid farewell to their sons. Later they calmly bear even the murder of their
third son, Raja. They know that as they have nothing to eat, it is impossible to protest or resort to any legal
action. Rukmani assures the tannery people that they would not be claiming anything from them. "'You should
not care,' I said very softly to him alone. 'It does not matter.'" Rukmani now pressed by the rigours [sic] of
hunger and deprivation, feels sorry for the ailing Kutti and wishes him release from this wretched, cruel
existence: "I would go to him with beating heart to see if the fight has ended; but again and again he struggled
back to consciousness, took up again his tormented living; almost I wished it otherwise." When Kutti dies
they become almost insensible to grief or sorrow. Rukmani rather feels relieved: Nathan comes and kneels
beside him with harsh sorrowing face and bitter eyes. "I knew too well what he felt. Yet, although I grieved, it
was not for my son: for in my heart I could not have wished it otherwise. The strife had lasted too long and
had been too painful to call him back to continue it."
Rukmani and Nathan are not possessive in their love for their children. Despite adverse circumstances and
great suffering they remain kind to their children. They do not force their choice of profession on Selvam,
their only son, left now. His love for reading and writing makes him lose all interest in the land. As an
assistant to Kenny, he wants to join a hospital. He hesitates to reveal this to his mother. But Rukmani does not
want to come in the way of her son's plans or happiness:
"I have told my father," he said hesitantly. "He is very willing."
I smiled at him. "So am I. I wish you well."
He relaxed. "I am glad. I thought you might be—were—displeased."
"Not displeased. Perhaps disappointed, since all our sons have forsaken the land. But it is the
best way for you."
March to Autonomy 36
The deep understanding between Rukmani and Selvam is of that order where verbal communication is hardly
needed. Much remains unsaid about the relationship between Kenny and Rukmani, but he shows great
maturity in understanding its true nature. When he decides to work with Kenny, her mother is filled with
foreboding, but she does not discourage him:
"It is the best way," he repeated after me. "It will be a great venture. We have many plans and
much hope."
We both relapsed into silence. I watched him covertly, wondering ... but then I thought
resolutely, I will not take the fire from his resolve or sow suspicion between them, and so I
held my peace. But his steady eyes were on me, calm and level.
"I am not unaware," he said quietly. "But is it not sufficient that you have the strength and I
have the trust?"
"It is indeed," I said with relief. "I wanted only that you should know."
We smiled at each other in perfect understanding.
In human relationships the notion of give and take operates, and giving is often more satisfying than taking.
Rukmani and Nathan are among the most unselfish parents. They reject Selvam's offer to give up his job at
the hospital and rent a piece of land for agriculture. The offer is tempting to Nathan because his roots are there
in the land, and without land he cannot survive. Yet resolutely, he turns it down, saying: "'No, my son. I
would not have it so.... There are some things that cannot be sacrificed … besides I would never be happy.
Certainly your mother would not let me rest,' he added, smiling a little." Even during a time of irredeemable
misery the needs and aspirations of their children remain uppermost with them. They are moved by the plight
of Ammu, their daughter-in-law, who has been deserted by Murugan, their son, "'We will return to our son
and daughter,' Nathan says, not replying directly. 'But what of you, my child? It is we rather than you who
should ask. We have had our day, you are still young.…'"
The foregoing discussion brings us to the conclusion that the filial ties, as depicted in Nectar in a Sieve, are
largely fulfilling and cherishable. The tyranny of circumstances makes them sour at times, but based as they
are on mutual understanding, absolute trust and a spirit of self-sacrifice, the bonds do not turn brittle or bitter.
The children move away from their parents not because they wish it but because adversity leaves no other
option for them. Rukmani and Nathan are proud of their sons who have the courage to find a way out of their
misfortunes and confidence to carve a new destiny. They are the wisest of the parents as they encourage their
children in their ventures, and let them plan their future.
Source: Usha Pathania, "March to Autonomy," in Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai
and Kamala Markandaya, Kanishka Publishing House, 1992, pp. 143-54.
Nectar in a Sieve: Suggested Essay Topics
Part One, Chapter 1
1. Rukmani’s relatives are not happy with the match between her and Nathan because Nathan is of a lower
class. However, because Rukmani’s family has no dowry for her, he is the best match they can get. From
Rukmani’s own description of her marriage to Nathan in this chapter, do you think that his class mattered to
her? If so, does her view change over time, and if so, what accounts for the change?
Nectar in a Sieve: Suggested Essay Topics 37
2. The chapter opens with Rukmani as an old woman looking back at her life. How does the opening
paragraph work to entice the reader to read further
Part One, Chapters 2-4
1. The arrival of the tannery brings big changes to the village and prompts many reactions. Compare the
reactions of Rukmani, Kannan the cobbler, Kunthi, and Nathan to the arrival of the tannery. How are their
reactions different? What accounts for their differences?
2. Although all of the construction workers at the tannery site are Indian, the foreman of the tannery
construction is white. As Rukmani observes, the foreman treats the villagers like strangers in their own
village. “In our maidan, in our village he stood, telling us to go,” she incredulously notes. The foreman is,
presumably, representative of British interests in India. How does the author use his presence to symbolize the
British presence in India?
Part One, Chapters 5-11
1. In Chapter 11, Rukmani says, “It is true, one gets used to anything. I had got used to the noise and the
smell of the tannery … had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wilt in the blast from the town … so now I
accepted the future and Ira’s lot in it … only sometimes when I was weak, or in sleep while my will lays
dormant, I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.” Throughout the novel, the
characters are confronted with severe economic and social hardships, yet Rukmani does not complain, but
instead strives to accept them. Do you think that the author advocates the philosophy of accepting one’s fate
that Rukmani tries desperately to keep to? Why do you think it is important to these characters to be able to
accept their fate?
2. Nathan is hurt by his sons’ decision to leave the farming life for the tannery. What makes Arjun and
Thambi different from their father? Using specific examples from the text, compare and contrast Nathan’s
philosophy towards life and society with that of his sons.
Part One, Chapters 12-17
1. There are two prostitutes in this story: Kunthi and Ira. However, their circumstances of prostitution are very
different. Describe the differences between these two women. How does the author contrast these two
characters? Is the author commenting on the role of women in Indian society?
2. Indian society is structured around a strict caste, or class, system that does not allow for social mobility, but
rather dictates a person’s economic status based on their birth. Arjun and Thambi, although born to a tenant
farmer, are able to get jobs in the tannery, but when they try to organize a strike to force better wages and
more equality between the managers and the workers, they do not succeed. How does the idea of caste figure
into the failure of their strike?
Part One, Chapters 18-23
1. Throughout the novel, Rukmani constantly reiterates her need to accept both the fortunes and the
misfortunes that come to her and her family as a matter of fate. Even though she faces much suffering, she
never actually complains about the poverty of her life, but rather consistently tries to make the best of it.
Kenny, however, offers a sharp contrast to Rukmani. Contrast Kenny’s philosophy with that of Rukmani.
Why do you suppose that the author provides this contrast? Do you think that the author sides more with
Rukmani or with Kenny?
2. A double standard in Rukmani’s society is revealed when Ira’s son grows up to be ostracized by the
village. Describe this double standard. Is this situation unique to a poor, Indian village? To the developing
world? Do you think it is a double standard?
Nectar in a Sieve: Suggested Essay Topics 38
Part Two, Chapters 24-30
1. The novel opens with a scene that could easily be the closing scene of the novel: Rukmani is an older
woman, almost blind, but with the security that her family provides; Puli is a grown man, healed of his
leprosy; and Kenny and Selvam work successfully at the hospital. Instead of closing the book with this scene,
Markandaya chooses to close the novel with Rukmani returning from the city to her family without her
husband. Why do you think Markandaya structured the novel in this way?
2. The novel takes its name from its epigraph, a line by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read the epigraph. Why do
you think that Markandaya chose this line, and how does it relate to the novel?
Nectar in a Sieve: Sample Essay Outlines
Topic #1
The novel offers a contrast between the acceptance of one’s fate, which is Rukmani’s philosophy,
and Kenny’s battle against the status quo of poverty and sickness that pervades rural India. The
author’s aim in providing this contrast is not to take sides in the argument, but to show how the very
different life circumstances of each character make their very different philosophies possible.
I. Thesis Statement: Markandaya portrays two very different views of poverty, as embodied in
Rukmani and Kenny, which are based not on one’s innate nature but on the circumstances of one’s
II. Rukmani’s philosophy: To be able to accept one’s fate is noble.
A. Religion: she is taught that suffering in silence is good for the soul.
B. Her position as a woman means that she has no freedom.
C. The power of the caste system means that there is a lack of equal rights for the people.
1. Her sons’ failure to elicit change at the tannery because the laws do not exist to protect them.
2. No laws exist to protect Rukmani and Nathan from being cast from their land.
D. Rukmani’s deep love for the land means that her greatest fear is that of starvation. But the land
also provides her the security of place and hope for the future.
III. Kenny’s philosophy: To fight against poverty and elicit change for the better.
A. Kenny cannot understand Rukmani’s acceptance of starvation and poverty.
B. Rukmani points out that Kenny is not of their society, which is why he doesn’t understand their
C. Kenny’s socioeconomic circumstances provide him with a much better means and freedom to
pursue the eradication of poverty.
1. Kenny is male.
2. He is white and British.
3. He is educated.
IV. Conclusion: Kenny is outside of the circle of poverty that Rukmani has no choice but to stay
within. This provides irreconcilable differences in their worldviews and philosophies.
Topic #2
There are two prostitutes in this novel, Ira and Kunthi. Their stories and characters are very different
and serve as contrasts to each other. The contrasts between these two characters illustrate a double
standard in Indian society regarding women and sexual and economic freedom. Analyze this double
Nectar in a Sieve: Sample Essay Outlines 39
I. Thesis Statement: The contrast between Ira and Kunthi, who both live as prostitutes, illustrates a
double standard regarding women and their economic and sexual freedom.
II. Ira’s case.
A. Ira’s nature: consistently described as obedient, caring, selfless.
B. Her husband divorces Ira because she is unable to bear children. Her family accepts the divorce as
reasonable, which illustrates that woman’s only valued role in society is to bear children for her
C. Rather, it is a purely sacrificial act.
1. The most important role of a woman is to be a caretaker; a woman’s highest honor is to sacrifice
for her family.
D. With no husband or children, Ira does not have security for the future.
III. Kunthi’s case.
A. Kunthi’s nature: consistently described as vain, selfish, complaining, mean.
B. Kunthi’s prostitution is evil and is based on her vanity and her need to seduce men. For instance,
Rukani describes her prostitution in degrading language.
1. Nathan’s affair with Kunthi: Rukmani places the blame on Kunthi, who she views as “evil” in
nature, a “seductress.”
C. Kunthi’s infidelity to her husband is a means to beget sons for herself.
1. Her husband is impotent, but unlike Ira’s husband, Kunthi is unable to divorce her husband. She
engages in deviant behavior (affair with Nathan) to bear sons.
IV. Conclusion: Woman in this society are expected to be selfless, sacrificial, chaste, and devoted to
their husbands. Any deviation from this prescribed role places women in the position of being
characterized as “evil.” Although Kunthi is portrayed as evil, and Ira is portrayed as selfless, on some
level they both turn to prostitution because of the standards that their society has set up for them.
They both effectively see prostitution as a way to have children and thereby increase their future
Nectar in a Sieve: Compare and Contrast
1950s: Girls in India are often subject to arranged marriages at a very young age. They are usually at
least thirteen years old, and when they are younger, they often do not immediately move in with their
Today: Although Indian women are gaining more freedom to choose their spouses, the practice of
arranged marriage is still quite common. Families often adhere to this tradition to ensure that their
children are marrying social equals. The tradition is such a central part of Indian culture that,
occasionally, Indian families living in the United States arrange the marriages of their children.
1950s: The diet of a farming family in India consists of rice, lentils, vegetables, and some dairy
products. Such families eat little meat because of the expense and also because beef consumption is
forbidden by the Hindu religion.
Today: The diet of farming families has changed little over the years; most farming families consume
part of what they grow. As in the past, most food grown in India is grown on small farms. Meat
consumption is still minimal because of religious beliefs.
1950s: In the novel, Rukmani mentions that the men building the tannery are well paid, earning two
rupees per day. By modern conversion, this is the equivalent of approximately four cents; yet the
standard of living is so low that this is plenty of money.
Nectar in a Sieve: Compare and Contrast 40
Today: Since 1951, India has instituted a succession of five-year plans intended to breathe life into
the economy. With the exception of drought periods (such as in 1979 and 1987), these plans have
been successful. Between 1965 and 1980, the economy grew at an annual rate of almost five percent,
and from 1982 to 1992, annual growth was over seven percent. This means that despite population
concerns, India's economic situation has improved over the last fifty years.
Nectar in a Sieve: Topics for Further Study
At the beginning of Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya offers the following quotation from Samuel Taylor
Coleridge: "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live."
What is the significance of this quote to the novel as a whole? How does this quote shed light on the
author's concerns, as expressed through the novel? What is the significance of this quote to your own
life and your own culture?
Learn more about Hinduism, paying special attention to traditional gender roles, rituals, dress, food,
social customs, and core beliefs. What events in the novel are consistent with the beliefs and practices
of Hinduism? What events demonstrate the importance of religion to the characters? In what ways is
religion important to the story?
Learn more about British colonization of India and about India's independence in 1947. Draw
comparisons and contrasts between America's and India's fight for independence from the British.
Nectar in a Sieve describes some of the effects of the clash between industrialization and agriculture.
Do some research to learn about India's economy today. What percentage of India's people live in
small villages and do agricultural work, and what percentage live in big cities? Is industry moving
into small towns, as occurs in the book? Can you find information about continuing clashes between
these two sectors of the economy?
Nectar in a Sieve: What Do I Read Next?
Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth (1931) portrays dramatic political and social
change in China during the time of the last emperor's reign. Focusing on the farmer Wang Lung, Buck
tells a memorable story of terror, destiny, hard work, humility, and ambition.
Anita Desai is an Indian writer whose work is often discussed in relation to Markandaya's. Diamond
Dust: Stories (2000) is Desai's collection of short stories in which her typical sense of setting and
character is evident as she tells stories that are both riveting and serious.
Markandaya's A Silence of Desire (1960) is considered by some to be her best novel. It is the story of
a woman who discovers that she is ill and visits a faith healer without telling her husband. The novel
deals with tensions between tradition and modernity and between logic and belief.
Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) centers on a Zulu pastor and his son. Set in
tumultuous South Africa during the 1940s, the novel offers a sympathetic view of people caught in a
time and place when racial injustice was common.
The God of Small Things (1998) was Arundhati Roy's first novel. Set in India it is the story of
fraternal twins from a wealthy family. Roy explores themes of ethnic pride and shame, politics, and
independence in a story that is mysterious and compelling.
S. K. Wall's Kamala Markandaya: "Nectar in a Sieve," a Stylistic Study (1987) is an in-depth look at
Markandaya's debut novel in terms of style. Wall explores how the author's particular telling of the
story is important in the reader's reception of its events and characters.
Nectar in a Sieve: Bibliography and Further Reading
Nectar in a Sieve: Topics for Further Study 41
Barr, Donald. "To a Modest Triumph." In New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1955, p. 4.
Dunlea, William. "Tale of India." In Commonwealth, Vol. LXII, No. 20, August 19, 1955, pp. 500-501.
Glencoe Literature Library, Study Guide for Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. sec/literature/litlibrary/pdf/nectar_in_a_sieve.pdf (last accessed July 2001).
"India." In Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. Microsoft, 1997.
"Kamala (Purnaiya) Taylor." In Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001.
Muehl, J. F. Review of Nectar in a Sieve. In Saturday Review, May 14, 1955.
"Overview: Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya." In Literature Resource Center. The Gale Group,
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Study Guide: South Asia Reading Series, Fall 1998.
http://www.sdsmt. edu/online-courses/is/hum375/southasia.html (last accessed July 2001).
Teacher's Guide: Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. (last accessed July
Walsh, William. "Markandaya, Kamala." In Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1996, pp.
Further Reading
Bhatnagar, Anil K. Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study. Sarup & Sons, 1995. Bhatnagar's analysis of
Markandaya's novels reviews the themes presented by Markandaya throughout the range of settings and
characters she creates. Bhatnagar suggests how these themes are drawn from the author's experiences in India
and Europe.
Lalita, K., and Susie J. Tharu, eds. Women Writing in India. Feminist Press at the City University of New
York, 1991. This two-volume anthology collects writings of Indian women from 600 B.C. to the 1990s. The
editors include critical commentary with this wide-ranging collection of letters, poetry, memoirs, and fiction.
Parameswaran, Uma. Kamala Markandaya. Rawat, 2000. This overview of the life and career of Markandaya
includes a chapter devoted to each of the author's novels.
Rao, A. V. Krishna. Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study of Her Novels, 1954-1982. B. R. Publishing
Corporation, 1997. Rao offers a critical look at Markandaya's novels from Nectar in a Sieve through Pleasure

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