Published in 1954, Kamala Markandaya’s classic book, Nectar in a Sieve is a pseudo-autobiographical novel that tells the story of a rural Indian woman living amidst a swiftly-urbanizing India. Although her subjects live long ago and far away, Markandaya’s story is universally relatable and accessible, and is still popular assigned reading in high schools today.
The book is written from the first-person perspective of Rukmani, an educated woman from a small Indian village. Since she is the youngest daughter and has a small dowry, she marries Nathan, a poor, unlanded farmer who has built her a hut from mud and coconut fronds. His good to her, and soon they give birth to a daughter named Irawaddy.
After her daughter is born, Rukmani cannot conceive again for six years. She tries eastern medicine, but the first instance of a western influence on Indian culture in the book is Dr. Kennington “Kenny,” an English doctor who lives temporarily in the village. He helps Rukmani with her problems, beginning a relationship between them that lasts for decades.
Throughout the years that follow, Rukmani and Nathan have six more sons. Their two oldest sons forgo the ways of their ancestors and begin work in a tannery that has recently been established in the village. Eventually, they leave and move to Sri Lanka, never to be seen again. The family faces severe problems, including drought and starvation, but they survive.
The most poignant part of the book is its ending. In the western canon, years of struggle typically signals some sort of peace or prosperity for the good-hearted, hardworking characters. Not so for Rukmani and Nathan. They are forced from their rented land because the tannery will pay the landowner more money than Rukmani and Nathan can afford. Because of this, Nathan and Rukmani have to travel a great distance to search for their son in the big city. Nathan’s life ends in this unknown place, son unfound, trying to save enough money to return to die in his hometown.
The most prominent theme in the book is the battle of ideologies between old, Eastern ways and newer, Western influence in India. Most prominently, Kenny represents the Western ideas of helping one’s neighbors, scraping oneself out of poverty and hardship, while Rukmani represents the ideal of working and struggling through hard times on one's own. Three of Rukmani’s sons are either taken from her by the western influence of the tannery, and another forgoes his father’s profession to work in the hospital being established by Kenny in the village.
Have you read Nectar in a Sieve?