Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya-Online Book Summary |
Kamala (Purnaiya) Taylor, who wrote under the pseudonym of Kamala Markandaya was born in the town of Mysore in Southern India in 1924 to a Hindu-Brahmin (the highest Indian caste) family. In 1940, she went to study history at the University of Madras. During this time, she also worked as a journalist and published short stories in Indian newspapers. In 1948, Markandaya moved to England; she married Bertrand Taylor, an Englishman, and made England her adopted home although she continued to visit her homeland regularly. The couple had one daughter, Kim. Her husband died in 1986 and Markandaya died on May 16, 2004 at her home outside London, England.
Markandaya first gained success with Nectar in a Sieve, although she had written two novels before it. Published in 1954, the novel quickly became popular; it was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association in 1955. A Handful of Rice is her second best-known work. Both novels are studied widely in American schools and universities.
Markandaya’s novels deal with a wide range of Indian topics from the poverty-stricken peasants of Nectar in a Sieve to Indians dealing with issues of racism while living abroad in The Nowhere Man. She is regarded as a pioneer for Indian writers writing in English; Uma Paramewaran, who has written about Markandaya’s work wrote: "Markandaya's strength as a novelist comes from her sensitive creation of individual characters and situations which are simultaneously representative of a larger collective; her prose style is mellifluous and controlled." Her most famous work, Nectar in a Sieve, exemplifies this statement.
Nectar in a Sieve - 1954
Some Inner Fury - 1955
A Silence of Desire - 1960
Possession - 1963
A Handful of Rice - 1966
The Coffer Dams - 1969
The Nowhere Man - 1972
Two Virgins - 1973
The Golden Honeycomb - 1977
Pleasure City (Shalimar) - 1982
From the early 1800’s until 1947 India was a British colony. Under colonial rule, the Indians had little authority and most remained poor and uneducated. Even today, many in India live in rural villages like the one described in the novel.
Like Ruku and her family, most Indians practice Hinduism although there is a large Muslim minority. In the Hindu faith there are many gods and goddesses - aside from Ruku and Nathan’s visit to the temple in the city and the Deepavali celebration in chapter 10, we don’t hear much about their religious practice in the novel. Traditionally, Hindus cremate their dead as we see in the book.
India has a rigid caste system. Although it is not mentioned outright in the novel, the caste system determined one’s occupation and position in society. The caste system still exists in India today although there is a movement to change it.
Family is central to Indian rural life. Extended families often live together. When a woman marries, she traditionally joins her husband’s family. Sons are valued and are expected to contribute to the family’s finances as soon as they are able. Women are the primary caregivers for the children but, as we see in the novel, they also assist their husbands with the farm work.
Marriages in India were arranged; arranged marriages are practiced even today. Traditionally, girls were married young, as Ruku and her daughter were; this practice is now largely frowned upon but in some rural areas there are still child brides. A family was expected to provide a dowry for their daughter. The size of the dowry, the family’s status and wealth and the girl’s physical attributes all played a role in the husband she could get.
Women were expected to have children early and often - childless women were looked on with shame. Boys were seen as a sign of their father’s masculinity, while girls could be viewed as a burden because of their need for a dowry. Like Ruku, most rural women did not have a doctor during childbirth although experienced village women acted as midwifes. The naming ceremony is an important after birth ritual that officially welcomes the child into the family. Illegitimate children were seen as shameful.
Traditional Indian clothing consists of the sari (a long piece of cloth wrapped and tied about the body) for women and the dhoti (a long piece of cloth wrapped around the lower body) for men. Muslim women traditionally wear long veils to fully cover themselves. Western dress is still rare in rural India today.
Ruku’s family, like many in rural India, depends on rice as the staple of their diet. They also eat dhal (lentils), vegetables (such as pumpkins) and occasionally fish, milk or butter. Subsistence farmers, like Nathan, grew most of what they ate and sold the rest to pay for their land. Tenant farmers did not own their own land but rented from landlords who took a portion of the crop as payment. The annual monsoon rains provided the water necessary to grow the rice - too much rain and the rice would drown; too little and it would not grow. Both floods and drought are common.
The British began the process of modernizing India. As we see in the book, modern “advances” like the tannery, created a clash between traditional ways and new ways. Most rural Indians received little, if any, education. Ruku’s ability to read and write is even more unusual because she is a woman. Due to the lack of technology in transportation and communication, rural villagers stayed relatively isolated and unconnected to the outside world.
The title comes from the poem “Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The novel shows that hope or the sweetness in life (nectar) can be difficult to hold on to - almost like trying to carry it in a sieve (strainer). The protagonist, Ruku, demonstrates the need to hold on to hope and the nectar of life even in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Work Without Hope by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - 1825
Nature seems at work.
Slugs leave their lair --
The bees are stirring -- birds are on the wing --
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
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Sinclair, Meredith. "TheBestNotes on Nectar in a Sieve".
. 12 May 2008