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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya-Online Book Summary


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The novel begins with Ruku (Rukmani), the narrator, as an old woman reflecting on her past. Ruku tells us that she is now at peace although things have not always been so. After briefly mentioning those important to her (her now dead husband, her son and daughter, Puli and Kenny), she begins to tell the story of her life.

As a young girl living in a rural Indian village, Ruku had big dreams of fancy wedding. Her three older sisters had progressively less lavish weddings, and Ruku’s mother was left to wonder what would happen to her youngest, Ruku, who would have little for a dowry. Ruku believed her father’s position as village headman would secure her a husband; she is unsure how to feel when her older brother tells her the village headman is now of little importance in Indian life. With no money for a dowry and little in the way of looks, Ruku’s family is forced to marry her to a poor tenet farmer whom she has never met.

Only 12 on her wedding day, Ruku remembers feeling more afraid than overjoyed but hints that other nights of her married life were pleasant and sweet. After the wedding ceremony, Ruku and her new husband travel by bullock cart to her new home in his village. Afraid and uncertain about her future, Ruku throws up along the way. Ashamed, she expects her new husband, Nathan, will reprimand her; instead, he comforts her and dries her tears.

Ruku begins to feel more comfortable with her husband and soon falls asleep on the cart. Nathan wakes her when they arrive at their new home - a small mud hut with a thatched roof. Used to her father’s house, Ruku nearly collapses into tears again at the sight of the small hut; however, the hurt in her husband’s eyes causes her to disguise her disappointment. Nathan brings in a handful of rice and promises that after a few good harvests they will be able to afford better.

Ruku begins to settle into married life and sets about learning the domestic duties she expected to perform as a wife. She recalls doing her washing in the river near the hut using washing powder given to her by her mother. It is there she first meets several of the village women who will become important in her life: Kali, the plump and boisterous wife of her neighbor; homely Janaki, wife of a shopkeeper; and Kunthi, a beautiful woman of Ruku’s age who is expecting her first child.

Kali jokes that despite their young age both Kunthi and Ruku will be mothers soon. She also reveals to Ruku that Nathan had built their hut with his own hands and had spent weeks excitedly preparing for her arrival. Ruku treasures this knowledge and asks Nathan about it after they are married for a while. She tells him she is proud to live in a house he built himself; he replies that she has grown much and is no longer a child.

Ruku remembers the first months of her married life as a time of joy and hope. Although her husband did not own his land, they had hopes to buy it after a few good harvests. They have plenty to eat during this time as well - rice, dhal, wheatcakes, vegetables, ghee, milk and sugar. Ruku enjoys going into the village and is becoming friendly with those who live there. She finds the pregnant Kunthi to be different from the other women - somewhat cold and distant. Village talk says Kunthi “married beneath her” and is bitter. They say the same of Ruku but she feels that nowhere could one find a better husband.

Ruku recalls also her ignorance of the basics of running her household. She depends on Kali and Janaki to teach her how to milk the goat and churn butter, to plant seeds and grow her garden and to mull rice. After growing her first pumpkins from seeds, Ruku proudly shows them to Nathan who declares her “clever”. Full of pride and a new confidence as a wife, Ruku continues to tend her garden. Life is good for the new couple.


Ruku tells the story in the novel through first person point of view. Aside from a few brief paragraphs, the novel is told as a flashback - Ruku is recalling the many events of her life. Her opening statements foreshadow some of the events to come: the death of her husband, her adoption of Puli who suffers from disease, and the work of Kenny and her son Selvam in building a hospital. She also hints that her life was full of sufferings although she has “no fears now”.

Her marriage at the age of 12 is not unusual nor is the fact that she did not know her husband. Child marriage was very common in India and girls younger than Ruku often found themselves as brides. Marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom and often depended on the bride’s dowry. A dowry (which might consist of money, land, livestock or other goods) was necessary to secure a husband. The larger the dowry, the better the husband a family could get for their daughter. As she is the fourth daughter and is not a great beauty, Ruku’s family is forced to settle on a poor farmer who owns no land of his own.

Ruku’s belief that her father’s position as headman will guarantee her the grand wedding of her dreams shows her childish innocence about the truth of things. Her older brother tells her that the headman is no longer of “consequence,” a sign of the changes in Indian society that will soon impact Ruku in drastic ways.

As a grown woman, Ruku realizes that she was too much of a child to appreciate her wedding night and hints that the fear she felt on that day gave way to joy in her marriage later. Her biggest memories of the day were her sense of confusion, her mother’s tears, and her nausea on the wagon ride to her new home. These indicate that she was indeed a child and experiencing an understandable fear at leaving the only home she had known for life with a perfect stranger. Not only would she be a day’s journey from her family, she will also be expected to perform all the duties of a wife - her childhood must forever be put behind her.

Nathan, Ruku’s husband, proves to be a gentle companion from the start. Ruku comments that she only ever called him “husband” as was fitting for a wife - she lived in a patriarchal society that expected women to submit to their husband’s will. Ruku’s reaction to the poor, simple mud hut Nathan has built is one of revulsion and shame. She cannot imagine living in such poor conditions but would not dare to shame her husband by saying so. After she learns Nathan built the hut himself and eagerly awaited her arrival, she feels even more ashamed of her reaction; now she feels pride because of his love for her.

We are also introduced to some of the village women who will play a role in Ruku’s life. Kali and Janaki, who are older and experienced, help Ruku to learn her duties as a wife. The gossip, Kali, especially becomes a surrogate mother to Ruku and helps her to adjust to her new life. Kunthi, a girl Ruku’s age, is already pregnant. Ruku senses Kunthi is different and her unease around Kunthi foreshadows things to come.

At the close of the chapter, Ruku recalls the plenty and hope of her first months of marriage. They have much to eat and Nathan believes they may soon afford a better home and land of their own. This too foreshadows hardships to come as Ruku remembers that her belly was not always so full and her heart not always so full of hope.

The pumpkin Ruku proudly presents to Nathan is treated with great reverence. Her pride in successfully growing her first vegetables mirrors Nathan’s pride in her accomplishments as a wife. At least for now, Ruku and Nathan seem to have a promising future.

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Sinclair, Meredith. "TheBestNotes on Nectar in a Sieve". . 09 May 2017