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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya-Online Book Summary


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Ruku’s son Selvam decides he cannot be a farmer as he lacks a “green thumb.” Kenny offers to train Selvam to be his assistant at the hospital he plans to build in the village. Ruku is pleased; like his brothers, Selvam has shown an aptitude for learning and will do well with this opportunity. Although she and Nathan are sad to see their only remaining son leave the land, they know it is for the best. Ruku warns her son that some may accuse him of getting this opportunity because of Ruku’s relationship with Kenny, but Selvam understands the truth of that relationship.

Ruku goes to thank Kenny for the chance he has given Selvam. He shows her the plans for the hospital - she sees it will be large and asks Kenny where he will find the money. He tells her those in his home country who wish to help have donated the money. For Ruku, this is a puzzle; why would strangers wish to help them? Kenny reminds Ruku again of the need to cry for help when you need it.

Ruku considers this but believes it is best to accept the suffering one has been given and not to wish for changes that cannot come. Kenny dismisses her - he cannot understand Ruku’s belief that spiritual grace comes through suffering.


Ruku’s decision to teach her children to read and write has paid off well for Selvam. By now, Ruku and Nathan realize the land is a dead end for their children. Now Selvam has an opportunity to further his learning and rise out of poverty - and he will remain close to home. Ruku is briefly concerned that the old rumors about her and Kenny will resurface to harm Selvam but he is not bothered.

Ruku’s village must have grown greatly in the 20 some years she has lived there, as it is now large enough to support a hospital. Kenny’s comment that the sick are dying in the streets and babies are born in the gutters, shows that poverty is not unique to Ruku’s family. Indeed, they may be more fortunate than many.

We are accustomed to donating money to help the poor around the world. Ruku shows that those who receive the aid do not always understand such generosity. For Ruku, suffering is to be accepted; she believes that one’s spirit will be strong enough to carry through hardship and that to cry out (as Kenny would have her do) is a sign of weakness. From Kenny’s perspective, this is madness; if one is in need, one should ask for help. Once again, their cultural differences tangle their friendship but do not break it.



Ira goes into labor. Ruku sends the men away and prepares the hut for the birth. Ruku worries about the future of the child. She considers a child born in marriage to be blessed with the love of both mother and father, conceived out of love and care. Ira’s child, however, was born out of a business transaction - she wonders if this lack of love and care will affect the child. Ruku has seen Ira shed no tears over her fate - either she has done so in private or is too overjoyed at finally becoming a mother to care about the way it happened.

The baby is born. Ruku tries to hide him at first from his mother as the baby is albino. When Ira sees him at last, she acts as though nothing is wrong and rocks and sings to him as a mother in love with her new child. Ruku and Nathan are both concerned - can Ira not see her child’s abnormality. For them, the baby’s defect can only be a result of its conception. It is clear that this baby will have a difficult life; even as an infant, he shies away from the sun because of his pale skin and weak eyes.

Curious neighbors flock to the house to see the strange albino baby. Nathan decides they will have a naming ceremony for the child despite his fatherless state and his unusual appearance. Everyone comes, including Old Granny who, still feeling guilty over the failure of the marriage she arranged for Ira, gives the baby her last rupee.

Kali comes to see the baby as well and has nothing but unkind words, calling the baby “peculiar.” Everyone sits in silence, not knowing how to respond. Ruku realizes that Ira is aware of her child’s defect but chooses not to let it affect her feelings for her son. Kali’s remark has stung Ira deeply. Selvam rebukes Kali reminding her that the child’s skin and eye color are his only difference and that despite those oddities, he is still a child to be loved.


Ruku’s fears about the ill effects of Ira’s baby’s ill conception seem to come true when the baby is born. He is albino - a genetic disorder that affects all ethnic groups and causes one to lack skin, hair and eye pigmentation. As a result, the child has unnaturally pale skin (which will cause him to burn easily) and pink eyes that cannot tolerate bright sunlight. Ira’s motherly instincts overlook her child’s abnormality; although her parents think she is blind to it, she sees it but loves him all the same.

Like Ruku, many in the village attribute the boy’s abnormality to the fact Ira worked as a prostitute - some sort of divine punishment. Kenny explains that it is merely a fluke of nature but that doesn’t stop the curiosity seekers from coming or the hurtful comments from being spoken.

Nathan’s decision to have the naming ceremony demonstrates his efforts to accept the child. Nathan still blames himself for Ira’s decision to work as a prostitute. In spite of his own misgivings about the child’s appearance and future, he does what he can to help his daughter. It seems the family’s hardships are never ending. For Ruku, it is a cruel irony that Ira, who wanted nothing more than motherhood, should become a mother in such a way.

Selvam shows his wisdom and maturity in his comments to Kali and quiets the town gossip. He rightly points out that coloring is only a matter of perspective and who is to know how one should be colored. The baby will do well to have an uncle and protector like Selvam. With no father and a condition that will prevent him from leading a fully normal life (as much of their lives are spent outdoors), he will need the guidance and support Selvam can offer.

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