Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya-Online Book Summary |
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(1924 - May 16, 2004) was a pseudonym used by Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, an Indian
novelist and journalist. A native of Mysore, India, Markandaya was a graduate
of Madras University, and afterwards published several short stories in Indian
newspapers. After India declared its independence, Markandaya moved to Britain,
though she still labeled herself an Indian expatriate long afterwards.
for writing about culture clash between Indian urban and rural societies, Markandaya's
first published novel, Nectar in a Sieve, was a bestseller and named a
noteable book of 1955 by the American Library Association. Other novels include
Some Inner Fury (1965), A Silence of Desire (1961), Possession
(1963), A Handful of Rice (1966), The Nowhere Man (1972), Two
Virgins (1973), The Golden Honeycomb (1977), and Pleasure City
Markandaya died in London on May 16, 2004.
in a Sieve is a semi-autobiographical novel by amala Markandaya.
Nectar in a Sieve follows the life experiences of a woman
named Rukmani who lived in India during a period of intense urban development.
It begins with a brief description of her childhood and tells the story of a life
filled with hardships. As the story continues through their life of struggles,
Rukmani and Nathan must raise their children, sustain the farm that gives them
life, and continue to hope for a better future. Rukmani battles poverty, hunger,
her neighbors, industrialization, natural disasters, betrayal, and the harsh reality
Explanation of the novel's title
title of the novel Nectar in a Sieve is an allusion to the poem “Work Without
Hope” by Samuel Coleridge. “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope
without an object cannot live.” (lines 13-14, "Work Without Hope"). There are
no direct references in the book to nectar or sieves, but hope is a very important
quality of the lives of the characters. Rukmani and her family are very poor,
and they have almost nothing except each other. Sometimes the only thing that
keeps Rukmani going is her dream of a better future. This dream is the object
she is hoping for. Because she has a goal and the hope that it will be attainable,
she is able to find a reason to keep toiling away in the field and raising her
family. “In that field, in the grain which had not yet begun to form, lay our
future and our hope.” (pg 78, 2002 paperback edition). Hope gives Rukmani motivation
to work as hard as she can, even when the benefits are not immediately apparent.
“Hope and fear. Twin forces that tugged us first in one direction and then in
another, and which was stronger no one could say.” (pg 78, 2002 paperback edition).
If Rukmani does not have hope, she will be overcome with fear because the future
is uncertain. Whenever fear is in control, it is like nectar in a sieve. To Rukmani,
it seems as if her hard work is for nothing because the results of this hard work,
the nectar, always seem to disappear, as if through a sieve. Eventually, however,
she always finds a glimmer of hope. At the end of the novel, although Rukmani
has lost everything that is important to her, she manages to find hope in her
expectations of what will happen after she dies.
to a poor farmer, Nathan, because it is convenient for her family, Rukmani must
leave everything she has ever known and learn how to run a household by herself
at the age of twelve. In a society where raising sons is her purpose in life,
Rukmani finds that she can bear only a single daughter, Irawaddy. She seeks out
the help of a local European doctor, Kenny, who is able to revive her fertility
and allow her to have six sons. Meanwhile, a tannery is built in the village and
begins to take over the land, the system of trading, and the way of life for the
people who live there. Rukmani seems to be the only one who recognizes this as
a danger, and stands alone in her protest against modernization. Her three oldest
sons leave her to find a better life somewhere far away from their family. Then
the next son is killed in a labor dispute at the tannery, serving only to magnify
her hatred of everything associated with it. They enter a time of drought and
famine, and Rukmani's youngest son Kuti comes close to starving. Irawaddy is forced
to turn to prostitution to earn a little money so she can survive. One night Rukmani
mistakes Irwaddy for Kunthi, a woman she hates in the village, and attacks her.
Soon after, Kuti dies. Eventually, the tannery officials take over the land that
Nathan and Rukmani have been living on for decades. With nowhere else to go, the
couple travel by oxcart and on foot to a city, and after confusion learn that
their son no longer lives there. Their money stolen, they work at a stone quarry.
There Nathan dies and Rukmani returns to their other son in the village with nothing
except a young boy they met in the city. After losing everything, she still grasps
a thread of hope that there is something waiting for her even after death.
in "Nectar in a Sieve"
Rukmani: the narrator and main character
of the novel who at age 12 married Nathan and has a daughter and six sons. She
is not the average Indian woman of her era because she can read and write and
is respected by her husband. She also refuses to be satisfied with her circumstances
and is always hoping for something more. As the novel progresses, she matures
in many ways but never stops hoping.
Nathan: Rukmani’s husband,
a poor landless tenant farmer. His main priority is tending the rice paddies that
are their only source of income and food. He feels a tremendous burden to provide
for his family, whom he truly loves. He represents the constant tradition that
Rukmani discovers is an inherent part of life in India.
a European doctor who occasionally lives in the village providing medical assistance
to the residents. He has a negative view of traditional Indian culture and does
not understand the hope that Rukmani has. He wants to bring about changes to improve
their lives and can’t comprehend the incompatibility of those ideas with their
way of life. He represents a positive European influence in their lives.
eldest child and only daughter of Rukmani and Nathan. Because of the vast age
difference between her and her brothers, she becomes a second mother figure in
their lives. When drought and famine overcome her family, she turns to drastic
measures to ensure that her family, especially her youngest brother, has enough
to eat. She represents sacrifice and unconditional love.
Irawaddy’s illegitimate son. He is albino and represents the purity of his mother’s
seemingly sinful actions. He is proof of her unconditional sacrifice and love
for her family. He is also pure and potentially representative of a 'christ-like'
Kunthi: Rukmani and Nathan’s neighbor. She represents
corruption, evil, and selfishness. She stops at nothing to ensure she ends up
Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, Kuti: Rukmani’s
Puli: child that Rukmani and Nathan meet while
living in the city, after finally being evicted from their farm. They are amazed
by his independence and resourcefulness and he acts as their guardian. Because
he is physically handicapped and still manages to live successfully, he embodies
Throughout the entire novel, Rukmani
is faced with struggle after struggle with no indication that her circumstances
will improve. Each time her situation worsens, Rukmani endures quietly, holding
on to the hope that things will soon be better. She believes that a person’s spirit
is the most important factor in overcoming the harsh realities of life. “Well,
and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures
indeed to be so weak, for is not a man’s spirit given to him to rise above his
misfortunes?” (pg 111, 2002 paperback edition). Rukmani has a spirit filled with
hope and longing for something more than what she has. This theme runs throughout
the entire novel along with optimism. "Hope and fear. Twin forces that tugged
at us first in one direction and then in another, and which was the stronger no
one could say. of the latter we never spoke, but was always with us." (pg. 78,
2002 paperback) Fear comes along as a theme with hope, and it is always present
it seems with Rukmani.
Allusions/references to other works
title of Nectar in a Sieve is a reference to the poem Work Without Hope. This
poem was written in 1825 by Samuel Coleridge. The allusion and symbolism are discussed
more fully in the section that explains the novel’s title.
to actual history, geography and current science
Nectar in a Sieve portrays
the conditions of India during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
is ricing? Making something the consistency of rice by putting it through a sieve.
If you try this with rice, it is like work without hope.
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in a Sieve Study Guide-Free BookNotes Plot Summary