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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya-Online Book Summary


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Kamala Markandaya (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.

Known 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 (1982/1983).

Markandaya died in London on May 16, 2004.

Nectar in a Sieve is a semi-autobiographical novel by amala Markandaya.

Plot introduction

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 of death.

Explanation of the novel's title

The 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.

Plot summary

Married 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.

Characters in "Nectar in a Sieve"

: 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.

: 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' figure.

: Rukmani and Nathan’s neighbor. She represents corruption, evil, and selfishness. She stops at nothing to ensure she ends up ahead.

Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, Kuti
: Rukmani’s other children.

: 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 Rukmani’s hope.

Major themes

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

The 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.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

Nectar in a Sieve portrays the conditions of India during the 1930’s and 1940’s.


What 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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