Nectar in a Sieve, 1954
I ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kamala Markandaya (Kamala Purnaiya Taylor) was born in 1924 in Chimakurti, India. She is a Brahman, which is the highest caste of Hindu, yet she writes empathetically and convincingly about peasant life in south Indian villages. Markandaya studied at the University of Madras, worked as a journalist in India, then married an Englishman and moved to London in 1948, a year after India gained independence from Britain. Markandaya has an interest in dignifying her people, so she creates complex, moving characters and covers themes that she hopes will debunk preconceived notions many Westerners have of Indian people as inferior to whites both socially and intellectually. Nectar in a Sieve was widely acclaimed for its portrayal of the culture clash between whites and nonwhites, and its success at revealing the commonality of the human condition. It received rave reviews and won the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award in 1955.
Nectar in a Sieve centers around Rukmani, an Indian peasant woman, and her family: her husband Nathan, her daughter Irawaddy, and six sons. Rukmani enters into the farming life and comes to the rural south Indian village at the age of twelve, when her parents give her hand in marriage to a tenant farmer with no money or status in life but with a good heart and a determination to succeed. Rukmani devotes herself to Nathan and he to her, and together they engage in a constant battle against poverty and hardship. Though they live on rented land, Nathan is proud to work it; when times are good, they grow rice and vegetables and have plenty of food to feed their family. When times are hard, however, they face adversity at every turn. The ways in which Rukmani and Nathan face that adversity help define them as strong, willful people who embrace traditional Hindu values and accept the challenges of their lower-caste status with courage and fortitude. At this time in history, however, British imperialists have infiltrated south India and are trying to convert the peasants to a more practical, albeit materialistic, lifestyle. Western imperialism encroaches on Rukmanis life when a tannery moves into the village. Being a woman bound to cultural tradition, Rukmani fears the tannery, knowing that, although it will offer jobs, it will also rob many of the villagers of their land and livelihood. Her fears are not unfounded. She and Nathan lose several sons to the tannery, but they themselves cling to their reliance on the earth to provide.
Being so dependent on the land puts them at the mercy of natures destructiveness, however. Monsoons and drought wreak their havoc, and Nathan and Rukmani suffer from hunger and disease. They lose their land, and eventually leave the village and the farming life they love. They travel to a city but find themselves living as beggars in a temple and doing backbreaking work at a stone quarry. But Nectar in a Sieve is more about love than about hardship, and more about strength and determination than about misfortune. Rukmani loses her husband, who dies from exhaustion in the city, one son who dies of starvation, one son who is murdered while he searches for food, and three other sons who leave their village life for the promise of more money. But Rukmani carries on and returns to the land she loves. She narrates the story as an old woman, looking back on her struggles. At the end of the novel, she is living with her son Selvam, who remained in the village as an apprentice to a British doctor who opened a hospital to care for the peasants. Rukmani also lives with her daughter Irawaddy, who works as a prostitute to feed herself and her illegitimate albino son Sacrabani, and a 10-year-old boy named Puli, stricken with leprosy. Rukmani meets him when she is living as a beggar in the temple and she convinces him to return to the village with her, promising him renewed health.
The novel is set in an unnamed farming village in south India, most likely in the 1950s, just after India gained independence from Britain. Rukmani and her family live in a one-room hut with mud walls, a thatched roof, and an earthen floor. It is situated on swampland near a rice paddy where they can grow rice when conditions are favorable, and sometimes plant vegetables to enrich their diet and to sell at the market. Nathan and Rukmani do not own the land, but rather rent it, and they must constantly struggle to pay their rent and to produce enough food to feed their large family.
Markandaya uses the agricultural village setting to highlight the harsh conditions south Indian tenant farmers face while trying to retain the traditional values that define their culture. When monsoons and drought devastate their land, they persevere, hesitant to forsake family tradition and disregard their caste. Markandaya contrasts agricultural life with industrialism, the quiet village with the noise of the tannery. The tannery is portrayed as a noisy, disruptive intruder, and Markandaya’s descriptions of big industry mirror what the villagers feel towards the British imperialists who inundated Indian culture with Western views.
IV THEMES AND CHARACTERS
Markandaya is known for pitting Western realism against Eastern spiritualism and for contrasting the views of white people with the views of nonwhite people. She wishes to expose the universal human traits of the Indian peasant people, and she does this by creating complex characters like Rukmani, whose depth and substance reveals both her strengths and her weaknesses. That Rukmani begins her story talking about the comfort she feels with Puli, the leper boy she adopts from the city, and about her love of the land and her relief at returning to the village is significant. It is interesting that she speaks first of comfort and love, because her life has been fraught with devastating hardship.
Rukmani differs from the other peasant women in her village because she is literate and perhaps more astute because of it. She was not born into the agricultural caste, but rather married into it when her father arranged for her marriage to a tenant farmer. She describes herself as “without beauty and without dowry,” and other people describe her marriage as “a poor match.” But Rukmani knows differently. She settles into her new life feeling blessed to have a husband like Nathan. Nathan is hardworking and kind, and he built the small hut they live in himself, for Rukmani. He continues to give her everything he can, and she finds happiness in making a good home for him. She is loving and devoted to Nathan, as he is to her, and she begins tending the land and growing vegetables, content to please her husband and make him proud.
Rukmani wholly embraces traditional Indian beliefs, beliefs that some Westerners might consider backward. But Markandaya gives Rukmani enough depth and foresight to assure us that she is not ignorant. Rukmani was taught to read and write by her father, although Nathan is illiterate. Yet Rukmani respects her husband for his abilities and for the values he upholds, and he respects her. He is not resentful of her skill, but proud of it, and she strives to make him proud by using a skill she considers equally as important as reading-the skill of nurturing. Typical of women in traditional societies, Rukmani wants to produce sons for her husband-sons who will carry on his family name and help him farm the land. Rukmani becomes pregnant, but feels ashamed when she delivers a girl. She loves her daughter Irawaddy but feels a desperate need to have boys, and with the help of a British doctor named Kenny she eventually gives birth to six sons: Arjun, Thambi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, and Kuti.
Kenny is somewhat of an enigma, and Rukmani’s relationship with him is difficult to comprehend. We can surmise that Markandaya intends to make Kenny her model of Western imperialism and to set him apart from the Indian peasants by making him appear aloof and even somewhat callous, critical of the villagers’ ways and their traditional values. Kenny (Kennington) is a white, foreign doctor, most likely British, and he lives in the village to help the people, but disappears for long periods of time and tells no one where he goes or what he does. He cares for the villagers, but he gets frustrated with their seeming ignorance and he fails to understand their resistance to change. Rukmani respects Kenny, and she trusts in his medical ability to cure her infertility. Nathan does not approve of Rukmani’s visits to this foreign doctor, however, so she sees Kenny secretly, and she feels forever indebted to the doctor for helping her conceive after a seven-year period of infertility following Irawaddy’s birth.
Living in a quiet village as the wife of a tenant farmer and the mother of his children makes Rukmani happy, and when the land provides for them she feels blessed. She says of her life: While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?
She is content to accept age-old cultural mores that define lower-caste Hindu culture. Rukmani’s contentment stems largely from her spiritualism and her avid belief in the influence of higher powers. Markandaya highlights this spiritualism throughout the novel. Nathan panics when his pregnant wife touches a cobra in the garden. Rukmani’s mother gives her daughter a small stone lingam, a fertility symbol, to help her bear sons. Then when their daughter is born, they name her Irawaddy (Ira) after an Asian river, because water is so precious to them. They pray to the gods of rain to bring the water and they pray to the gods and goddesses of the fields to make their grain grow.
Rukmani’s spiritualism must make her believe that life is beyond her control, but it also gives her the strength it takes to cope with life’s hardships. In traditional societies, the gods have the power to make grain sprout from the earth, but they also have the power to destroy the earth with droughts and monsoons. Rukmani rides the cycles of birth and death, creation and destruction, accepts her lot, and makes the best of it. She faces adversity with strength, yet she is the epitome of woman as silent sufferer. Markandaya understands that Westerners tend to interpret Rukmani’s kind of strength as weakness, so she uses Kenny to voice the Western worldview. In a conversation with Rukmani, Kenny explains his absence to her by saying “I do as I please, for am I not my own master? I work among you when my spirit wills it.... I go when I am tired of your follies and stupidities, your eternal, shameful poverty. I can only take you people in small doses.” “Barbed words,” Rukmani says to herself, but she takes no offense at them. She understands that Kenny has trouble reconciling his world with hers.
Markandaya develops the friendship between Kenny and Rukmani to contrast the East with the West, and to emphasize how difficult it is for Hindu women to accept the changes that occurred when the English tried to convert the Hindu villagers to British way of life. Rukmani does not resist Kenny’s modern medicine to cure her infertility, but she does resist when Western industrialists encroach on their rural lifestyle and build a tannery in the village. She knows that this will undermine their traditional culture, and she knows that it will take work away from the villagers. As Rukmani watches, the traders fill their village with smoke and noise and the birds disappear, and she longs for the quiet, peaceful life she had before the tannery. A village woman named Kunthi, however, hails the tannery as a boon. Kunthi, like Rukmani, was also said to have married beneath her. But unlike Rukmani, Kuthi is critical of village life-and of Rukmani. She calls Rukmani a “village girl,” and says she is pleased that they will soon be living in a small town. Kunthi’s sons are among the first to begin work at the tannery, but later her husband’s shop closes and they move away. “Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone had been cast,” Rukmani had said when she first witnessed the tannery transform their village. By the next time she sees Kunthi, the truth of Rukmani’s words has become all too clear.
In an incident early in the novel, Irawaddy is running naked in the fields, as she always did as a child, but suddenly Nathan realizes that his daughter is maturing, and it is time she covered herself up in public. In retrospect, Rukmani says that the end of her daughter’s carefree days coincided with the building of the tannery. The tannery seems to corrupt the villagers in some way; they gradually lose their virtue just as Irawaddy loses her innocence. For the villagers, this loss means that they must forsake old traditions for new ones, and for Irawaddy it means she must leave home and marry. Old Granny, an elderly woman in the village, serves as matchmaker, and at the age of fourteen, Irawaddy is married and sent off to live with her husband in a village far away from home. Rukmani and Nathan remain at home and face the consequences of city industry and the consequences of nature’s wrath. They survive monsoons, then severe drought. They suffer from disease and near starvation but they plod on, and eventually the gods restore life to their soil and things get better.
As determined as Rukmani and Nathan are to maintain their traditional lifestyle and accept the limitations of their caste, their children feel differently. They recognize that being farmers puts them constantly at nature’s mercy. They are the younger generation, more accepting of change, and in a short while, Arjun and Thambi get jobs at the tannery. It is not that Rukmani does not realize that they have opportunity there, but she struggles with the fact that they discounted their agricultural caste to become tanners. She is disappointed that the boys do not want to continue in the family tradition, and Nathan is crushed when Thambi tells him why. “If it were your land, or mine, I would work with you gladly,” Thambi says. “But what profit to labour for another and get so little in return? Far better to turn away from such injustice.” Just as Rukmani feared, the tannery was gradually altering perspectives. Her sons were born into the farming caste, and she believed they should stay there, out of respect for their father if for no other reason.
If Rukmani understands the practical side of Western industrialism, she is unable to fully accept it. She remains devoted to village life and to her role as wife and nurturer. Markandaya makes us see both sides of the conflict by exposing Rukmani as a woman of strong convictions and high moral standards. She deeply loves her husband and respects him, and she would never sacrifice personal pride for money. Ira eventually rejoins her parents after being returned by her husband for being barren. But like her brothers, she, too, gets pulled in by materialistic desires. Rukmani goes to Kenny and asks him to help cure Ira’s infertility but, by the time his cure works, she has turned to prostitution in an attempt to make money, and the father of her child could be any of number of men.
Rukmani runs into Kunthi on her visit to Kenny, and learns that Kunthi, too, is a prostitute. It appears that the tannery brought chaos to the village in many ways. The villagers gradually become more materialistic and more willing to comprise their values. They turn the other cheek as shops close, as more and more people are forced from their land, and as the tannery continues to claim people’s livelihoods. Not only does the materialism that accompanies the building of the tannery conflict with Hindu philosophy, but the killing of the animals does as well. All of this goes against Rukmani’s value system and confirms her mistrust of Western views. Rukmani says of the tannery that “no man thinks of another but schemes only for his money.” This proves to be true. Problems arise when the tannery workers get greedy, and Rukmani soon learns that her own sons instigated a strike for higher wages. Arjun and Thambi decide that village life, and the tannery, can no longer meet their needs and desires. They leave the village, and their family, and go to work in the tea plantations of Ceylon. (Ceylon is now Sri Lanka.) Murugan leaves to work as a servant in a big city. Raja remains in the village, but is accused of stealing and killed by workers at the tannery while he is searching for food.
The typical Western response to the tannery is that big industry will bring prosperity to the villagers and release them from their bondage to the land. But Markandaya does everything she can to bring both sides of the conflict into focus. The tannery brings prosperity to some, yet it devastates many others, just as Rukmani’s reliance on the land brings spiritual contentment and yet can and does cause untold suffering. Greed transforms the villagers, and Kuti dies of starvation. Hunger plagues the village and causes severe chaos. Kunthi returns and threatens to tell Nathan that Rukmani has been sleeping with Kenny if she does not give her food. Rukmani has no choice but to give Kunthi what little she has, even though there is no truth to Kuthi’s accusations. Then Rukmani learns that Nathan too has been feeding Kunthi, also out of fear, because Nathan had fallen prey to Kunthi’s charms and fathered her two sons. But Rukmani continues to remain true to her husband. The power of their love helps them disable the power that Kunthi had over them, just as their strength and fortitude helps them conquer hardship after hardship.
At the end of Part I, we have come to realize that the values Rukmani and Nathan embrace keep them going until things get better. Ira gives birth to a son, Sacrabani, Kenny funds a hospital and begins training Selvam to be his assistant, and the drought ends and the earth renews itself. But soon the tannery buys the land that Nathan and Rukmani rent, and after 30 years, they are forced to leave the village. We know how they love the land, and we feel their devastation as they leave their home and family and travel to the large city where they believe Murugan works as a servant. We also understand their loss when they learn that Murugan has moved on, and when they realize that if they are to survive at all they must live as beggars in a temple. At this point, when things are at their worst, Markandaya brings her plot around full circle. A young boy named Puli enters their life, a homeless ten-year-old stricken with leprosy, but fearless and strong and perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Puli attaches himself to Nathan and Rukmani and they to him, and the boy leads them to a stone quarry where they can work and earn good money. But Nathan and Rukmani only want to return home, and they ask Puli to join them. Puli resists for a long time, but eventually ends up with Rukmani. Nathan dies in the city, battered and broken from years of hunger and hard work.
Rukmani lives at a crossroads of change, and she comes to realizations that help her breach two worlds. Rukmani coaxes Puli to return to the village with her by promising him good health. Kenny, she knows, will help Puli, as he has the ability to do so with his hospital and his Western medicine. Without that help, she also knows, the boy’s leprosy will worsen and gradually eat away at his limbs. “There is a limit to the achievements of human courage,” Rukmani says about Puli. So perhaps she has reconciled East with West, spiritualism with materialism. Earlier in the novel, when Rukmani visits Kenny to thank him for helping Ira, she finds that his wife left him, and she questions this. Rukmani thinks that a woman’s place is with his husband, and a man should not deny her company as Kenny denied his wife company during his long absences. He tells Rukmani “You simplify everything, without understanding. Your views are so limited it is impossible to explain to you.” But then he adds that she has “strong instincts” and it is then that she sees the admiration in his eyes. Rukmani does have strong instincts, and apparently she understands much more than Kenny knows. By the end of the novel, we have reevaluated our definitions of strength and weakness. We have watched this brave woman’s response to pain and we have come to admire her courage and her values, the strength of her convictions, and the ease with which she speaks of comfort after a life of suffering.
V LITERARY QUALITIES
Nectar in a Sieve is told in first person, in flashback, as Rukmani reminisces about the truths and trials of her life. The first-person narrative allows us to identify with this Indian peasant woman, to recognize her strengths and appreciate her values. Rukmani’s life is so far removed from that of some readers that her culture could be easily misunderstood. Therefore, Markandaya makes readers dig deep into Rukmani’s character in order to dignify the Eastern traditional lifestyle. By using the reminiscent voice, Markandaya lets the reader see how the people living in south Indian villages came to view the changes that occurred during British rule and the struggle these villagers faced in reconciling Eastern and Western views.
Markandaya sets up a series of contrasts throughout the novel to emphasize the conflicts between cultures. She sets Kenny’s realism against Rukmani’s spiritualism, and she sets Kunthi’s opportunism against Rukmani’s traditional values. By portraying the officials at the tannery as callous and disdainful of village life, she helps us understand the difficulty the Hindus faced during this time in history and the complex issues that challenged the relationship between India and England. Life is not easily divided into black and white but rather demands an intricate balance between them. Achieving that balance became necessary with Britain’s colonization of India; the merging of cultures required a willingness to accept the differences of others and to make compromises. Kenny understands the practicality of Western society, and he struggles to appreciate the virtues of traditional society. Rukmani understands the virtues of her cultural traditions, and she has to learn to accept the practical side of Western industry.
When the tannery first arrives in her village, Rukmani fears that this industry will be the villagers’ undoing, and that it will “spread like weeds in an untended garden, strangling whatever life grew in its way.” But Kenny thinks her refusal to accept change is what will strangle her, and he thinks that her stubborn resignation to her lower-caste status makes her weak and ignorant. He tells Rukmani that she need not suffer in silence, that she can break the bonds that tie her to poverty and hardship. “Do you think spiritual grace comes from being in want, or from suffering?” he asks her. Kenny is frustrated that she puts herself at nature’s mercy rather than accepting the cultural changes the Western industrialists wished to effect in India. As time goes on, Rukmani becomes more accepting of change, yet remains true to her conviction that contentment comes from traditional values. Markandaya makes Kenny a symbol of Western realism and Rukmani a symbol of Eastern spiritualism. Several commentators have suggested that Nectar in a Sieve is a chronicle not of Rukmani’s life and the changes she came to accept, but of India itself and the changes that occurred during British colonization.
Markandaya compares the duality of Western industry to the duality of nature. One is not black and the other white, but both have the ability to create and to destroy. Rukmani and Nathan know that the tannery offers opportunity but also that it eradicates values. They know that water renews the earth after long droughts and allows them to live, but also that it ravages the land and destroys everything in existence. Rukmani and Nathan have no experience with factories, and do not know how to fight the kind of destruction they bring. But they rely on their spiritual beliefs to help them tame nature’s forces. “Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you,” Rukmani says. “So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.”
Markandaya introduces the tannery as a model of Western industry, equally representative of creation and destruction. Is it friend or foe, good or bad for society? Many Hindu peasants must have felt this same confusion when the British colonized India. Markandaya uses an apt analogy when she equates Ira’s loss of innocence with the growth of the tannery, and her acceptance of Ira’s lot with her acceptance of change in general. One gets used to things. Just as Ira got used to being unmarried, and Selvam got used to the albino skin of Sacrabani, Rukmani got used to the tannery and to the Western medicine that Kenny brought to the village. Rukmani says of the tannery, “I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wild in the blast from the town, and I grieved no more, so now I accepted the future...only sometimes when I was weak...I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm.” When the British people imposed their Western views on the people of India, the Hindus watched their traditions fade away, and they grieved first, and then accepted the change. And just as Rukmani found herself sometimes rebellious and restless, India too rebelled. The people recognized opportunity, but they hesitated to forsake the customs and values that defined their culture.
VI SOCIAL SENSITIVITY
Markandaya has succeeded in exposing the conflicts that often prevent us from accepting other cultures. The ability to get along with people who have different ideas and different values requires a willingness to compromise, to find the gray area that exists somewhere between black and white. Perhaps we all need to be open minded to new ideas, respectful of old traditions, and willing to accept change as a natural part of life. Markandaya helps us identify with Rukmani and find that gray area where we all share a common spirit. Rukmani has a secret store of spiritual strength that helps her remain true to herself and accept the things she cannot change. It gives her the courage to face hardship after hardship. Rukmani says in the novel, ”What if we gave into 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?” This quote provides food for thought as we rethink what defines Eastern philosophy. Rukmani remains true to her spiritual being, and that is what makes her strong. She remains true to Nathan and the life he offers her, and that is what brings her contentment.
Using Rukmani as a model of the traditional wife gives us the opportunity to examine the stereotypical roles of men as providers and women as nurturers. It may be difficult for some readers to understand the conviction that boys are assets to the family and girls liabilities. And it may be even more difficult to understand Rukmani’s feeling of failure when she gives birth to a girl and experiences a period of infertility, and her acceptance of the fact that Ira’s husband returned her for not bearing sons. Rukmani also wholly embraces the role of subservient wife. She believes that she must support her husband no matter what the cost. When Rukmani learns that Nathan fathered Kunthi’s sons, she maintains control, accepts the situation, and moves on. These are traditions that the Indian villagers accept without question, traditions that contrast with the trends in some Western countries.
Nectar in a Sieve forces us to reevaluate the nature of strength and weakness. Are men strong and women weak, and does submissiveness equal weakness? Rukmani appears to be the submissive wife, yet she endures the death of her sons, Ira’s abandonment by her husband and her subsequent prostitution and the birth of Ira’s bastard albino son. Rukmani bravely cares for Raja’s corpse. Commentators have pointed out that while submissiveness may disguise itself as weakness, it is often a source of strength for women of traditional societies. Kenny saw Rukmani as weak because she accepted her hardships instead of fighting them. But Rukmani, in her thoughts and actions, reveals to us the power of her invincible spirit.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Do you think that Arjun and Thambi made the correct decision when they decided not to become farmers like their father and instead went to work at the tannery? Why or why not?
2. Why do you think Kenny becomes angry with Rukmani and speaks harshly to her? Do you think he sees her as weak or strong?
3. Do you think Rukmani was correct in seeking medical help without her husband’s knowledge?
4. What does the title Nectar in a Sieve mean to you?
5. Do you think that Markandaya presents Western values as materialistic?
6. Which characters in the novel were looked down upon and for what reasons? What does this say about the values of typical south Indian villagers?
7. What is the significance of Rukmani’s encounter with the cobra?
8. Contrast Rukmani with Kunthi. How do their values and attitudes differ?
9. Many Westerners interpret Rukmani’s submissiveness as weakness. Decide whether you think Rukmani is weak or strong and write a persuasive paper explaining your position.
VIII IDEAS FOR REPORTS AND PAPERS
1. When Rukmani’s son Arjun wants to work in the tannery, she tells him that he is not of the caste of tanners. Explain the caste system in India.
2. Write a paper using Ira’s maturation and loss of innocence to allude to the growth of British industry in India.
3. Explain how the devastation of natural disasters such as monsoons and droughts effect the economic stability of rural families.
4. Contrast Eastern spiritualism with Western materialism.
5. Using instances in the novel to support your thesis, write a persuasive paper for or against arranged marriages.
6. Compare and contrast agricultural societies and industrial societies.
7. Write a paper explaining the role of women in rural south Indian village society.
8. Discuss the importance of religion in traditional cultural practices.
9. Research the relationship between Britain and India in the 1940s to 1950s. How does Kenny’s attitude toward Rukmani characterize Britain’s attitude toward India?
10. Detail the impact of economic change on traditional societies, using both India and America as examples.
11. Do you think the caste system is a form of segregation and discrimination?
IX RELATED TITLES
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959) depicts the village life of the Ibo clan of Nigeria before and after colonization. Like Nectar in a Sieve, it exposes both the pain these people suffered and the unity they felt by upholding age-old rituals and traditions.
Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) describes peasant life in China in the 1920s, and centers around traditional people devoted to land and family who struggle to maintain traditional culture.
Markandaya’s other novels, listed above, center on south Indian village life, the clash between Eastern and Western values, and the complex relationship between India and Britain.