Study Guide

Nectar in a Sieve

by Kamala Markandaya

Nectar in a Sieve Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

It is not surprising, given the importance of village life in India, that Kamala Markandaya should have set her first novel in a primitive village, with peasants as her main characters. The admirable thing is that she crafted an international best-seller out of the story of a simple woman who never loses her faith in life or her love for her husband and children—despite her long, unceasing battle against nature, changing times, and dire poverty. The elemental plot is simple to follow and deeply moving.

The narrator is Rukmani, a literate widow, who tells in flashback the major events of her life. Given in marriage to Nathan, a tenant farmer she has never seen before, she is taken to a small thatched hut, set near a paddy field, which is to become her home. A garland of mango leaves in the doorway, symbol of happiness and good fortune, hangs dry in the breeze and presages the barren periods that will often plague her and her family. Nathan patiently allows her time to adjust to life with him, but Rukmani’s education always places her a cut above her fellow women—particularly Kali, Janaki, and Kunthi, the three gossips.

After the birth of a daughter, Irawaddy (named after one of the great rivers of Asia), Rukmani becomes anxious about her failure to have sons. She is treated by Kenny, a foreign doctor, who is forthright and critical of Indian superstitions, even as he is compassionate to poor people. In due course, she bears several sons—Arjun, Thumbi, Murugan, Raja, Selvam, and Kuti—and arranges the marriage of Irawaddy, who is barely out of puberty. Old Granny, a vegetable vendor, serves as a go-between, but the arrangement ends in failure when Irawaddy proves to be barren and is returned to her family by her husband.

Other problems abound. The tyrannically exploitative landowner...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Nectar in a Sieve Overview

Nectar in a Sieve centers around Rukmani, an Indian peasant woman, and her family: her husband, Nathan; her daughter, Irawaddy; and...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Nectar in a Sieve Summary

Part One
Nectar in a Sieve is a first-person narrative told by Rukmani, the widow of a poor tenant farmer in India...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Nectar in a Sieve Summary and Analysis

Part One, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Rukmani: A Hindu woman who lives as a tenant farmer outside a small village in India and is the first-person narrator of this story.

Nathan: A tenant farmer and Rukmani’s husband.

Hanuman: Owner of the general shop in the village.

Kali: Rukmani’s neighbor, a woman who is prone to gossip but who has a good and helpful nature.

Janaki: Another neighbor woman who is the wife of a shopkeeper.

Kunthi: A young neighbor woman who takes a disliking to Rukmani.

Summary
Nectar in a Sieve opens with an old woman, Rukmani, who lives in a small town with her sons and daughter, recalling her life. In her younger years, she lived with her husband and children on a paddy field on the outskirts of the village. Her husband is now dead. Rukmani begins to tell the story of her life, starting with the arrangement of her marriage. She was the youngest of four daughters; her three older sisters were married off before she was, leaving her with no dowry. Her parents had no choice but to marry her, at the age of twelve, to a poor tenant farmer—that is, a farmer who did not own his land. It is a source of shame for her and her family because the tenant farmer is of a lower social status than her family.

Rukmani’s new husband, Nathan, brings her to their new home, which is a two-room mud hut with palm leaves for a roof. It stands at the edge of the paddy field that Nathan tends. Rukmani views it with private disdain because she is used to better living. She is despondent at having to leave her family behind and move into a poor farmer’s unfurnished home; but Nathan tries to gently comfort her. Later, a neighbor will tell her that Nathan had built the house especially for her, and she will feel both gratitude towards him and shame for her initial snobbery.

A week after moving in, Rukmani meets her new neighbors at the stream where the clothes washing in done: Kali, a gossipy but good-natured woman; Janaki, the wife of a shopkeeper; and Kunthi, who regards Rukmani with a coolness that Rukmani does not understand. Eventually, Rukmani becomes...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Part One, Chapters 2-4: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Irawaddy (also known as Ira): Nathan and Rukmani’s first-born child and a girl of exceptional beauty.

Kennington (also known as Kenny): A white doctor who befriends Rukmani and her family.

Biswas: The village moneylender, described by Rukmani as oily and unpleasant in character.

Old Granny: An old vegetable lender who lives in the streets of the village.

Arjun, Thambi, Raja, and Selvam: The sons of Nathan and Rukmani.

Kannan the chakkli: A cobbler who lives in Rukmani’s town.

Summary
Rukmani, herself now pregnant, helps her neighbor Kunthi give birth to her first son, in spite of Kunthi’s...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Part One, Chapters 5-11: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Sivaji: The collector for the landlord.

Kuti: Rukmani’s youngest son.

Summary
Ira, now fourteen years of age, is ready to be married, and Rukmani obtains the assistance of Old Granny as a matchmaker. Because Ira is exceptionally beautiful, Old Granny is able to get her a very good match to the first son of a landowner without a significant dowry. On the day of her wedding, Rukmani dresses her daughter in her own red wedding sari, and Nathan and Rukmani hold a very festive wedding for her, complete with musicians. Ira is taken away to her husband’s new home; she will not see her parents for several years to come.

Bad times come upon...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Arjun and Thambi, who have been working at the tannery for many months, lead a workers’ strike against the tannery owners to demand higher wages. Rukmani, who believes that their wage of one rupee per day is ample, does not understand their complaints. When the tannery announces that those who will not return to work will be replaced, Arjun and Thambi stick to their principles, but many others return. The strike fails, and Arjun and Thambi are left unemployed. Nathan becomes the sole provider for the family, and once again the family faces poverty.

When word is sent that there is need of laborers in Ceylon, an island to the south of the Indian subcontinent and far from their village,...

(The entire section is 1369 words.)

Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Sacrabani: Ira’s albino son who is the product of her prostitution.

Summary
Kenny had mysteriously disappeared from the village during the time of the drought, but he has now returned. When he returns, Rukmani fills him in on the hardships they faced from the recent draught. They had all nearly starved to death, she has lost two sons, and now Ira faces an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Rukmani indicates that she accepts what fate brings her, but Kenny interprets her acceptance of fate as complacency. When she says that they “are taught to bear our sorrow in silence, and all this is so that the soul may be cleansed,” he grows angry and frustrated...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Puli: An orphaned street child afflicted with leprosy who befriends Nathan and Rukmani.

Birla: A female doctor for whom Murugan worked as a servant.

Das and his wife: Servants who work for Birla.

Ammu: Murugan’s wife.

Summary
Nathan and Rukmani pack their few belonging, sell what they do not need, and travel by bullock cart for several days to the city in which Murugan lives. The hustle and bustle of the big city, in which cars, bicycles, and bullock carts clog the roads, is much different from their small town and makes it impossible for Rukmani and Nathan to get around. Unable to find Murugan’s address, Rukmani and...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)