Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
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...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
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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 Rukmani's 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,...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Nectar in a Sieve is a first-person narrative told by Rukmani, the widow of a poor tenant farmer in India during the early 1950s. She begins her story with her marriage to Nathan. The marriage is arranged, and because Rukmani is the fourth daughter and there is very little dowry, her best match is to a poor rice farmer. She begins her life with him and finds him to be very kind and loving. He is so understanding that he is not threatened by her ability to read and write.
Soon, she gives birth to their first child, a daughter named Irawaddy ("Ira"). She is worried, however, when many years pass and no more children come. Just prior to her mother's death, Rukmani meets the man caring for her mother, a Western doctor named Kennington ("Kenny"). She talks to him about her inability to conceive, and he helps her. Rukmani never tells Nathan that the reason she gives birth to four sons in four years is because of Kenny's help. The family is very happy, despite having little food or money.
Years later, a tannery is built in the small village where Rukmani and her family live. While many villagers welcome it, Rukmani is resistant because of the changes it brings to the community. When her two oldest sons go to work in the tannery, she is forced to accept it.
Ira is now fourteen and old enough to marry. Rukmani has a matchmaker find a good husband, even though there is a small dowry. A favorable match is...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part One, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
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.
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 used to life with Nathan, who is a gentle, patient, and loving husband to her, for which she counts herself lucky. He is skilled at raising and harvesting rice in the fields, and she is able to afford luxuries such as ghee, sugar, and curds, which she purchases from the...
(The entire section is 892 words.)
Part One, Chapters 2-4: Summary and Analysis
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.
Rukmani, herself now pregnant, helps her neighbor Kunthi give birth to her first son, in spite of Kunthi’s mysterious but adamant attempt to refuse her help. Implored by Nathan to rest for the duration of her pregnancy, Rukmani takes up writing which her father had taught her. It is a skill that is rare and even nonexistent in her village and which her neighbors view with both curiosity and scorn. Nathan, who cannot read or write himself, nevertheless encourages her, much to Rukmani’s gratitude. She tends her garden as well, an activity that provides her with an endless source of wonderment.
After being frightened by a cobra, Rukmani goes into an early labor and delivers, to her and Nathan’s dismay, a girl; in their society, girls, who require a dowry and are married off to live with other families, are far less desirable than boys, who can help their fathers work the land and look after their parents in their old age. They name her Irawaddy, and she grows to be a child of exceptional beauty to the surprise of Rukmani, who admits that both she and Nathan are not handsome people. Despite their initial disappointment, they both grow to love their daughter deeply.
However, Nathan and Rukmani become worried when the years pass and Rukmani is unable to conceive another child. When Ira is about six years old, Rukmani meets a white doctor, Kenny, who had tended to her mother until she died of consumption. When he hears of her fertility problems, Kenny suggests that Rukmani come to him for treatment. Despite her misgivings about white doctors and her reluctance to deceive her husband, Rukmani takes his treatments out of desperation and successfully bears a son, whom she and Nathan name Arjun. She then goes on to bear four more sons in as many years—Thambi, Murugan, Raja, and Selvam. Nathan never learns of the...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
Part One, Chapters 5-11: Summary and Analysis
Sivaji: The collector for the landlord.
Kuti: Rukmani’s youngest son.
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 family soon after Ira’s marriage. The season after Ira’s wedding brings with it an early and violent monsoon. The rains completely destroy the rice crop, Rukmani’s gardens, and even the coconut tree, leaving the family, as well as the rest of the village, to face the prospect of starvation. Rukmani is able to eke by on a very meager store she had laid by for hard times, and though the time is difficult, the family survives. Eventually, they are able to drain the paddy field and harvest the fish for salting. They have survived without starving.
In the meantime, the tannery continues to grow. Many of the boys of the village turn from farming and go to work at the tannery instead, which offers higher wages and greater security than the rented land. But the growth of the tannery continues to make living difficult for the villagers, for as it grows, the town grows, and the cost of living continues to rise. Rukmani is unable to keep up with the rising prices, and the small businesses of the old village, including Janaki’s husband’s shop, are forced to close by the larger bazaars and shops that move in. Kunthi, however, enjoys the growth of the town. Having always had a reputation as a loose woman, she takes to flaunting herself in the streets and enjoying the attention of men.
Some years after Ira’s marriage, Ira shows up at Rukmani’s home with her husband, who is returning her because after five years of marriage she has not had any children. He divorces her and leaves her with her parents. Nathan and Rukmani take her back without blaming either their daughter or their son-in-law; they see the reason for the divorce as reasonable. Ira becomes despondent over her rejection.
(The entire section is 1135 words.)
Part One, Chapters 12-17: Summary and Analysis
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, Arjun and Thambi, rather than staying and “wasting [their] youth chafing against things [they] cannot change,” heed the call. In the meantime, Murugan, Rukmani’s third son, is sent by Kenny to work as a servant at a white doctor’s home in another faraway village. The family’s inability to sustain themselves solely by the land is causing them to disperse, to the sadness of both Nathan and Rukmani. Nathan, unlike Rukmani, is more accepting of their sons’ leaving. “You brood too much and think only of your trials, not of the joys that are still with us,” he says to Rukmani. “Look at our land—is it not beautiful? The fields are green and the grain is ripening. It will be a good harvest year, there will be plenty.” The paddy is beautiful, but it is greatly changed because of the coming of the tannery. While there had once been flamingoes and kingfishers and many other types of birds, the construction and pollution has driven them away, and now only crown and other scavengers are attracted to the area.
The year that Arjun, Thambi, and Murugan leave, the rains fail and completely wither the rice crop and the vegetable garden, leaving Nathan and Rukmani destitute and unable to pay their rent for the year. Nathan convinces Sivaji, the collector, to give him time to collect half the payment, and he and Rukmani sell all of their belongings in the town, including the wedding sari and the bullocks they use for plowing the fields. The rains finally come, but it is too late to do the shriveled and dead paddy any good. Rukmani, Nathan, and their family are left with no food and no means of making any money in the foreseeable future. They set to resowing the paddy field right away. Rukmani is forced to use...
(The entire section is 1369 words.)
Part One, Chapters 18-23: Summary and Analysis
Sacrabani: Ira’s albino son who is the product of her prostitution.
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 with her philosophy, retorting, “Do you think that spiritual graces come from living in want?” He does not understand how she can accept starvation while not fighting against the circumstances of their lives.
Rukmani, in return, finds Kenny’s life equally incomprehensible. When she learns of his wife, whom he has left in England, she cannot understand why Kenny would leave his home and risk losing his wife. At the same time, because she believes a woman’s place is with her husband, she cannot understand why his wife would not join him in India. Kenny is unable to explain it to her. Although Kenny is devoted to his work in India it is clear that there is a cultural divide between his life philosophy and the life philosophy of the Indian people around him.
Kenny has returned to the tannery town to build a hospital. He sees that Selvam is not cut out for working the land but that he nevertheless shows great academic potential, and he takes him as his apprentice and assistant.
Ira’s child is born. To Rukmani’s dismay, the baby boy is a pure albino. She secretly wonders if his deformity is due to the circumstances of his birth. The poor child, who is named Sacrabani, becomes a curiosity for the neighbors; and as he grows older, he is ostracized from the other children of the village, not just because of his albinism but also because he was born out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Ira refuses to see his disfigurement and lavishes her love on the child, and the rest of the family strives to treat him as they would any of their children.
Meanwhile, slow progress is made on the hospital, as Kenny is able to obtain funding from the mysterious outside sources. Before the hospital...
(The entire section is 944 words.)
Part Two, Chapters 24-30: Summary and Analysis
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.
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 Nathan, both faint from lack of food, head towards the temple where the city’s poor go for a free meal in the evenings. Rukmani manages to push through the crowds to get a dish of food, which she shares with Nathan. However, in all the commotion, their possessions and money are stolen, leaving Rukmani and Nathan in a strange city with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They continue to try to find Murugan’s home, and during their wanderings, they meet Puli, a cunning street orphan whose fingers have been eaten away by leprosy. He offers to guide them to Murugan’s home in expectation of payment at a later date.
The doctor for whom Murugan worked, a woman named Birla, informs them that Murugan was a good worker, but he had left to seek better wages elsewhere. Nathan and Rukmani are both surprised by the fact that Birla is a woman and that she wears trousers instead of a dress. The doctor offers them a meal, which they take with Das, another servant, and Nathan and Rukmani are grateful for their kindness.
Nathan and Rukmani seek Murugan at the collector’s house on Chamundi Hill. Here they find Murugan’s young wife, Ammu, with their two children, but Ammu informs them that she has not seen her husband in two years and that she believes he will not return. She is bitter and blames his abandonment on the lure of gambling and whores. Rukmani and Nathan are heartbroken. They cannot stay with Ammu, who barely can support herself and her children, so they have no choice but to return to the temple where they face the resentment of the other poor for returning. Both Rukmani and Nathan long to return to their village and leave the bustling city that they have grown to detest, and in order to earn...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)