The book "Nectar in a Sieve" takes place in India, where the practice of giving dowries is extremely common. A dowry, in Indian culture, is a sum of money attached to a woman of marrying age to be given to her husband/husband's family when they get married.
The larger the dowry the better, because more respectable and promising men tend to receive the brides with the largest dowries. However, if the woman is exceptionally attractive, they may still be able to catch the eye of the more promising men. In the novel, Rukmani describes herself as having no dowry and having little beauty. Because of this, she ends up betrothed to a poor farmer, and her prospects are extremely limited. Her daughter, Ira, however, is able to marry significantly above her station, as she is considered very beautiful.
So, in most cases, a dowry will determine your fate and how well of a life you will be able to live later on. In some cases, though not often, you can rise above this fate.
A dowry is often of great significance to marriages in Nectar in a Sieve. In fact, the fate and future happiness of brides are directly tied to the size of their dowries. However, the story shows that other factors may come into play when it comes to marrying well.
The narrator, Rukmani, relates that she was matched with Nathan, a poor tenant farmer, because she was "without beauty and without dowry." In India, the size of a young woman's dowry often determines her ability to marry well. Thus, it is expected that an impoverished young woman who is neither beautiful nor possessed of a respectable dowry will marry above her station in life. In fact, like Rukmani does, she may have to marry well below her station in life.
If, however, a young woman is exceptionally beautiful (like Ira, Rukmani's daughter), a smaller dowry may not matter. In chapter 6, Rukmani tells Old Granny (the matchmaker) that Ira's dowry will only be a hundred rupees. She frets that the amount will be too insignificant for Ira to make a good match. For her part, Old Granny is more confident; she soothes Rukmani with the proclamation that Ira's exceptional beauty will make up for a small dowry.
Old Granny's estimate is correct, and within a month, Ira is slated to marry a well-favored young man who will one day inherit a good piece of land. So, a dowry is significant for most matches. In Ira's case, however, her overwhelming physical attractions are enough to overcome the reservations of the bridegroom's family.
Kamala Markandaya's book Nectar in a Sieve takes place in rural India as the narrator, Rukmani, recounts the events of her marriage. Throughout history and even today, the dowry has been an important part of marriage in India. A dowry is money or gifts which accompany a bride to her new home, where she will live with her husband's family. In many ways, the dowry is a form of payment to the family of the husband. In India, daughters must leave their parents' homes when they are married, and are integrated into another household. For this reason, they are not considered as contributing to their parents' home or responsible for "carrying on" the family. Many people are of the attitude that daughters are a financial burden on their families because they must marry into another family and are often restricted from working outside of the home. The dowry is intended to provide for the bride in her new home but also to ease some of the financial burden placed on her husband's family by her arrival.
In the book Nectar in a Sieve, dowry would play an important role in the marriage of Rukmani to Nathan, as well as for their daughter Irawaddy.