In Kamala Markandaya’s novel Nectar in a Sieve, religion takes a definite back seat to secular human endeavors. Nature and human progress are the instruments of Rukmani and her family’s doom. The construction of the tannery that devastates Nathan and Rukmani’s community, her failures to conceive for so many years, Raja’s death and Ira’s difficulties conceiving, Kuti’s sickliness due to the family’s financial inability to care for four-year-old and Ira’s decision to work as a prostitute so as to be able to purchase enough food to nourish the young boy – only to later see him die anyway – all run counter to their collective faith in the gods. Markandaya’s notably cynical attitude towards religion is prevalent throughout his novel, and Rukmani, his narrator, give voice to the naivete the author wants his readers to ascribe to his protagonist. An early clue as to the role religion will play in Nectar in a Sieve is provided in Chapter III, when Rukmani describes her and Nathan’s difficulties conceiving a child. Visiting her mother, a deeply spiritual individual, Rukmani’s narrative posits definite limits on the willingness of divine beings to intervene in human affairs:
“My mother, whenever I paid her a visit, would make me accompany her to a temple, and together we would pray and pray before the deity, imploring for help until we were giddy. But the Gods have other things to do; they cannot attend to the pleas of every suppliant who dares to raise his cares to heaven. And so the years rolled by and still we had only one child, and that a daughter.”
Far more telling, however, and far more despairing, is Rukmani’s description of her youngest son Kuti’s ill health and the efforts made to help the child. In Chapter XVI, the aforementioned situation involving Kuti, who Rukmani observes finally appearing to regain his fragile health, is described by her as follows:
“I gazed at the small tired face, soothed by sleep as it had not been for many nights, and even as I puzzled about the change, profound gratitude flooded through me, and it seemed to me that the Gods were not remote, not unheedful, since they had heard his cries and stilled them as if by a miracle.”
That Rukmani would later learn that Kuti’s improvements were entirely the product of the depths to which Ira had been forced to sink to earn money constitutes as resounding a denunciation of the role of religion in his characters’ daily lives as one can possibly imagine.
Nectar in a Sieve was written in the years immediately following Indian independence from British colonialism. The British occupation had succeeded to an astonishing degree in Anglicizing India, and Markandaya was determined to encourage her nation – despite her British husband – to respect its own culture and traditions and to reforge its own identity. Given that political agenda, one can ponder the secular tone of her most famous work. That said, the novel ends with Rukmani’s fifth son, Selvam, expressing his joy and appreciation upon seeing that his mother is safe: “’Thank God,’ he said. ‘Are you alright?’” An innocent, innocuous expression of gratitude to the Gods, or one imbued with deeper meaning, the reader is left to speculate for his- or herself.