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Markandaya’s two main arguments in Nectar in a Sieve center on a critique of industrialization and on the necessity to change precolonial philosophies of living. She does not suggest that rural Indian people should simply abandon tradition. Rather, as is evident in her other novels such as A Silence of Desire (1960) and A Handful of Rice (1966), there should be a constant mental and emotional negotiation between tradition and emergent values or lifestyles.

Certainly, in Nectar in a Sieve, the inhuman and exploitive nature of urban capital moving into rural sectors is clearly and sharply depicted. The factory representatives’ callous response to the death of one of Rukmani’s sons in a riot, their merciless extortion of small patches of land, their setting up of whorehouses and different systems of buying and selling—all point to colonial and neocolonial power structures and the concomitant breakdown of precolonial, Hindu agrarian, community and family life.

This central idea of change finds voice in Rukmani’s collapsing worldview and philosophy of life. Her stoicism and forbearance appear ridiculous under accentuated forms of exploitation; her idealization of the past proves to be mere fiction when one remembers that earlier in the novel she had claimed that the peasants’ lot was never easy, even in the agrarian, feudal times. Her view is challenged by Sevlam, Kunthi, Ira, and Kenny, the dichotomous philosophies marking this moment in history as a period of transition. These other views, Rukmani’s own self-contradictory remarks, and her sentimental narrative voice create a subjective, uncertain narrative of events from which readers maintain their distance. This sense of distance from the character through whose very eyes one sees the novelistic world is clearly a narrative feat and one which is necessary for Markandaya to manipulate both reader sympathy toward and criticism of Rukmani. In Silence of Desire and A Handful of Rice, Markandaya shows the possibility of adapting to change even as one retains older philosophies and value systems, but in Nectar in a Sieve, she is critical of both the nature of change and Rukmani’s inability to adapt to it.

The texture of rural life and Rukmani’s specificity as a woman is expressed through Markandaya’s extensive use of natural symbolism. Natural cycles of birth, death, decay, and regeneration tell of the agrarian sensibility and the woman’s perception of bodily cycles. Markandaya’s simple but layered symbolism makes her work very different from the objective historical realism of male Indian writers such as R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao.

It is also interesting to note that though Markandaya always writes about the peasant or lower middle class, in reality, being an expatriate living in London, she has little experience of these people’s lives. Critics have thus pointed to the fact that for Markandaya class realities may be concrete and substantial, but her categorization of classes is simplistic. For example, in Nectar in a Sieve, she writes about rural India as simply the peasant class, while in reality rural India itself has an intricate, complexly graded class structure. There is a rural middle class which differs from both the urban middle class and the rural lower classes and peasantry. Thus Markandaya replicates her sentimental first-person narrator’s idealization of the past by providing a homogenous and seamless picture of precolonial class structures. Yet in her attention to concrete detail, language, and use of symbols, she overcomes this flaw somewhat and provides one of the very few representations of rural women’s experience in India.

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Critical Context