Nectar in a Sieve was named a Notable Book of 1955 by the American Library Association. It won very favorable reviews. The New York Times praised its “wonderful, quiet authority” and lack of excess. Saturday Review identified its greatest appeal in its answers to real questions: “What is the day-to-day life of the villager like? How does a village woman really think of herself? What goes through the minds of people who are starving?”
Certainly, there is no denying the peasant ethos—probably a defining quality of Indo-English novels, as in the cases of R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, and Bhabani Bhattacharya—or the problems of encroaching modernization, but the social issues of the story are ultimately transcended by spiritual values. It is no accident that Markandaya usually avoids naming her settings. This evasion, her critics contend, fits in with her general refusal to face life directly. The misfortunes are real enough in the plot. There is real hunger or real vice or real death. Rukmani’s attitude of hopeful resignation, however, is hardly the stuff of Social Realism. The pattern of final reintegration—where Rukmani returns to the village—conforms to the Indian preference for an almost scriptural composure.
The problem of the novel, quite apart from the underlying philosophical attitude of acceptance, is a literary style which—as noted above—often seems far too Western in diction for either the narrator or the pattern of the story. In striving to glorify the human spirit, Markandaya often uses a heightened language (with words such as “assuagements,” “decorous,” “garrulous,” or “dissembling”) and a syntax that is far too eloquent for any villager, though she may be descended from a headman. This style puts the novel outside the realm of primary English as used so effectively by Narayan, for example, and it works against the physical simplicity of the setting and characters.
Perhaps, however, this flaw can be attributed to the fact that the novel was the first in Markandaya’s career, and the author had not as yet learned how to adapt a colonial language to indigenous characters and conflicts.
On the positive side, it can be said that Western readers seem not to have minded this defect, for Nectar in a Sieve continues to attract readers and praise for its affecting heroine, poetic beauty, and controlled sentiment.