Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nectar in a Sieve centers on the changing socioeconomic milieu of a small village in southern India. Kamala Markandaya focuses the effects of these changes through the plight of Rukmani and her husband, Nathan. They are farmers who grow and sell grain, exchanging their crop for food at the village; Rukmani also has a fruit and vegetable patch for their own consumption. They expect their sons to carry on their age-old tradition of tilling the land, living in extended family networks and maintaining Hindu values, but things begin to change. A large corporation buys the village square and constructs a tannery. Problems of cheap labor and exploitation, rising prices that match the competitive city markets, the collapse of the exchange relations within the village economy, accessory problems of prostitution and the destruction of rural family and community life—all begin to affect Rukmani and Nathan. Material problems demand a change in Rukmani’s passive acceptance of fate, but she clings to a helpless pessimism, a philosophy of fortitude.

Markandaya records the effects of social and material change on the lives of individuals such as Rukmani and Nathan. Their sons move away; they are forced to sell their land to the tannery’s owners; and the old couple move to the city in search of work. This dislocation from the rural community to an urban milieu is a historical fact in industrializing India, and in her portrait of the couple, Markandaya...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Markandaya, along with Anita Desai, broke the ranks of a largely male tradition in Anglo-Indian writing. She introduced a woman’s perspective, experiences, and voice to the realistic records of the Indian colonial and postcolonial milieu.

Markandaya’s premise that religion—Hinduism in Nectar in a Sieve—is simply an effect of social and economic realities rather than real everlasting beliefs is a radical assumption that broke with postcolonial writers’ idealization of precolonial culture. For example, Narayan, the best-known Anglo-Indian writer in the twentieth century, depicts an essential Indianness that survives British colonization; Markandaya may be said to be more pessimistic or realistic. She sees the inevitability of change and emphasizes the need to adapt to it if Indian people are to survive the aftereffects of colonialism. Women protagonists, traditionally perceived as bastions of culture and tradition, are forced into the vortex of modernization; they must adapt or perish. By showing these concrete realities, Markandaya deconstructs the idea of the tradition-bound Hindu woman. Being the virtuous wife and mother is simply not enough in the modern Indian context; women must orchestrate conceptual and philosophical changes in their lives.

Her examination of socioeconomic structures of power have led Markandaya to reveal “gender” as a set of social arrangements, rather than a biological category: Thus, in Nectar in a Sieve, Ira, Rukmani, and Kunthi all suffer concrete social and economic oppressions rather than natural or bodily afflictions connected with their feminine natures. As a commentator on rural and lower-class women, Markandaya is well received in national and international literary circles. She does not enjoy the academic recognition given to Desai, the other major Indian woman writer, but her works are consistently taught in school curricula in India, England, and the United States. In her own way, she has added to the female tradition in the Anglo-Indian novel by feminizing the points of view and the realities depicted within this tradition.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

India's Independence from Britain
The British had controlled India since the early 1800s, but on August 15, 1947, the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The novel is set in an unnamed farming village in south India, most likely in the 1950s, just after India gained independence from Britain....

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Figurative Language
Throughout Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya uses a variety of literary devices to bring her...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Nectar in a Sieve is told in first-person, in flashback, as Rukmani reminisces about the truths and trials of her life. The first...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Markandaya has succeeded in exposing the conflicts that often prevent us from accepting other cultures. The ability to get along with people...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1950s: Girls in India are often subject to arranged marriages at a very young age. They are usually at...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Do you think that Arjun and Thambi made the correct decision when they decided not to become farmers like their father and instead went to...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. When Rukmani's son Arjun wants to work in the tannery, she tells him that he is not of the caste of tanners. Explain the caste system in...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • At the beginning of Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya offers the following quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Work without hope...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

  • Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1959) depicts the village life of the Ibo clan of Nigeria before and after colonization. Like...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth (1931) portrays dramatic political and social change...

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel. State College, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Barr, Donald. "To a Modest Triumph." In New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1955, p. 4.


(The entire section is 319 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Chandrashekhar, K. R. “East and West in the Novels of Kamala Markandaya.” In Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English, edited by M. K. Naik et al. Dharwar, India: Karnatak University, 1968. A thirty-page essay that examines Markandaya’s philosophy of negotiation between British and Indian cultural contexts.

Harrex, S. C. “A Sense of Identity: The Novels of Kamala Markandaya.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1, no. 3 (1965): 44-56. Argues that Markandaya resists the depiction of a single Indian nationalist identity, because in her work rural and urban India appear as two completely different environments.


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