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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 attempts to paint a moment in history. Yet her depiction of historical change is not detached; she is critical of the exploitive nature of colonialism and industrialization—the hegemony of the urban. She obliquely critiques these aspects of change in her stress on Rukmani and Nathan’s victimization and helplessness.

The couple’s milieu changes economically; the pull toward the cities and the movement of labor to factories break down old family structures, as Rukmani’s sons can no longer live in an extended family. Markandaya shows how these social and economic changes also affect people’s values: Ira, their eldest daughter, turns to prostitution, and their son Sevlam adopts Kenny’s idea of self-advancement, turning away from his parents’ Hindu philosophy of fortitude. In her emphasis on values, Markandaya obliquely shows that Hinduism is more than simply a religious belief; it is a way of life sustained by adherence to natural cycles (the agrarian existence) and extended family networks (self-renunciation for family obligations). Thus with a change in social and economic realities, the Hindu philosophy of stoicism becomes an anachronism.

Thus ultimately the subject of the story is Rukmani’s inability to change. While Markandaya critiques changes, she also critiques people’s inability to adapt. Thus Rukmani’s philosophies, insights, and rhetoric are constantly framed by Kenny’s logic, Sevlam’s pragmatism, and Ira and the prostitute Kunthi’s tragic choices. Rukmani’s idealization of the past proves futile since the past, or tradition, is no longer the source of emotional or social sustenance. The first-person narrative is thus more complex than it at first seems.


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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...

(This entire section contains 318 words.)

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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

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India's Independence from Britain
The British had controlled India since the early 1800s, but on August 15, 1947, the Indian Independence Act established the self-sovereignty of India and Pakistan. Hindus lived in India, and Muslims lived in Pakistan, although people were free to travel between the two countries.

After British governmental power was dissolved, India's Constituent Assembly chose a republican constitutional form of government (very similar to the American system). A constitution was drafted, its length exceeding that of any existing body of law in the world. Among the provisions of the new constitution was the abolition of the ancient caste system, which had brought great disadvantages to millions of Indians. The first president was Rajendra Prasad, one of Mahatma Gandhi's (an Indian nationalist, moral and spiritual leader in India's struggle for independence from Great Britain) followers and an experienced politician. A cabinet was also formed, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime minister.

The first years of India's new government were both trying and dynamic. India chose to remain neutral during the tensions of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. This unwillingness to get involved made it difficult to acquire famine relief from the United States when a series of natural disasters (drought, earthquakes, and floods) ravaged India in 1950. The American government eventually approved famine relief in 1951, however, with terms that were acceptable to India's political leaders. Soon after, Nehru organized government programs to encourage birth control in an effort to curb overpopulation. He also designed a five-year plan to expand irrigation and hydroelectric programs for farming.

Daily Life in an Indian Village
In Indian villages, now as at the time of the novel, it is common for extended families to live in the same house or nearby. This arrangement requires patience and respect, as struggles over privacy, responsibilities, and resource allocation are a way of life. On the other hand, families are extremely close, which discourages members from going far away. Traditionally, a woman's role has been to maintain the home, rear the children, cook, and oversee religious and cultural observances. Men earn money to support the family and also teach their sons their trades so that one day they can take over the father's work.

Especially in the past, married couples were expected to have children; if they did not, they would lose social standing and respect. Further, without children, the couple would have limited prospects for the future. The arrival of a child was a celebratory event, but the arrival of a son was particularly joyous at the time of the novel. A son would learn his father's trade and assume the business responsibilities for his father, while a daughter could not earn money for the family yet required a dowry for marriage.

Hinduism is the prevalent religion in India, although Islam and Christianity are not uncommon. Hinduism involves many rituals and the recognition of various gods and goddesses. Festivals such as Deepavali are an important part of Hinduism and provide a communal aspect of the religion to complement deeply personal practices, such as meditation and prayer. To Hindus, the cow is a sacred animal, so they do not eat beef or touch any part of a slaughtered cow. This is an important consideration with regard to the tannery in the novel because it explains why so many Muslims initially worked at the tannery and, in part, why Rukmani was disappointed that her sons went to work there.


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The novel is set in an unnamed farming village in south India, most likely in the 1950s, just after India gained independence from Britain. Rukmani and her family live in a one-room hut with mud walls, a thatched roof, and an earthen floor. It is situated on swampland near a rice paddy where they can grow rice when conditions are favorable, and sometimes plant vegetables to enrich their diet and to sell at the market. Nathan and Rukmani do not own the land, but rather rent it, and they must constantly struggle to pay their rent and to produce enough food to feed their large family.

Markandaya uses the agricultural village setting to highlight the harsh conditions south Indian tenant farmers face while trying to retain the traditional values that define their culture. When monsoons and drought devastate their land, they persevere, hesitant to forsake family tradition and disregard their caste. Markandaya contrasts agricultural life with industrialism, the quiet village with the noise of the tannery. The tannery is portrayed as a noisy, disruptive intruder, and Markandaya's descriptions of big industry mirror what the villagers feel towards the British imperialists who inundated Indian culture with Western views.

Literary Style

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Figurative Language
Throughout Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya uses a variety of literary devices to bring her story to life. Her inclusion of insightful similes (a figure of speech used to compare two unlike things), well-designed allegories, and vibrant imagery enable Western readers to understand and enjoy this novel whose setting, people, and culture are completely unfamiliar. These devices also help the reader to connect with the events of the book through the universality of the experiences and images.

Markandaya frequently uses similes. When Rukmani recalls running through her garden when she was pregnant, she says, "I realized I must have looked like a water buffalo, running in such a frenzy." In an extended simile, Rukmani remarks,

Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.

During the festival of Deepavali, Rukmani watches in wonder at the brilliant fireworks, noting, "Now and then a rocket would tear into the sky, break and pour out its riches like precious jewels into the darkness."

In a moving scene in which Nathan brings her outside to sit, Rukmani sees her own experience paralleled in the landscape. At this point, she is grateful for the blessings in her life but is saddened because her children are becoming adults and leaving to start new lives. Markandaya creates a brilliant image, both melancholy and enchanting:

He coaxed me out into the sunlight and we sat down together on the brown earth that was part of us, and we gazed at the paddy fields spreading rich and green before us, and they were indeed beautiful.... At one time there had been kingfishers here, flashing between the young shoots for our fish; and paddy birds; and sometimes, in the shallower reaches of the river, flamingoes, striding with ungainly precision among the water reeds, with plumage of a glory not of this earth. Now birds came no more.

Rukmani tells her story in the past tense. She is a mature woman, remembering back to her childhood and relating the events of her life. From time to time, she interjects thoughtful observations that come from the reflective nature of her recollection. For example, she tells about the birth of her daughter, remembering how kind and helpful her friend Kali was. She observes,

When I recall all the help Kali gave me with my first child, I am ashamed that I ever had such thoughts [that Kali did not understand what it was like to have only a daughter, because Kali had three sons already]: my only excuse is that thoughts come of their own accord, although afterwards we can chase them away.

Clearly, at the time of telling the story, Rukmani has chased away her resentful thoughts of her friend. Later, she thinks back on her years of motherhood, observing, "How quickly children grow! They are infants—you look away a minute and in that time they have left their babyhood behind."

Literary Qualities

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Nectar in a Sieve is told in first-person, in flashback, as Rukmani reminisces about the truths and trials of her life. The first person narrative allows us to identify with this Indian peasant woman, to recognize her strengths and appreciate her values. Rukmani's life is so far removed from that of some readers that her culture could be easily misunderstood. Therefore, Markandaya makes readers dig deep into Rukmani's character in order to dignify the Eastern traditional lifestyle. By using the reminiscent voice, Markandaya lets the reader see how the people living in south Indian villages came to view the changes that occurred during British rule and the struggle these villagers faced in reconciling Eastern and Western views.

Markandaya sets up a series of contrasts throughout the novel to emphasize the conflicts between cultures. She sets Kenny's realism against Rukmani's spiritualism, and she sets Kunthi's opportunism against Rukmani's traditional values. By portraying the officials at the tannery as callused and disdainful of village life, she helps us understand the difficulty the Hindus faced during this time in history and the complex issues that challenged the relationship between India and England. Life is not easily divided into black and white, but rather demands an intricate balance between them. Achieving that balance became necessary with Britain's colonization of India; the merging of cultures required a willingness to accept the differences of others and to make compromises. Kenny understands the practicality of Western society, and he struggles to appreciate the virtues of traditional society. Rukmani understands the virtues of her cultural traditions, and she has to learn to accept the practical side of Western industry.

When the tannery first arrives in her village, Rukmani fears that this industry will be the villagers' undoing, and that it will "spread like weeds in an untended garden, strangling whatever life grew in its way." But Kenny thinks her refusal to accept change is what will strangle her, and he thinks that her stubborn resignation to her lower-caste status makes her weak and ignorant. He tells Rukmani that she need not suffer in silence, that she can break the bonds that tie her to poverty and hardship. "Do you think spiritual grace comes from being in want, or from suffering?" he asks her. Kenny is frustrated that she puts herself at nature's mercy rather than accepting the cultural changes the Western industrialists wished to effect in India. As time goes on, Rukmani becomes more accepting of change, yet remains true to her conviction that contentment comes from traditional values. Markandaya makes Kenny a symbol of Western realism and Rukmani a symbol of Eastern spiritualism. Several commentators have suggested that Nectar in a Sieve is a chronicle not of Rukmani's life and the changes she came to accept but of India itself and the changes that occurred during British colonization.

Markandaya compares the duality of Western industry to the duality of nature. One is not black and the other white, but both have the ability to create and to destroy. Rukmani and Nathan know that the tannery offers opportunity but also that it eradicates values. They know that water renews the earth after long droughts and allows them to live but also that it ravages the land and destroys everything in existence. Rukmani and Nathan have no experience with factories, and do not know how to fight the kind of destruction they bring. But they rely on their spiritual beliefs to help them tame nature's forces. "Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you," Rukmani says. "So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat."

Markandaya introduces the tannery as a model of Western industry, equally representative of creation and destruction. Is it friend or foe, good or bad for society? Many Hindu peasants must have felt this same confusion when the British colonized India. Markandaya uses an apt analogy when she equates Ira's loss of innocence with the growth of the tannery, and her acceptance of Ira's lot with her acceptance of change in general. One gets used to things. Just as Ira got used to being unmarried, and Selvam got used to the albino skin of Sacrabani, Rukmani got used to the tannery and to the Western medicine that Kenny brought to the village. Rukmani says of the tannery, "I had seen the slow, calm beauty of our village wild in the blast from the town, and I grieved no more, so now I accepted the future … only sometimes when I was weak … I found myself rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm." When the British people imposed their Western views on the people of India, the Hindus watched their traditions fade away, and they grieved first, and then accepted the change. And just as Rukmani found herself sometimes rebellious and restless, India too rebelled. The people recognized opportunity, but they hesitated to forsake the customs and values that defined their culture.

Social Sensitivity

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Markandaya has succeeded in exposing the conflicts that often prevent us from accepting other cultures. The ability to get along with people who have different ideas and different values requires a willingness to compromise, to find the gray area that exists somewhere between black and white. Perhaps we all need to be open minded to new ideas, respectful of old traditions, and willing to accept change as a natural part of life. Markandaya helps us identify with Rukmani and find that gray area where we all share a common spirit. Rukmani has a secret store of spiritual strength that helps her remain true to herself and accept the things she cannot change. It gives her the courage to face hardship after hardship. Rukmani says in the novel, "What if we gave into our troubles at every step? We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for is not a man's spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes?" This quote provides food for thought as we rethink what defines Eastern philosophy. Rukmani remains true to her spiritual being, and that is what makes her strong. She remains true to Nathan and the life he offers her, and that is what brings her contentment.

Using Rukmani as a model of the traditional wife gives us the opportunity to examine the stereotypical roles of men as providers and women as nurturers. It may be difficult for some readers to understand the conviction that boys are assets to the family and girls liabilities. And it may be even more difficult to understand Rukmani's feeling of failure when she gives birth to a girl and experiences a period of infertility, and her acceptance of the fact that Ira's husband returned her for not bearing sons. Rukmani also wholly embraces the role of subservient wife. She believes that she must support her husband no matter what the cost. When Rukmani learns that Nathan fathered Kunthi's sons, she maintains control, accepts the situation, and moves on. These are traditions that the Indian villagers accept without question, traditions that contrast with the trends in some Western countries.

Nectar in a Sieve forces us to reevaluate the nature of strength and weakness. Are men strong and women weak, and does submissiveness equal weakness? Rukmani appears to be the submissive wife, yet she endures the death of her sons, Ira's abandonment by her husband and her subsequent prostitution and the birth of Ira's bastard albino son. Rukmani bravely cares for Raja's corpse. Commentators have pointed out that while submissiveness may disguise itself as weakness, it is often a source of strength for women of traditional societies. Kenny saw Rukmani as weak because she accepted her hardships instead of fighting them. But Rukmani, in her thoughts and actions, reveals to us the power of her invincible spirit.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1950s: Girls in India are often subject to arranged marriages at a very young age. They are usually at least thirteen years old, and when they are younger, they often do not immediately move in with their husbands.

    Today: Although Indian women are gaining more freedom to choose their spouses, the practice of arranged marriage is still quite common. Families often adhere to this tradition to ensure that their children are marrying social equals. The tradition is such a central part of Indian culture that, occasionally, Indian families living in the United States arrange the marriages of their children.

  • 1950s: The diet of a farming family in India consists of rice, lentils, vegetables, and some dairy products. Such families eat little meat because of the expense and also because beef consumption is forbidden by the Hindu religion.

    Today: The diet of farming families has changed little over the years; most farming families consume part of what they grow. As in the past, most food grown in India is grown on small farms. Meat consumption is still minimal because of religious beliefs.

  • 1950s: In the novel, Rukmani mentions that the men building the tannery are well paid, earning two rupees per day. By modern conversion, this is the equivalent of approximately four cents; yet the standard of living is so low that this is plenty of money.

    Today: Since 1951, India has instituted a succession of five-year plans intended to breathe life into the economy. With the exception of drought periods (such as in 1979 and 1987), these plans have been successful. Between 1965 and 1980, the economy grew at an annual rate of almost five percent, and from 1982 to 1992, annual growth was over seven percent. This means that despite population concerns, India's economic situation has improved over the last fifty years.

For Further Reference

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

Banerji, Niroj. Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study. Allahabad: Kitabmahal, 1990.

Barr, Donald. New York Times Book Review (March 15, 1955): 4. A review of Nectar in a Sieve.

Bhatnager, Anil Kumar. Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 1995.

Dunlea, William. Commonwealth (August 19,1955): 500. A review of Nectar in a Sieve. Godden, Rumer. New York Herald Tribune Book Review (May 15, 1955): 3. A review of Nectar in a Sieve.

Hughes, Riley. Catholic World (August 1955): 392. A review of Nectar in a Sieve. Jha, Rekha. The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Jhabvala. New Dehli: Prestige Books, 1990.

Krishna Rao, A. V. Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study of her Novels. Delhi: 1997. McLaughlin, Richard. Springfield Republican (June 12,1955): 6C. A review of Nectar in a Sieve.

Mish, J. L. Library Journal (April 1, 1955): 792. A review of Nectar in a Sieve. Muehl, J. F. Saturday Review (May 14,1955): 15. A review of Nectar in a Sieve.

Pathania, Usha. Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Kanishka, 1992. Singh, R. S. Indian Novel in English: A Critical Study. New Dehli: Arnold-Heinemann, 1977.

Spencer, Dorothy M. Indian Fiction in English: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1960. Includes an introductory essay on Indian culture and fiction and an annotated list of English-language titles, both fiction and autobiography, written by Indians.

"Taylor, Kamala (Purnaiya)." In Contemporary Authors, Volume 77-80. Detroit: Gale, 1979. A biographical sketch with commentary about Taylor' work.

Time (May 16,1955): 112. A review olNectar in a Sieve.

Walker, Gordon. Christian Science Monitor (May 26, 1955): 11. A review of Nectar in a Sieve.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Dunlea, William. "Tale of India." In Commonwealth, Vol. LXII, No. 20, August 19, 1955, pp. 500-501.

Glencoe Literature Library, Study Guide for Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. sec/literature/litlibrary/pdf/nectar_in_a_sieve.pdf (last accessed July 2001).

"India." In Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. Microsoft, 1997.

"Kamala (Purnaiya) Taylor." In Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001.

Muehl, J. F. Review of Nectar in a Sieve. In Saturday Review, May 14, 1955.

"Overview: Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya." In Literature Resource Center. The Gale Group, 1999.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Study Guide: South Asia Reading Series, Fall 1998. http://www.sdsmt. edu/online-courses/is/hum375/southasia.html (last accessed July 2001).

Teacher's Guide: Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. (last accessed July 2001).

Walsh, William. "Markandaya, Kamala." In Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1996, pp. 653-54.

Further Reading
Bhatnagar, Anil K. Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study. Sarup & Sons, 1995. Bhatnagar's analysis of Markandaya's novels reviews the themes presented by Markandaya throughout the range of settings and characters she creates. Bhatnagar suggests how these themes are drawn from the author's experiences in India and Europe.

Lalita, K., and Susie J. Tharu, eds. Women Writing in India. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1991. This two-volume anthology collects writings of Indian women from 600 B.C. to the 1990s. The editors include critical commentary with this wide-ranging collection of letters, poetry, memoirs, and fiction.

Parameswaran, Uma. Kamala Markandaya. Rawat, 2000. This overview of the life and career of Markandaya includes a chapter devoted to each of the author's novels.

Rao, A. V. Krishna. Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study of Her Novels, 1954-1982. B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1997. Rao offers a critical look at Markandaya's novels from Nectar in a Sieve through Pleasure City.


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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.

Jha, Rekha. The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Jhabvala. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1990. Examines Markandaya’s depiction of Hindu philosophy and value systems. Includes an extensive bibliography for material on Hindu society and culture, as well as criticism on Markandaya.

Joseph, Margaret. Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1980. Characterizes Markandaya as a deeply pessimistic writer who prophesizes the end of all Indian culture following British colonial rule.

Parameswaran, Uma. “India for the Western Reader: A Study of Kamala Markandaya’s Novels.” Texas Quarterly 10, no. 2 (Summer, 1968): 82-104. Gives a historical account of Markandaya’s expatriate situation, the reception of her works, and context of her writings.

Rao, Vimala. “Indian Expatriates.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 10, no. 3 (1975): 45-62. Argues that Markandaya’s exile makes her less perceptive of Indian economic and social realities. Essentially a critique of Markandaya’s efforts at depicting rural women.


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