How does Kamala Markandaya use and challenge Indian cultural traditions in the early chapters of Nectar in a Sieve?

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Sometimes, an author will both draw upon and question certain traditions he/she is writing about; in this case, Markandaya is primarily interested in the cultural traditions of India. To 'draw upon' is to make references to those traditions in order to tell a compelling story. To 'question' those traditions is to present those traditions and their consequences in a way that causes the reader to wonder at the necessity of them.

In the book, Markandaya draws upon Indian cultural traditions to tell a story about the lives of a poverty-stricken family in a remote Indian village. Rukmani (Ruku) and Nathan are the parents of a daughter and six sons. In Chapter 1, Ruku tells us that she was married to Nathan at the age of twelve. This means that she was a child bride, a tradition not uncommon in India today.

Markandaya skilfully presents the panorama of emotions that Ruku experiences as she is taken to her husband's new home, a pitiful shack Nathan built himself from mud and thatch. As a prepubescent bride, Ruku has no options other than to submit to the traditions that have been in place before her birth. It is estimated that India has the highest number of child brides in the world today, with almost 50% of girls marrying before their eighteenth birthdays.

Markandaya clearly presents the plight of young girls and their parents who are beholden to a system designed to preserve the status quo in Indian marriages. Child marriages are most prevalent in rural areas in India, as in the novel. Because Ruku is not beautiful, and her family is too poor to afford a dowry, Ruku must submit to marriage at a young age to the first available and agreeable male candidate.

The dowry tradition works like this: the bride's parents pay up. The groom's parents receive the dowry. Dowries usually take the form of money, material gifts, or both. The more educated and better looking a groom is, the more his parents can demand for a dowry. Dowries were originally meant to provide the bride and groom with the means to set up their own household.

Today, as in Ruku's time, dowries have come to mean an opportunity for extortion and bribery, with the hapless bride caught in the web of negotiations and unable to defend her rights. Markandaya's portrayal of Ruku's plight (drawing upon examples of Indian cultural tradition) leads us to question, along with the author, why such traditions are necessary. Indeed, the practice of bride-burning (the maiming or killing of brides) is a worrying trend for those families who cannot meet the dowry demands of ambitious grooms.

The dowry system is supported by the cultural tradition of not educating daughters above certain levels. Without an education, impoverished brides possess no options for improving their financial or economic outlook. Thus, marriage and a dowry are necessary to preserve her survival. However, Markandaya's portrayal of Ruku's plight leads us to question: at what cost is survival ensured?

When Ruku gives birth to her first child, she is devastated that it is a girl. She and Nathan name the girl Irawaddy, Ira for short. Initially, both Ruku and Nathan treat Ira as a liability, a 'pulling infant who would take with her a dowry and leave nothing but a memory behind.' However, the child's beauty gives the impoverished couple some hope: perhaps, she might make a good marriage when she is grown.

Although she is not harmed, Ira's plight at birth demonstrates the danger to girls born in India: many are aborted or simply killed. Female infanticide is a horror perpetuated by an unforgiving dowry system. In India, sons are a necessary insurance against grinding poverty: it is better to receive dowries than to have to give them. Markandaya's first few chapters illustrate this very clearly for us and leads us to question, along with her, the efficacy of such an unfair system.

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