42 pages 1 hour read

Kamala Markandaya

Nectar in a Sieve

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1954

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Summary and Study Guide


Nectar in a Sieve is a 1954 classical fiction novel written by Kamala Markandaya, who was one of the most prominent 20th-century Indian novelists. It was her first novel and was named an American Library Association Notable Book in 1955. The novel’s plot follows Rukmani, a poor farmer’s wife, as she learns what it means to survive and find happiness in postcolonial and post-partition India. Through Rukmani’s eyes, Markandaya explores the impacts of poverty, the ever-present conflict between tradition and progress, and the effects of modernization on rural life.

Page references in this guide refer to the 2002 Signet Classics hardcover edition.

Plot Summary

An older Rukmani sits and looks at the life she’s built. She currently lives with her remaining family: a son, a daughter, a grandchild, and an adopted son. Her life is now comfortable, but that wasn’t always the case. She recalls her youth as the daughter of a village headman, who marries a poor farmer, Nathan, because her family cannot afford a dowry for her. Despite some challenges, she takes to her new life as a wife and grows vegetables in their backyard. She bears Nathan their first child, a daughter they name Irawaddy, which is shorted to Ira. However, she is ashamed that she did not bear Nathan a son to carry on the family name, and though they try, she cannot conceive again for several years. She meets Kenny, a traveling white man, who offers Rukmani fertility treatments to help her conceive more children. Each year afterward for four years, she bears a son to strengthen their family.

Several years later, a drastic change occurs: Men come and build a tannery in the center of the village. Some village people, such as Kali, think the tannery is a blessing to their community; others, like Rukmani, fear it threatens their traditional way of living. She cannot focus on the implications of the tannery for long, though, because it is time to find Ira a husband. Rukmani approaches Old Granny—a friend and a regular customer of Rukmani’s vegetables—to serve as the liaison between her and the families of potential suitors. Old Granny agrees and soon makes a match for Ira. The wedding occurs, and Ira leaves to live with her new husband. Soon after the wedding, a monsoon strikes the village and destroys their crops, but the villagers soon recover.

The tannery opens, and business booms for the village. In response, vendors begin raising their prices, so the average person cannot afford their groceries anymore. To help their family, two of Rukmani’s sons work at the tannery. One day, Ira’s husband returns her to her family because she has not borne him children and he does not want to wait for her to conceive. Rukmani approaches Kenny and asks him to provide Ira with fertility treatments like he provided for her. He agrees but cannot promise her they will work. Rukmani, however, becomes pregnant one last time and bears a child named Kuti.

When the field requires little attention, Nathan and Rukmani visit their children on their lunch break at the tannery and eat with them. This happens until the workers strike to demand better wages. Rukmani’s boys lose their jobs and receive offers to work on a distant island, which they accept. Despite the family leaving, Nathan promises her they will have a bountiful harvest. However, this does not happen because a drought occurs; by the time rain comes, the crops are dead. Nathan replants them, and Rukmani portions out what they have remaining so the family can eat for 24 days. Kunthi, another villager, takes advantage of Rukmani and extorts a week’s worth of rice rations from her; she then discovers that Kunthi did the same to Nathan, who took rice from the secret stash buried outside the house.

Rukmani hears a sound in the night and believes Kunthi has returned to take more from her family. She sneaks out and attacks the individual, only to discover it is Ira sneaking out to earn money for the family by performing sex work. Though her parents disapprove of how she makes money, Ira uses her income to provide medicine for Kuti, who is sick. The medicine does not save Kuti, who dies shortly after.

When Rukmani takes vegetables to the market, one of her frequent buyers informs her that Kenny is back. She talks to him about Ira, who is now pregnant by an unknown man, and he assures her that Ira’s condition is not shameful, though she believes her neighbors will talk. The next day, Rukmani’s son, Selvam, informs his family that he does not want to farm and will work with Kenny as they build a hospital. Once the hospital is finished, he will train under Kenny to become a healer. However, the construction goes slowly and takes several years to complete. Meanwhile, Ira gives birth to a fair-skinned child whom Nathan believes is a bad omen. However, they perform the appropriate traditions, and the family accepts the baby, Sacrabani, as their own. As he grows, others isolate him and will not let him participate in their games because of his different skin color.

When Nathan falls ill, Rukmani visits Kenny to ask for assistance. Kenny says Nathan needs rest. He recovers, but a year later, they lose their home because they cannot pay the rent. They travel to a distant city where their son, Murugan, lives. Upon arriving, they stay at a temple, where they receive food for a single night. The next day, they meet a child named Puli, who helps them find the doctor they believe Murugan works for. However, Murugan left the job, as well as his next job with the Collector, and left his wife to care for their son during this time. His wife sends Rukmani and Nathan away, and they return to the temple to decide their next course of action. They work at a quarry until they make enough money to travel home. Nathan never gets to see home, though—he dies in the temple after some time working at the quarry. After his passing, Rukmani convinces Puli to return with her and live with her and her family. He accepts, and her family takes Puli in.