Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve

by Kamala Markandaya


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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

This beautiful and eloquent story tells of a simple peasant woman in a primitive village in India whose whole life was a gallant and persistent battle to care for those she loved.

Married as a child bride to a tennant farmer she had never seen, she worked side by side in the field with her husband to wrest a living from land that was ravaged by droughts, monsoons, and insects. With remarkable fortitude and courage, she sought to meet changing times and fight poverty and disaster. She saw one of her infants die from starvation, her daughter become a prostitute, and her sons leave the land for jobs which she distrusted. And, somehow, she survived...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781388415884
Publisher: Blurb
Publication date: 10/08/2018
Pages: 104
Sales rank: 1,088,883
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.25(d)

About the Author

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, who was born in Bangalore, India in 1924 and died in England in 2004. Her family was Brahman, the highest caste in Hindu society. Markandaya made an effort to know not just the city in which she lived but also India's rural areas. She was educated at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, and worked briefly for a weekly newspaper before emigrating to England in 1948. There she met her husband, with whom she lived in London. While Markandaya made England her home, she made many visits to India over the years to stay in touch with her culture and to find inspiration and ideas for her fiction.

Reading Group Guide


Set in India during a period of intense urban development, Nectar in a Sieve was first published in 1954, a few years after India gained political independence from Britain. It is the poignant story of a large poverty-stricken Hindu family in a remote rural village in southern India. The story is told in the first person by Rukmani, beginning with her arranged marriage at age twelve to tenant farmer Nathan.

Rukmani and Nathan love each other and their marriage begins in relative peace and prosperity; however, a large tannery is built in the neighboring village and begins insidiously destroying their lives. As the tannery grows larger and more prosperous, Rukmani and Nathan struggle to feed their children and to pay the rent on the land that gives them life. Although matters continue to worsen, they quietly persevere through ever-increasing hardships—flood, famine, even death—and cling to their hopes for a better future.


Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924 in Mysore, in southern India. Between 1940 and 1947, she worked as a journalist and published short stories in Indian newspapers. She married an Englishman and immigrated to England in 1948, where she had one daughter.

Markandaya published Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel, in 1954, to wide critical acclaim. A huge commercial success, it quickly became a modern classic. Author Shashi Tharoor put it best when he said, "Markandaya was a pioneer who influenced all of us Indians writing in English."

  • The novel is told through first person narration, many years after the story takes place. Why might the author have used this technique? How would the novel have been different if it had been told through Rukmani's perspective as a child, or if a different character narrated the story?
  • The concept of hope is central to this novel. How do Rukmani and Nathan show their hope? What keeps them hopeful?
  • Why does Rukmani choose not to tell Nathan that she has gone to Kenny for help with her infertility? How does she eventually find peace in telling him the truth?
  • How does the coming of the tannery affect the family's life? How do the various characters react to its presence? Why?
  • One of the ironies of peasant life, as portrayed in the novel, is that sons are required to maintain the family's subsistence. However, more children mean more mouths to feed. Why are sons so important? What keeps the sons in the novel from working the fields?
  • Rukmani teaches all of her children to read and write, even though many in her village believe this can lead to trouble. What would have happened to her children if she had not done so? How else throughout the novel do the characters demonstrate knowledge as a powerful catalyst for change?
  • Throughout the novel Kenny's views of the peasants and Rukmani's views of Kenny and other white men set up an interesting debate. Do you agree with either of them? Is there a common ground?
  • At the time this novel was written, child marriage was a common practice in India. Why do you think this was so ingrained in the culture? How do you think its prohibition has changed life in India?
  • The title Nectar in a Sieve comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "Work Without Hope": "Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live." What does this mean? Why do you think Markandaya chose it for the title of her novel?
  • How does Markandaya address the fundamental question of Hindu belief: what does it mean to be human?
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    Nectar in a Sieve 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya is an extremely interesting novel illustrating the struggles an Indian woman faces as she endures the changes white men bring to her small village. The author shows readers how Western industrialization and modernization greatly affected the lives of Indian civilians throughout the twenthieth century. The main character, Rukmani, witnesses her home transform from a connected, reliable, and enjoyable place to one where foreign ideas pollute the society and corrupt the minds and hearts of many. Through her struggles, Rukmani works hard to maintain hope for her family and remains supportive of the decisions made around her. Kamala Markandaya uses Rukmani to effectively portray the hardships imposed on Indians when the Westerners began implementing their own improvements. She preceisly depicts the changing perspectives and ways of life for people of India while white men transformed their society. After reading this revealing and heartfelt novel, I was able to see the true impact of Western influence in India. Kamala Markandaya creates many characters that help bring readers into the lives of struggling Indians in the twenthieth century. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading about one's strength despite adversity. Nectar in a Sieve is an excellent novel that depicts the many struggles and instances of happiness of Indian society.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Set in a small village in India, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve is a griping novel that tells a story of a woman's struggle to find happiness and her own inner strength in a changing India. Markandaya writes a very real tale of a 12 year old girl, Rukmani, through all her troubles until her last days. The author explains through Rukmani, the toils and tribulations struggling famillies in India faced. Shes goes in depth at some points in the novel, to the point where you have to drag through pages, but other than a few extra details this novel is very well written. All in all, this was a wonderful read. The book was very detailed and made you feel like you actually knew Rukmanni. Nectar in a Sieve is such an eye opener to the world around us. I enjoyed reading about the Indian culture, how ever rough and different it may be from ours. I'd recommend this novel to anyone in middle school or older. We can always learn something new about ourselves and other through any literature at any time in our lives.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I jad to read this for school. I got a good grade on the test because the book is very well written and fairly easy to follow. Rukmani and Nathan suffer many hard times. Through a monsoon, drought, loss of family members and their life in thecity, they manage to maintain hope. I highly recommend this book!
    Read_A_Book More than 1 year ago
    This is an absolutely beautiful novel that I’ve now read eight times, and I love it more with each reading. Markandaya really has a way with words, painting a vivid picture of what life is like in rural India, how wealth is decided by the season and weather, and how everything can be lost in an instant. In this circular novel, Rukmani tells her life story, beginning with a dream, then delving deep into the past, tracing her life from childhood to present, causing the reader to rejoice and cry alongside her as she reveals all in this heartbreaking yet triumphant novel. Having married young and leaving her family behind, Rukmani learns what it means to be the woman of the house, working the soil alongside her husband, praying for sons, and caring for those around her. Coming from wealth, her life is not what she expected, but her easy demeanor and good nature cause her never a grumble, making her a lovable character that the reader easily connects with, though we may never experience all the triumphs or tribulations that Ruku does. The fact that the story is so poignant and easy to follow, let alone interesting and intriguing, makes for a fast read, and though Rukmani’s life is so vastly different from my own, I can’t help but look up to her. She experiences vast heartache, but always comes back strong, making her twice the woman I am… The truths Markandaya presents in this novel are absolutely amazing and learning about Ruku’s culture, her way of life, her happiness, and her sadness really presses upon me the importance of living each day to the fullest and focusing on the good in life, as Ruku does. I find that this is a very powerful novel and I strongly believe that all should read it.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    A beautiful young woman, married to a poor hopeless farmer with no choice of her own. Her parent chose this life for her and now she has to live life hour by hour, day by day and every minute of it she is regretting living. Never knowing when she will be able to eat or when she will be able see her children. She is living a life in hope that she will someday become the woman she has always dreamt about, or she is hoping that she might not have to live at all. Married to a farmer by age 12 she knew that she was not going to like her life. She would have to work on a farm with her husband and hope that she would be able to feed her family, if not herself. This farm is filled with bad memories that she would have to live with for the rest of her life. Not only was this hardship bad enough but her but the farm she and her husband owns has dry unfertile soil that is horrible for growing crops. This farm will also endure a life of hardship. Having to survive (if that is what you would call it) the droughts monsoons, and insects.
    Zmrzlina on LibraryThing 6 days ago
    Beautiful writing and the book is worthy of the praise heaped upon it. I didn't particular enjoy reading this as there was no tension. Life was dismal and just got more dismal. Not that I wanted a "happily ever after" ending because I despise contrived, neat endings. For me, this was a very, very long short story. The title is just so amazingly perfect, though. The people in the story always know the sweetness in life will seep out and be gone. So very sad. I wonder how much has changed, or hasn't changed in India. I do think there is life in the US that is like "nectar in a sieve," too, though not nearly as desperate as mid-20th century India. I keep thinking of Rukmani's comments about not being able to plan for the future and keep thinking how people come to accept that as the way things have to be. Too many people live by the "live for the day" rule, I think. All over the world.
    mattviews on LibraryThing 13 days ago
    Set in some village in India, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve is a gripping story of one indefatigable woman's survival of a checkered life, one that had no margin for misfortune. Neither does the book have surprises nor twist, but readers will find a determined, unrelinquished fighter in a woman who bears an unfailing faith and rams through impregnable clamor that invades her life.Rukmani married Nathan, a tenant farmer whom she had never met, as a child bride. Even though Rukmani was ignorant of the simplest of tasks, Nathan never uttered a single cross word and gave an impatient look. He looked at her as if nobody had discovered her beauty. He never asserted his rights to forbid her reading and writing, a talent that placed Rukmani above her illiterate husband.Misfortune seemed to have a tight foothold in Rukmani and Nathan. The monsoon inundated the rice paddies where Rukmani worked side by side with Nathan to wrest a living for a household of eight. No sooner had the monsoon tapered off than a drought ravaged the harvest. Hope and fear acted like twin forces that tugged at them in one direction and another.Poverty-stricken Rukmani saw her daughter Ira become a prostitute, her 4-year-old son Kuti died from hunger, her teenage son Raja caught stealing and beaten to death, her oldest sons Thambi and Arjun set off to Ceylon to work in a tea plantation. The opening of a tannery, of which Rukmani was only skeptical, had spread like weeds and strangled whatever life grew in its way, changed the village beyond recognition.And yet, Rukmani survived. The interminable poverty and impregnable fate of Rukmani and Nathan must evoke in readers' pity and sympathy. But at the same time, Rukmani, whom Nathan always appeased, might seem somewhat self-piteous, cynical, and complaisant (like Dr. Kennington said, she needed to cry out for help). Ira, who exchanged her body for Kuti's milk and food, had lost her reason and given up her sanity rather than faced the truth.A recurring theme of the book is the significance of land that fostered life, spirits, happiness and family. Rukmani often found solace in the land on which her husband built a home for her with his own hands in the time he was waiting for her. She often reminisced the very home to which Nathan had brought her with pride. The land became her life:"I looked about me at the land and it was life to my starving spirit. I felt the earth beneath my feet and wept for happiness." (188)So much was the book about Rukmani. The one character that stood out to me was Selvam, one of her younger son who flinched and quailed at the firecracker and used the money intended for firecracker to buy a confection cane. As wealth lured all his elder brothers away, he stayed behind and took care of his family, shouldered the household responsibilities while assisting in the village hospital.Nectar in a Sieve is a book that will make you lump in the throat. The writing is painfully eloquent, taut, and cut-to-the-root. The living conditions, life struggles, poverty, fragility and abasement of life depicted are beyond imaginations to those who live in the first world and have never stretch a single meal portion to three meals. Everyday was a life-and-death situation.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Oh the joy of finding such a book. So very beautiful. Beautifully written. A unforgetable love story an inspirational heroine. Best book in a long time So sad. The author died long ago.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    alexphilAU More than 1 year ago
    Nectar in a Sieve is an Indian family story that is culturally and socially sound. It is a beautiful story of a family that went through a lot in their life. I find the Indian culture richly interwoven with the events of the story that involves a family grappling with survival in a setting that is immensely povertous. The struggle of each family member is one that shook heaven and earth in the story. Its beginning is beautiful until the events come one after the other in the story that lead the family to be in complete solidarity. This is a must read for those interested in Indian culture and family relationship.
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    Kamala Markandaya's character Rukmani describes her life from a little girl to an elderly grandmother in Nectar in a Sieve. From her early life, she knew that the conditions that most directly effected her life were changing. She was not given a grand, lavish wedding when she was 12 years old like her sisters were because their father, the village headman, was losing his power to the new British authority. The village she lived in with her husband was quickly over taken by more white men and changed into a thriving town complete with a tannery and new houses for the multitude of workers needed to run it. Only after money and land, these men refused to help during the droughts and flooding caused by monsoon rains that brought starvation into Rukmani's family of her husband, six sons and one daughter. She is a rebel against this change. She does not and will not ever accept it. She sees the violence, corruption, and unfairness brought by these newcomers who speak to the Indians as if they are inferior. The industrialization they bring to her village greatly displeases her. Prices of market items are driven up, land is taken from people to be made into a factory or houses for its workers, and laborers in search of a job crowd into the new town, as well as beggers, harlots, and hooligans. The starvation brought on by the monsoon winds and the state of the village after the white men come leads Rukmani to take extreme steps to care for her family. I think that she has a great sense of ownership and love towards her family that made her strong during her hardships. The duty she felt towards them made her keep fighting for what she believed was right. She did everything in her power to keep providing food for them, to educate them, to nurture them, and to give them a solid foundation for the rest of their lives. Between saving for a grand wedding for Ira, allowing her two sons to chase their dreams of a content life by leaving the village, and going hungry so her family could eat, Rukmani was an advocate for strength and is a character created by Markandaya to inspire others to fight through adversity. However, Rukmani's strength comes from and is applied in strange places. She believes that a woman's place is next to a husband. She allows Ira to prostitute herself on the streets, using her beautiful body as a tool to earn money. She submits to the will of Kenny because he is a white man and to Nathan because he is her husband. Her strength is applied to her family, but not to herself. She allows herself to be ordered around and scolded by Nathan and called ignorant and stupid by Kenny without putting up a fight. She is a strong parent and a strong promoter of her beliefs, but not strong as a woman. Also, the reasons behind her fight to feed her family and to have money are often that she cares what her neighbors will think of her. She is afraid of what people in the town will think of her and her family if they can not eat, if her sons do not go back to work at the tannery after they start a rebellion, and if Ira births a child out of prostitution. Not always does she do the things she does out of love and protection of her family, but for the keeping up of their appearance. Because of this, I think Markandaya does a fair job of accomplishing the purpose of inspiring strength in her readers. Rukmani does whatever is necessary to fend for her family, but not always for the right reasons or to the right causes.