Kamala Markandaya (Kamala Purnaiya Taylor) was born in 1924 in Chimakurti, India. She is a Brahman, which is the highest caste of Hindu, yet she writes empathetically and convincingly about peasant life in south Indian villages. Markandaya studied at the University of Madras, worked as a journalist in India, then married an Englishman and moved to London in 1948, a year after India gained independence from Britain. Markandaya has an interest in dignifying her people, so she creates complex, moving Characters and covers Themes that she hopes will debunk preconceived notions many Westerners have of Indian people as inferior to whites both socially and intellectually. Nectar in a Sieve was widely acclaimed for its portrayal of the culture clash between whites and nonwhites, and its success at revealing the commonality of the human condition. It received rave reviews and won the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award in 1955.
Nectar in a Sieve centers around Rukmani, an Indian peasant woman, and her family: her husband Nathan, her daughter Irawaddy, and six sons. Rukmani enters into the farming life and comes to the rural south Indian village at the age of twelve, when her parents give her hand in marriage to a tenant farmer with no money or status in life but with a good heart and a determination to succeed. Rukmani devotes herself to Nathan and he to her, and together they engage in a constant battle against poverty and hardship. Though they live on rented land, Nathan is proud to work it; when times are good, they grow rice and vegetables and have plenty of food to feed their family. When times are hard, however, they face adversity at every turn. The ways in which Rukmani and Nathan face that adversity help define them as strong, willful people who embrace traditional Hindu values and accept the challenges of their lower-caste status with courage and fortitude. At this time in history, however, British imperialists have infiltrated south India and are trying to convert the peasants to a more practical, albeit materialistic, lifestyle. Western imperialism encroaches on Rukmani’s life when a tannery moves into the village. Being a woman bound to cultural tradition, Rukmani fears the tannery, knowing that, although it will offer jobs, it will also rob many of the villagers of their land and livelihood. Her fears are not unfounded. She and Nathan lose several sons to the tannery, but they themselves cling to their reliance on the earth to provide.
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 is known for pitting Western realism against Eastern spiritualism and for contrasting the views of white people with the views of nonwhite people. She wishes to expose the universal human traits of the Indian peasant people, and she does this by creating complex Characters like Rukmani, whose depth and substance reveals both her strengths and her weaknesses. That Rukmani begins her story talking about the comfort she feels with Puli, the leper boy she adopts from the city, and about her love of the land and her relief at returning to the village is significant. It is interesting that she speaks first of comfort and love, because her life has been fraught with devastating hardship.
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 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.
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 work at the tannery? Why or why not?
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 India.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959) depicts the village life of the Ibo clan of Nigeria before and after colonization. Like Nectar in a Sieve, it exposes both the pain these people suffered and the unity they felt by upholding age-old rituals and traditions.