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.
Being so dependent on the land puts them at the mercy of nature’s destructiveness, however. Monsoons and drought wreak their havoc, and Nathan and Rukmani suffer from hunger and disease. They lose their land, and eventually leave the village and the farming life they love. They travel to a city but find themselves living as beggars in a temple and doing backbreaking work at a stone quarry. But Nectar in a Sieve is more about love than about hardship, and more about strength and determination than about misfortune. Rukmani loses her husband, who dies from exhaustion in the city, one son who dies of starvation, one son who is murdered while he searches for food, and three other sons who leave their village life for the promise of more money. But Rukmani carries on and returns to the land she loves. She narrates the story as an old woman, looking back on her struggles. At the end of the novel, she is living with her son Selvam, who remained in the village as an apprentice to a British doctor who opened a hospital to care for the peasants. Rukmani also lives with her daughter Irawaddy, who works as a prostitute to feed herself and her illegitimate albino son Sacrabani, and a 10-year-old boy named Puli, stricken with leprosy. Rukmani meets him when she is living as a beggar in the temple and she convinces him to return to the village with her, promising him renewed health.