Nectar reflects Karmala Markandaya’s travels through impoverished villages in this chronicle of the life of Rukmani, an Indian peasant woman who struggles in a poverty throughout her life. In a novel of tradition, solitude, desolation, and the courage of the human spirit, Markandaya gently presents a modern India that is disconnected from its people and a people that assume responsibility for themselves.
Kamala Markandaya’s first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, was published in 1954. Markandaya was born in South India in 1924 to a middle class family that enabled her to travel through many rural areas during her childhood (Markandaya xiii). Nectar reflects Markandaya’s travels through impoverished villages in this chronicle of the life of Rukmani, an Indian peasant woman who struggles in a poverty throughout her life. In a novel of tradition, solitude, desolation, and the courage of the human spirit, Markandaya gently presents a modern India that is disconnected from its people and a people that assume responsibility for themselves. The title of the novel, Nectar in a Sieve, is borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Work Without Hope” in which he writes: “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live” (qtd. In Markandaya). This quotation is the thesis of Markandaya’s novel. Rukmani’s life illustrates Coleridge’s observation about hope and survival: she survives because she has hope, and for no other reason, as Markandaya emphasizes through the seemingly unendurable travails that Rukmani undergoes.
Rukmani, in her old age, recollects her story, the daughter of a village headman who marries beneath her caste because her father did not have enough dowry to marry his fourth daughter (Markandaya 4). This is Rukmani’s first glimpse of the poverty and inconsequence that she will face in her life. Marrying Nathan, a sharecropper, places Rukmani in a position to live through many trials that she would not face if she had not married beneath her. Yet, even in the destruction of their home and livelihood by a monsoon, the devastation of their crops by drought, the ravaging of their economy by industrialization (the tannery), and the death of several of her children and husband, Rukmani remains ever vigilant, ever self-reliant, and ever hopeful.
Rukmani’s plight sheds light on many historically relevant aspects of 1930s and 1940s India. Markandaya focuses on India’s family structures, economy, and absence of government. This review will investigate Nectar’s portrayal of the ideas of marriage, community responsibility, family values, and the woman’s role in all of these. It will also examine Markandaya’s depiction of India’s struggle to convert from an agrarian society to an industrial one and the absence of government relief or intervention in the lives of both the rural and urban peoples.
The marital traditions of marrying girls before they reach puberty and requiring the wife’s family to pay a dowry to the husband as motivation to marry their child are critical to Nectar’s plot. For if not for the custom of dowry, Rukmani would not be left to marry a man beneath her. Dowries often ruined families who had several females, like Rukmani’s, as her mother bemoans “What for you . . . . my last-born, my baby? Four dowries is too much for one man to bear” (Markandaya 4).
Another tradition that Markandaya presents for the reader’s analysis is the expectation of children to contribute to the family’s income. In rural settings, this triggers the desire in families for their children to be male, especially the firstborn as evident in Rukmani’s reaction to the birth of her firstborn, “tears came, tears of weakness and disappointment; for what woman wants a girl for her first-born” (Markandaya 15). Later, Nathan faces tragic disappointment later in the novel when his sons all desert the land to work in the tannery and the hospital, and he, along with his wife, daughters are left to tend to the land on their own.
Markandaya also describes the community dynamic of Rukmani’s village before and after industry moves in. Before the tannery was built, families and businesses succeeded by displaying loyalty and charity towards each other. Rukmani sold her vegetables to Old Granny until the tannery workers were able to pay higher prices. After the decline of the village economy, village members turn against each other and fight each other for food.