Nectar in a Sieve

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Nectar in a Sieve, which explains various Indian cultural practices and other information necessary for a full understanding of the short novel.
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Nectar in a Sieve

by Kamala Markandaya


Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya is a relatively short novel that introduces Western students to life in rural India and the changes that occurred during that country's British colonization. Although easy to read, the novel is lyrical and moving and can be read on a variety of levels. On the most basic level, it is the story of an arranged but loving marriage and rural peasant life. On another level, it is a tale of indomitable human spirit that overcomes poverty and unending misfortune. Finally, it is a novel about the conflicts between a traditional agricultural culture and a burgeoning industrial capitalistic society. The novel touches on several important socialphenomena: the importance of traditional cultural practices, people's reluctance to change, and the impact of economic change.

Nectar in a Sieve was first published in 1954, a few years after India gained political independence from Britain. Particularly appropriate in English or social studies classes, students can examine the novel's strong character development and cultural significance. For English classes, the novel provides opportunity for vocabulary study, examination of imagery and symbolism, and oral and written response to its themes: the indomitable human spirit, the nature of love, and human responses to suffering. The novel also can be examined as a tragedy or can be compared to novels with similar themes from a variety of cultures. In social studies, students can study the novel in units on India, the British Empire, the role of women in agricultural societies, evolving economies, the effects of poverty, and Hinduism. They also can examine the themes of conflicts between cultures and the benefits and problems of change.

The novel poses several problems for young readers that teachers can help them overcome. Although short, it is monotonous in parts. There are gaps in the episodes with some incidents not fully explained by Markandaya.

This teacher's guide attempts to fill these gaps by explaining the various cultural practices and providing background information necessary for a full understanding of the story. It is divided into several sections: Biographical Sketch of the Author; Synopsis; Main Characters; Background Information about India: Family Life, Religion, Birth, Marriage, Dress, Food, Education, Economy, and Communication; and Teaching Ideas: Prereading Activities, During Reading Activities, After Reading Activities, and Bibliography. Each of the activity sections will list activities for English and social studies. Activities suggested will be appropriate for students at a variety of ability and maturity levels. Those for more capable students will be starred (*).

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Kamala Purnaiya Markandaya was a twentieth century novelist from the south of India. In her early years she traveled widely in India and Europe. She was a journalist in India before migrating to London, England in 1948.

While in England she married an Englishman. She published her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, in 1954. Some of her other works include: Some Inner Fury (1955), The Coffer Dams (1969), The Nowhere Man (1972), Two Virgins (1973), and Shalimar (1983). Her works, Nectar in a Sieve in particular, received high commendation.


Nectar in a Sieve is the sad story of a large poverty-stricken Hindu family in a remote rural village in southern India. Despite valiant efforts, the family failed to extricate itself from abject poverty caused by hardships of nature and economics. This poverty forced the only daughter into prostitution and caused three sons to leave the village to seek employment. With very little to eat, it was a miracle the family remained alive. In spite of their hardships, the family exhibited love, contentment, and hope that their situation would improve, but this hope never became a reality.

Rukmani (Ruku) married Nathan and bore a daughter, Ira, and six sons, four of them in quick succession following a long period of infertility after Ira's birth. As the family grew in size, their resources diminished and their problems increased. Ira eventually returned to live with her parents after her childless marriage ended. She subsequently had an illegitimate son, Sacrabani. The two eldest sons of Rukmani and Nathan migrated to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) after losing their jobs at the tannery for instigating a strike; the third son went to the city to take up employment; the fourth was killed when he was found searching for food in the vicinity of the tannery; the fifth became apprenticed to a white doctor; the last died as a child.

With very little substance to begin with, the family became dependent on a small tract of land they rented from a heartless, absentee landlord. The sons did not want to remain on the land as Nathan had. Although Nathan and Rukmani expected them to stay, they saw no hope of improving their situation. The family's home was a mudwalled structure with thatched roof and earthen floor. They planted rice and vegetables, crops were destroyed by drought and monsoon, they were forced to sell most of their possessions and live extremely frugally. For brief periods, they enjoyed some degree of prosperity. When the family was small, the crop good, and the boys worked in the tannery the family ate well, had crops to sell, and were able to store some of their rice. Kenny, the white doctor, whose ambition was to build a hospital with the foreign aid he collected, became a close family friend and helped them with money, food, and medicine. Rice cultivation, being very labor-intensive, took a toll on Nathan's health, especially since sons disappointedly but understandably did not help much.

The construction of the tannery in the village provided employment for some but increased the price of consumer goods and succeeded in squeezing many of the peasants off the land. When Nathan's land was sold to the tannery, he and Rukmani went to the city in search of their third son with whom they had never corresponded. There they found an equally cruel environment. Their few belongings and money were stolen as they sought refuge in the temple, and they were forced to survive mainly on handouts of food given as offerings to the gods and goddesses. In addition, they failed to find their son who had left his wife and male child. Nathan and Ruku yearned for the land from which they had been evicted. When they finally saved enough money to return to their village from the backbreaking work they acquired at a stone quarry with the help of Puli, a destitute but cunning street boy, Nathan died. Ruku, however, returned to the village with Puli, who she introduced as her adopted son and for whom she expected medical attention from Kenny to rid him of the disease which had eaten away his fingers. Apparently, the cycle of poverty would continue for the family who now had no land and relied on Kenny and their apprenticed son Selvam for support.

Main Characters

1. Rukmani (Ruku) is the hardworking and devoted wife of Nathan. She is willing to accept challenges in order to achieve her aims. Like her husband, she hopes their situation will improve. She seems to have an aversion to change.

2. Nathan is hard working and supportive of his wife. He, too, hopes for better times and is disappointed that his sons do not want to work on the land. He dies in the city after they lose their land and he and Ruku go to look for their son, Murugan.

3. Kennington (Kenny) is a benevolent village doctor, probably British, who discharges his functions diligently. His ambition is to build a hospital in the village with foreign aid, and he devotes much time and energy to this project. He adapts well to Indian culture, speaks the language, and eats Indian food. However, he cannot understand the peasants' unwillingness to accept change.

4. Old Granny sells fruits and vegetables in the street market and serves as a matchmaker. Her moment of glory is when she successfully finds an acceptable groom for Ira, but this glory dissipates when Ira is separated from her husband.

5. Kunthi is an attractive woman of the village who becomes a prostitute after the opening of the tannery. An opportunist, she successfully blackmails both Nathan and Ruku to obtain food from them during the drought.

6. Kali is a village woman who talks a great deal about seemingly unimportant things.

7. Biswas is the avaricious money lender who capitalizes on opportunities to extort gains from the villagers.

8. Puli, a cunning, young, orphaned boy, learns to survive on the city streets. He helps Ruku and Nathan find work and survive in the city and eventually becomes a member of the family.

9. The children of Ruku and Nathan:

a. Irawaddy (Ira), the only daughter, is married at age fourteen but separated from her husband because she cannot bear him a child. She returns to live with her parents. Poverty forces her into prostitution. She eventually has an illegitimate albino son, Sacrabani.

b. Arjun and Thambi do not want to work the land with their father. Briefly, they are employed at the tannery and are able to make a financial contribution to the home. After they lose their jobs, they emigrate to Ceylon to work and have no communication with the family.

c. Murugan leaves the village to become a servant in the city. He marries and fathers a son but deserts his family to seek employment elsewhere. He fails to keep in touch with his wife or parents.

d. Raja becomes frail because of malnutrition and is beaten to death by the watchmen when he is found rummaging for food in the vicinity of the tannery. His parents have no recourse and are persuaded by the watchmen to admit that they were not responsible for his death.

e. Selvam builds on what his mother taught him and thus becomes the most educated person in the family. He is apprenticed to Kenny and looks forward to the completion of the hospital.

f. Kuti becomes closely attached to Ira but in spite of her efforts to buy him food with money she earns from prostitution, he suffers and dies from malnutrition.

About the author

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