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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Updated: June 9, 2019
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Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve

Family Life

An extended family structure was common among Indian families. Often, as any as three generations lived in the same house. This resulted in problems such as lack of privacy, inadequate resources, family disputes, and dependence on diminishing food supplies produced on ever less fertile land.

Although there were not enough resources available to the family, its members lived with some contentment and peace. Rukmani (Ruku) and Nathan were devoted to each other until Nathan's death. They encouraged and supported each other. Nathan was a compassionate and loving husband. Ruku adjust quickly to the role of a homemaker. The belief among Indians was that a woman's place was in the home, bringing up children, preparing meals, keeping house, and maintaining religious and cultural traditions. In addition, Ruku planted a vegetable garden and on occasions helped Nathan in the rice field.

Ruku and Nathan worked hard to achieve their goals. They attempted to put aside food and money to purchase their land and provide for their family. When that failed and they were forced off the land, they worked at backbreaking labor to earn money to return home from the city. A characteristic of Indians is their frugality, as evidenced in Ruku's astute handling of the family's meager finances. To some extent, the couple was broad minded, but also incredibly naive and unworldly. They trusted Puli, shared their food with him, and in the end, Ruku took him home, aware that there was not enough food for her own family.

In an extended family, strong family ties often discourage members from leaving the family unit. Nathan and Ruku, for example, tried to dissuade their sons Arjun and Thambi from going to Ceylon, even though their land and meager resources could not support them. As with most Indian peasant fathers, Nathan wanted his sons to stay and work the land, but they were reluctant to do so because they recognized that the family's situation would not improve and their opportunities were better elsewhere. This provides an example of how changing, industrialized economies alter extended family structures that tend to exist in agricultural, peasant economies. Selvam had similar thoughts about the land, but when he decided to work for Kenny his parents did not stop him because he was not going to leave the family's home as his elder brothers had done. In many ways, villagers were also an extension of the family helping one another during births, deaths, marriages, and drought or monsoon.

Ruku and Nathan were hopeful that their situation would improve. Nathan aspired to buy a house like that of his father-in-law and abandoned certain traditional Hindu practices such as revering the cobra. Ruku was proud. Despite the sufferings they experienced in the city, for example, she refused to beg. Her resilience and great reluctance to deal with change sometimes irked Kenny who saw her acceptance of fate as a weakness. Ruku, like many peasants, was worried that the construction of the tannery would destroy their traditional way of life; she failed to see its potential economic benefits. To a large extent, she was right. However, she, too, unlike many peasants, accepted some modern ways exhibited in her faith in medicine to cure hers and Ira's infertility. However, this acceptance of modern medicine was her attempt to preserve the tradition and culture of Indian peasant life. Without the help provided by Kenny, she knew that neither she nor Ira would bear sons, and without sons their traditional way of life would be destroyed.


Hinduism is the dominant religion in India. Islam and Christianity also are practiced. When India was partitioned in 1947, most of the Muslims moved to what is now Pakistan. Some, however, remained in India.

The practice of Hinduism is filled with ceremonies and rituals. On different occasions Hindus pray to the various gods and goddesses. The family did seek God's blessings of the paddy seeds before they were planted, and they offered thanks to God for a good crop. This was a common practice. Very often Hindus conclude their prayers by offering gifts (food, flowers, money, etc.) to the gods and goddesses. The use of mango leaves during Hindu ceremonies remains common today.

Hindus observe many festivals during the year. One such festival is Deepavali or Festival of Lights. This festival is observed to commemorate the return of Lord Rama to his father's kingdom at the conclusion of his period of exile. The people welcomed him with lights because it was a dark night when he returned. Despite their poverty, the family managed to celebrate Deepavali.

As a general practice, Hindus cremate the dead, and the cremation is ceremony is male-dominated. In some parts of the world where Hinduism is practiced, Hindu women do not go to the cemetery for a burial, but do attend cremation ceremonies.

The village portrayed in this novel must have been extremely isolated since Ruku was amazed by the Muslim women whose husbands worked at the tannery. Muslims were common in India at the time. One reason why the Muslims rather than Hindus worked in the tannery might have been that they have no aversion to handling cow hides. To Hindus, the cow is sacred, revered, and sometimes worshipped. Hindus generally do on eat beef and do not handle a cow after it has been slaughtered. Nathan's two sons violated this religious practice by working in the tannery. In addition, they probably violated the caste system since each caste is associated with a certain occupation, and they were born into the agricultural caste.


The birth of a child in India is a joyous event, particularly when the child is male. A male child is an asset to a family, growing up to work the land. In addition, the birth of a male child, especially a first born, is perceived by many Indians as a reflection of the father's masculinity. A female child is a liability to a family not only because she will not work the land, but also because a dowry must be given at her marriage. Ruku, for example, saved for Ira's dowry from her birth. In fact, a handsome dowry is a major consideration for a prospective groom and his parents.

Married couples expect to have and are expected to have children. Couples pray for children. Lack of children causes more than disappointment; childless couples are not respected. When Ruku gave birth to Ira and then did not bear a child for several years, Nathan began to worry. He made it clear that he wanted sons to work the land. Ruku sought, albeit secretly, Kenny's medical help. When their first son, Arjun was born, Nathan and his father-in-law celebrated his birth.

A childless union could have serious social consequences for a family. Ira's husband, for example, left her because she did not bear a child. Again, Ruku sought Kenny's help and eventually Ira gave birth to a son. Unfortunately, this birth was an unwelcome one; the child was illegitimate, a result of her prostitution. In addition, he was an albino. An illegitimate child in an Indian family was a stigma and source of gossip and ridicule. The child suffered socially and psychologically and was shunned by his peers.

In remote villages in India, an experienced and knowledgeable person often performs the role of a midwife and assists in the birth of the child. The only mention of a midwife in the novel is when one of the other villagers gives birth, but it is likely that one would have been present when Ruku bore her children. It is also likely that other female villagers would be present at a child's birth as they were in Ruku's case. However, only Ruku was present when Ira gave birth. It is likely that the illegitimacy of the child kept the family from following traditional customs.

A birth in a Hindu family is usually followed by various rituals. One such ritual is the naming ceremony. Following the birth of Ruku's first son, many villagers attended this ceremony at the family's home. Another, not mentioned in the novel, is a ceremony at which the child's head is shaved.


Hindu weddings are replete with ceremonies and rituals. Much preparation is required before the day of the wedding, and celebrations can last for several days. On the day of the wedding, people are gaily dressed and there is much merriment, food, drinks, and music. The extent of the celebration depends on the wealth and status of the parents. Celebrations could be unnecessarily extravagant and leave people penniless. The couple, the groom in particular, and parents are usually presented with gifts. Ira's wedding was more modest than many. The music was provided only by drums, for example. Weddings, such as Ira's, are community affairs among Hindus in small villages. People help each other prepare for the occasion.

A marriage is initiated by identifying a suitable groom. This is usually done by a matchmaker or go-between. Arranged marriages were common in India at the time of the novel. In Ira's case, Granny served as the matchmaker. The identification of a good groom depended on the size of the bride's dowry, the beauty of the bride, and any special skills she possessed. The dowry was most important to the groom and his parents. Since Ira's parents (and earlier, Ruku's) did not have much to offer, they could not expect a particularly good groom. Ruku speaks of this disappointment in terms of her match with Nathan. However, everyone, particularly Granny, was pleased with Ira's match, which probably enhanced Granny's reputation as a matchmaker and increased her chance of obtaining another assignment. Understandably, when the marriage failed because of Ira's suspected infertility, Granny blamed herself although Ruku tried to convince her otherwise.

In arranged marriages, the bride usually has very little say. This was true for both Ruku and Ira. Once the two families agreed on the match, the date of the wedding was fixed by the priest after consulting the religious calendar. There are certain seasons in the year when it is considered best to marry; marrying outside the season is not advisable. A wedding also might be preceded by an engagement celebration and other ceremonies.

At the time this novel was written, child marriage was a common practice in India. Ira was married at fourteen and moved to her in-laws' residence to become part of their extended family. Ruku was about twelve when she married Nathan. In some cases the ages of children were less than thirteen years, but these brides did not immediately move in with the groom or his family. Today, child marriage is prohibited by law, but the law is difficult to enforce because child marriage is strongly ensconced in tradition.


The family's extreme poverty did not permit them to dress elaborately. They wore functional everyday clothing and possessed a few items for special occasions. The females wore a sari, which is a five-yard piece of fabric skillfully wrapped and tied around the body. It is usually worn over a bodice, and a part of it can be thrown over the head. The males wore a dhoti, also a five-yard piece of fabric wrapped around the loins and legs and skillfully tucked in at the back to keep it in place. A shirt and sometimes a turban were also worn by the men. The influence of the British in India at the time of the novel caused some people to dress in shirts and trousers. In fact, the female doctor Nathan and Ruku met in the city work trousers. They were surprised by her dress because traditional Indian women considered wearing them immoral.

Muslim women wore veils that they removed only occasionally. This is still a common practice among traditional Muslim women, however it is not unusual for Muslim women who have come under Western influence to wear Western dress. For example, Muslim women who live in Caribbean countries do not wear veils.

Kenny and the white officials of the tannery work Western-style dress. The laborers who worked in the tannery wore loincloths, turbans, and sometimes a shirt they removed during the day. However, the Muslim overseer, who looked and spoke like the workers, wore the shirt, trousers, and hat of the white men. Their clothes were symbolic of their status.

In remote villages, such as the one in the novel, there were no modern laundry facilities or piped water. Women washed their family's clothes in the river and spread them on the grass to dry. However, like Ruku, rural women often used detergent.


The food the family ate consisted mainly of rice, dhal (Lentils), vegetables, occasionally fish, and on rare occasions a little milk or butter. At times they might have sugarcane and fruit. In times of plenty, Granny sold guavas and Ruku sold pumpkins. With the exception of some brief periods of prosperity when the family ate relatively well, they survived on the bare minimum, sometimes going without food. Kenny occasionally helped them. In the city there was a wider variety of food. Pancakes, for example, were available from street vendors. Flour and potatoes may have been available in the village, but the family in the novel, like most peasant families, could rarely afford to buy what they did not grow. Their diet was commensurate with the level of poverty at which they lived. Eating from plantain leaves (a plantain is a banana-like vegetable eaten as a starch), especially at religious ceremonies, was a common practice among Hindus. Other kinds of leaves also were sued depending on what was available in the geographic area. For example, in Guyanan, Hindus use a broad dish-shaped leaf which grows in canals.


The novel does not mention schools nor does it mention anyone attending school. However, Ruku must have had some rudimentary education because she read and write. Her father, and later her husband, encouraged her to practice her reading and writing skills. She taught some of her sons the little she knew. Ironically, their ability to read and write may have encouraged them to leave the family and seek work off the land. Selvam, for example, developed his skills, and his ability might have induced Kenny to hire as an apprentice in the hospital. Arjun and Thambi might have lost their jobs at the tannery because their ability to read and write gave them more independence. However, it is also their ability to read and write that made it possible for them to leave the family to seek jobs in Ceylon.

Ruku used her skills briefly in the city to earn a pittance as a reader and writer. Her limited success may have been because the city dwellers were not convinced that a rural person, particularly a woman, could read and write. Even Nathan, who was usually supportive of her ,was skeptical about this venture. Education for rural women was not a priority because of their place in the home. This was the belief of Ruku's mother, Kali, and many others at the time during which the novel is set. Kenny, on the other hand, is appalled by their lack of education and, as he sees it, their ignorance and dependence on the land.

The novel makes no mention of newspapers or radios. Some shopkeepers in the village may have had access to them. Somehow, however, the villagers, particularly the males, kept abreast of current events. Nathan, for example, had foreknowledge of the tannery and the availability of employment in Ceylon. Typically, in small Indian villages, the few people who can read did so for others who could not. Frequently this occurred at the village shop where villagers meet to gossip.


The economy in India at the time of the novel was basically agricultural. Villagers cultivated rice and vegetables on rented land to which they became strongly attached but did not own. People eked out a meager living from the land, growing most of what they ate and having only a small amount to trade, sell, and use to pay the land rent. The absentee landlord showed little concern for the tenant farmers and their families who had no where else to go when he sold the land to the tannery. The villagers had no recourse.

Rice cultivation was labor-intensive since it did not make much sense to use mechanization, even if it was available (and this was unlikely), on small plots of land. Monsoon or drought could result in the destruction of the crop and in economic hardships. The landlord still expected the tenant farmers to pay rent even when there was no rice crop and the prices for consumer good increased. Therefore, when the land produced no food for the family, they also had no money or crops to pay rent and no vegetables or rice to trade or sell. Consequently, they had no money to buy food from the village shopkeepers and no money to pay their rent. Food and seed prices increased because shopkeepers had limited supplies and were selling little. Because they could not pay their rent, they lost their land and source of livelihood. Although it appears thoughtless and cruel, it was not surprising that the landlords decided to sell land on which profits were so inconsistent and meager.

The construction of the tannery transformed the village economically and socially. Some people were pessimistic about the tannery. They recognized that it was driving people from the land and , as Ruku believed, destroying the traditional village life. The cobbler, too, felt threatened. Others were more optimistic. Kunthi, for example, saw it as an opportunity for people to acquire employment, and this actually happened. She herself capitalized on the situation by becoming a prostitute. Her new life eventually destroyed her like it did many villagers. Because the employees at the tannery could spend more than what the villagers could spend, the price of goods increased. This was beneficial for those who sold their produce, but detrimental for those who had to purchase. Like wise, small village shopkeepers were forced out of business by the larger shopkeepers who arrived in the village after tannery opened.

The village, in a sense, had been self-contained with a doctor (Kenny), a money lender (Biswas), a general merchant (Hanuman), a shopkeeper (Perimal), a cobbler (Kannan), and a midwife. Perhaps there were others. This was typical of an Indian village of the time, and the tannery changed its self-sufficiency and traditional lifestyle.


The villagers usually traveled on foot even for long distances. On Deepavali night, for example, the villagers walked to town. No mention was made in the novel of even a bicycle in the village. The people also traveled by bullock cart, a cart pulled by bulls. In the city, however there were cars, bicycles, and horse-drawn carriages. One can assume there were buses, too. There was mention of a railway to the city, but it was not sued by Ruku and Nathan because they did not have enough money for fare. It is likely that motor vehicles did not go to the village because there were no roads. Although no direct reference was made to a postal service, there probably was a rudimentary one; possibly mail was delivered by drivers of bullock carts. When the couple met their daughter-in-law (Murugan's wife) in the city, Ruku mentioned that she should have written before the visit. In such a remote village, all the mail was probably delivered to one person who then distributed it to the addressees. Personal communication was difficult and relatively rare; no attempt was made by any of the family members to communicate with each other even though most of them were literate.

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