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

Once students have an introduction to the novel and back ground information about India, they will be able to begin responding to it orally and in writing at increasingly higher levels. To encourage increasingly complex thinking, quotations have been take from the novel for students to respond to in written response journals or orally in small groups. Teachers should encourage responses that help students develop analytical and evaluative thinking and writing skills.

Levels of Student Response

A. Engaging. The articulation of the reader's emotional reaction or level of involvement, from "This is BOR-ING," to " I couldn't put it down," is called engaging. The first is called lack of engagement; the second, engagement. However, the reader's articulation of her or his level of engagement with the text may be the first step in responding to it. For example, tell students, "Write about how the chapter makes you feel."

B. Describing. Restating or reproducing information that is provided in the text requires selecting some important aspect of the text and is often the next level of response. For example, tell students, "Select any quotation from this chapter, write about what you think it means."

C. Conceiving. Making statements about meaning or inferring from important aspects of the text. For example, tell students, "Write about this quotation, discuss not only what it means to you, but what it means to the narrator or to any other character in the novel."

D. Explaining. Explaining why the characters do what they do: examining their motivation. For example, ask students to explain why Rukmani does not tell Nathan she has gone to Kenny for help with her infertility, or why the two sons went to Ceylon.

E. Connecting. The reader connects her or his own experiences with the text. As in all responding to text, connecting is a recurrent movement between the text and one's experiences, knowledge, and attitudes. The reader may first recall a similar experience, next elaborate on that experience, next apply the experience to the text, later use the text to reflect on her or his own experience, and finally, interpret the text and the experience. For example, ask the students to write about a time when they nearly gave up hope. Next they might write about what kept them from giving up hope. Finally, they might put themselves in Rukmani's or Nathan's place: Why do they maintain hope throughout the novel? How do they maintain hope during the drought? When their land is lost? When they are unable to find Murugan?*

F. Interpreting. The reader uses all the reactions above to interpret an overall theme or meaning of the text. For example, ask questions such as: "Why did the author write this novel? Why did she utilize first person narration? How would it be different if Kenny told the story? How does the first person narration help develop the themes?"*

G. Judging. The reader makes judgments about the text: the truth of the text, the importance of the text, the quality of the text, etc. For example, ask students questions such as: "Is this an important novel? A reviewer, shortly after it was published, called it 'minor' (New York Herald Tribune Book Review, May 15, 1955). Do you agree? Is it still a minor novel? Any other reason, other than its relative lack of importance, that it might be referred to as minor? Can you think about the novel in terms of music?"*

Quotations for Encouraging Student Response

  • "Work without hope draws Nectar in a Sieve,/ And hope without an object cannot live." -Coleridge*
  • " What for you,' my mother would say, taking my face in her hands, 'my last-born, my baby? Four dowries is too much for a man to bear.'"
  • "Sometimes now I can see quite clearly: The veil is rent and for a few seconds I see blue skies and tender trees, then it closes on me again."*
  • "While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?"
  • "Was the cobra surprised into stillness that a human should dare to touch it?"*
  • "It is so easy to be comforting when your own wishes have come true."
  • "We called our daughter Irawaddy, after one of the great rivers of Asia, for of all things water was most precious to us."
  • "I have no sons,' I said at last, heavily, 'Only one child, a girl.'"
  • "I have not lied to him, there has just been this silence."*
  • "Change I had known before...but the alteration was so slow that we hardly knew when it came."
  • "...the change that now came into my life, into all our lives, blasting its way into our village, seemed wrought in the twinkling of an eye."
  • "They may live in our midst but I can never accept them, for they lay their hands upon us and we are all turned from tilling to barter."
  • " I have seen your women forever making dung cakes and burning them and smearing their huts. Yet I though you would know better, who live by the land yet think of taking from it without giving."*
  • "I kept Ira as long as I could but when she was past fourteen her marriage could be delayed no longer."
  • "Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk warily with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat."
  • "At dusk the drums of calamity began; their grave, throbbing rhythm came clearly through the night, throughout the night, each beat, each tattoo, echoing the mighty impotence of our human endeavor."
  • "What use to talk of 'exchange' and so forth? Their life is theirs and yours is yours; neither change nor exchange is possible."*
  • "It seemed it was going to be neither the one thing nor the other, neither land nor letters, which was to claim him."*
  • "If it were your land, or mine...I would work with you gladly. But what profit to labor for another and get so little in return?"
  • "I felt qualms about wasting money on such quickly spent pleasures; but their rapturous faces overcame my misgivings."
  • "Looking back now, I wonder how it came to pass that not until that fateful day did we realize the trouble that had been brewing."
  • "You brood too much...and think only of your trials, not the joys that are still with us. Look at our land-is it not beautiful?"
  • "We stared at the cruel sky, calm, blue, indifferent to our need."
  • "As soon as the rains were over, and the cracks in the earth had healed, and the land was moist and ready, we took our seed to our Goddess and placed it at her feet to receive her blessing."
  • "Of her former beauty not a vestige remained. Well, I thought. All women come to it sooner or later: she has come off perhaps worse than most."*
  • "Silence fell like a shroud. I listened to it locked in my own brooding bitterness."*
  • "My God!...I do not understand you. I never will. Go, before I too am entangled in your philosophies."*
  • "Just a matter of coloring...or lack of it. It is only a question of getting used to. Who is to say this color is right and that is not?"
  • "He does not expect us to leave at once. He has given us two weeks' time in which to go, which is lenient."
  • "To those who live by the land there must always come times of hardship, of fear and of hunger, even as there are years of plenty. This is one of the truths of our existence as those who live by the land know; that sometimes we eat and sometimes we starve."
  • "I sensed her troubled uneasy mind moving from doubt to doubt. No words, the meaning clearer than if there had been."*
  • "Each night was a struggle, more fierce now that we were daily engaged in it."
  • "More peaceful, with green fields and open air...and when the paddy is ripe-ah, such a sight as you have never seen."
  • "And what would I do there... in these green fields of yours I know nothing about!"
  • "There is a limit to the achievements of human courage.*
  • "In fancy I was already home."
  • "The memories of that night are hard and bright within me like a diamond, and fires that flash from it have strange powers."
  • "It was a gentle passing...I will tell you later."



  • The author uses a flashback technique. The novel begins with Rukmani as an old woman remembering her life. Ask students: Why might the author have used this technique? How would the novel have been different if she had begun the story with Rukmani as a child? Would first person narration be appropriate if the novel had begun with Rukmani as a child?
  • Review the definition of tragedy: A serious work with an unhappy ending brought about by the characters or central characters impelled by fate or moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressure. Students should be asked to identify tragedies they have previously read. These can be listed on chart paper and kept for comparative purposes. Ask students to read the novel with this definition in mind.*
  • Have students chart the fortunes of the family. They might measure them in terms of the births of the children, food supplies, money saved, and success or failure of crops.
  • Rukmani is literate. This was unusual for an Indian peasant, particularly a woman. Students can keep a diary in Rukmani's voice or write letters in her voice to other characters, particularly her children who leave home.
  • Rukmani teaches her children to read and write. Discuss: Why do the children never write to their parents? Why does Rukmani not write to her children? Students can select one of the children and write letters in his/her voice to their siblings or parents.
  • After students have selected a major character to study, have them place this character in a variety of different situations and write or role play how the character responds: the collector comes to collect the rent which they do not have; it is an important Hindu festival day; it is the wedding day of one of the girls of the village; it is the character's wedding day; the parents have nothing for your dowry. Students should attempt to be faithful to the culture and traditions a s expressed in the novel.
  • In small groups, students can select one of the themes of the novel: the indomitable human spirit, the nature of love, and human responses to suffering. They can select quotations from the novel that help develop the theme.* n Have students find, read, and discuss the Coleridge's entire Work Without Hope, 1828.*
  • Many interesting questions are raised in the novel: Are the peasants ignorant fools as Kenny suggests? Can silence be a lie? Who is evil? Who is good? Should the pace of change ever be slowed? Students can write about these questions, discuss them, and debate them.*
  • If your library has indexes with book reviews, have students find, read, and respond to reviews of the novel.*
  • Have students research the meaning of their names. If there is no meaning, students can ask their parents why their name was chosen. They can compare the meanings of their names and reasons why they were chosen to why Rukmani and Nathan selected the name Irawaddy.
  • Throughout the novel symbols and images give clues to what will happen to the family. Have students brainstorm the possible symbolic meanings of: Irawaddy, lighting striking the palm tree, drums of calamity, clothing worn by white men, the coming of the tannery.*
  • The concept of hope is central to this novel. How do Rukmani and Nathan show their hope? What keeps them hopeful? Do one or the other ever lose hope? Students can write about hope from their experience and perspective.
  • Have students write from Puli's perspective. Students should attempt to be faithful to the culture and traditions portrayed in the novel. What does Puli find when he goes to the country with Rukmani? Is he happy there or would he rather return to the city? What occurs the first time Rukmani takes Puli to see Kenny?*
  • Have students write from the perspective of Ira, Selvam, Sacrabani, or Kenny. How does he/she feel when Rukmani returns home? What does he/she think of Puli? How does he/she respond to Nathan's death?*
  • Suggest that students write or compose and perform a poem or song about hope and what happens to it when tragedy occurs and goals are thwarted.

Social Studies

  • Money, or lack of it, is very important to the family. Students can look at numerous examples: the money lender, traders, the family's savings, work in the tannery to make money, the collector, bribery, the discussion of compensation after the death of Raja, prostitution to make money, selling the land, the family's possessions, buying in the market. Students can examine how Nathan and Ruku look at money differently than the children and how the white colonists view money differently from the peasants. n Have students examine how economies change when industrialization occurs in rural areas. What typically happens to the peasants? What happens to the land held by the landlords? what happens to the small shopkeepers and money lenders in the villages? Who benefits? Who is hurt?
  • Throughout the novel Kenny's views of the peasants and Rukmani's views of Kenny and other white men set up an interesting debate. Have students chart the character's thoughts and discussions and prepare to debate the issues.*
  • Chart how the coming of the tannery affects the family's life. How do the various characters/groups of villagers react to the coming of the tannery? Why?
  • One of the ironies of peasant life, as portrayed in the novel, is that sons are required to maintain the family's subsistence. However, more children mean more mouths to feed. Why are sons so important? What keeps the sons in the novel from working the fields? How does this affect he family? If the sons had worked the field, would the family have been better off? What effect does having more children have on the family? What other cultures place this much emphasis on having sons?*
  • Examine the food eaten by the family throughout the novel. How does it change as their fortunes change?
  • Rukmani suggests that wen the tannery comes the pace of change increases. Have the students examine other times in history when the pace of change significantly increased (e.g.: industrial revolution, technological revolution). Discuss how the increases pace of change affects the family. Research how families changed during the industrial revolution. Interview adults to see how technology is affecting their lives.*
  • Weddings, births, and funerals are important in the family's life. Examine the weddings, births, and funerals in the novel. Research and report on Hindu wedding, birth, and funeral custom.
  • Rukmani is literate, and she teaches her children to read and write. Have the students discuss or write about how their ability to read and write affected their lives. Was their skill beneficial? Was the children's skill beneficial to Rukmani and Nathan? Is education always a good thing? Why? Why not? When and to whom has education been denied? What were the results of denying people the opportunity to read and write? (You may want to read to the students two sections from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave; Written by Himself where he discusses how he learned how to read and write despite being forbidden to do so [pp. 49-50; 52-55]. Compare his experiences and beliefs to what would have happened to Ruku's and Nathan's children if they had not been taught to read and write.)*
  • The two parts of the novel can be examined in terms of rural and urban life. Divide the class into equal numbers of small groups. Have half the class look at rural life and half at urban life in India. Suggest that students compare and contrast their findings to the lives as portrayed in the novel.
  • Find pictures of Hindu temples. Research what occurred in the temples. Have students compare what they find to the events experienced by Ruku and Nathan.
  • In small groups have the students discuss and list events in the novel that exemplify the conflicts between a peasant agricultural economy and an industrial economy.
  • Research the lives and goals of white missionaries and doctors in India in the early 20th century. Have the students list these and compare them to Kenny's goals and beliefs.*
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