Kamala Markandaya is one of the early Indian novelist and journalist whose Nectar in a Sieve was published in 1954. Kamala Markandya was a pseudonym for Kamala Purnaiya Taylor. She move to Britain after India’s independence. Nectaeina Sieve which was her first novel was a best seller and was named as an American Library Association Notable Book in 1955. She kept writing till 1983 and some of her novels are Two Virgins, A handful of Rice. She died in 2004. Nectar in a Sieve is set in India when there was fast urban development after the independence. It traces the life of Rukmani the youngest daughter of a village headman who is married to Nathan a tenant farmer. The title of the novel is taken from a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Work Without Hope, which she quotes in the epigraph of the novel
Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
The story of Rukmani is narrated by herself as an elderly woman. Rukmani (Ruku) tells what it means to live in a poverty stricken India of the mid-20th century. She is the fourth daughter of the village headman, who was no longer wealthy. At the age of 12 she is married off to Nathan a poor tenant farmer but Nathan was a good man. She soon settles into a happy life with a loving husband and a decent living. After six years of marriage she bears a daughter whom she names Irrawady and calls her Ira. She wants to bear sons for Nathan and she undergoes fertility treatment with Dr.Kennigton (Kenny). Now who isDr.Kenny? He was the doctor who was treating her mother. With his treatment she bears five sons in a row. She does not disclose to Nathan that she had taken treatment with Dr. Kenny.
The family is happy but with more mouths to feed it becomes more difficult to make ends meet. Still they pull on. Then a tannery comes in their village which spoils natural beauty of the village and Rukmani hates it. There are many job opportunities there and she even sells more vegetables but she did not like it. Ira, a beautiful girl, is married off at the age of 14 to a handsome young man who was a landed farmer. After that a heavy monsoon strikes, destroying the crops. Ruku and family resort to fishing, to make some living and to sustain. They survive this disaster and are back to normal when they find Ira back home. Her husband deserts her as she does not bear any child.
A married coming back home was considered a disaster but they bear it silently. The first two boys of Ruku start to work in the tannery, much against the wishes of Nathan, but this brings in some extra income.
This extra income is a welcome change and that year’s Deepavali is celebrated well and Ruku bears the sixth son in nine months. Ira finds a solace in looking after Kuti her little brother. Ira also takes treatment with Dr. Kenny for infertility and she delivers a son but with albino. Rukmani’s attempt to send Ira back to her husband turns futile as he had already married another woman. Rukmani’s woes don’t end. The first two sons leave for Ceylon. The third son leaves for another city. The fourth son Raja is killed.Their last son dies at a young age. Now all that was left of the big family was Ira, Selvam , one son, their grandson, Rukmani and Nathan.
Woes continued. They were asked to leave the land as it was sold to the tannery by their landlord. So Rukmani and Nathan go in search of Murugan only to find that he had deserted his wife and she had no new about him. Ira who had now resorted to prostitution was left with Selvam. In the city Rukmani and Nathan life off the food given in a temple and work in a quarry. They find a son in Puli who was a leprosy affected orphan. It is not long before that Nathan dies in the arms of Rukmani .Rukmani and Puli go back to the village and there Selvam welcomes them and assures that they can manage.
POVERTY AND SUFFERING
Nectar in a Sieve is a novel which has suffering as its main theme. Rukmani’s family suffer from not being financially stable. Natural disaasters strike them hard. Their daughter’s marriage is a disaster and she finally resorts to prostitution which is the worst tragedy to hit a family. Yet they bear all their misfortunes with grit. Rukmani even sometimes manages to see that there are others suffering more than them and is happy with her lot. With so much suffering till the end, the novel ends with a positive note that all will well and they will manage.
Change is inevitable for all. But in this novel it transformation are beyond the normal range. The village is transformed when the tannery is built. The society and its discriminations change with the coming of the tannery. Not to mention the changes in the environment. Lives of good-hearted people change. One of Rukmani’sson becomes a thief and is murdered. Ira becomes a prostitute.
Nature plays a big role in this novel. The plot is set over many years and nature has to be a natural part. There are heavy rains which affect the lives of the villagers. Then there is drought. There is a lot of suffering because of this. But the family manages to survive. After the rains they make fishing for a living and eat fish for their sustenance. During drought Rukmani saves seeds which she uses when the times change.
In India family is indeed a strong bonding and this bonding is seen all through the novel. Starting with Nathan, he is a loving husband. Rukmani wants to bear sons, as having sons were considered the biggest wealth. However their daughter is treated with equal love and respect. When she comes back from her husband’s house she is not scorned. The first two sons work in the tanner to make the extra money and they finally leave the country. From then on the sons move away from the family. Only Selvam remains. Selvam is also very fond of the family. When they realise that Ira’s son is suffering from albinism he is the one who chides the rest and says a baby is a baby and should be looked after well. This in spite of the fact that Ira’s son is one of her client’s son.
There is a lot of suffering in the novel Nectar in a Sieve. But there is a constant strain of hope and that carries or holds the family together. Lot of positive energy is felt amidst the suffering. The final positive note is the culmination of all the hope and faith seen all through the novel.