Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandeya

Title: Nectar in a Sieve
Author: Kamala Markandaya
ISBN: 9780451528230
Publisher: Signet Classics
Pages: 208

Written around India’s Independence, Nectar in a Sieve portrays some of the problems faced by the Indian people as they dealt with the changing times. There is no mention of a specific time or place, which gives the story universality. Some of the struggles that the main character, Rukmani, faces are the result of the changing times, but they are the kinds of struggles (poverty, death, loss of tradition) that are experienced by many people for many reasons.

Nectar in a Sieve is a first-person narrative as told by Rukmani, the widow of a poor tenant farmer in India during the early 1950s. She begins her story with her marriage to Nathan. Because Rukmani is the fourth daughter and there is very little dowry, her best match is to a poor rice farmer. She begins her life with him and finds him to be very kind and loving. He is very understanding and he is not threatened by her ability to read and write.

Soon, she gives birth to their first child, a daughter. She is worried, when many years pass and she has no other children. Just before her mother dies, Rukmani meets the man caring for her mother, a Western doctor named Kennington. She talks to him about her inability to conceive, and he helps her.

Misfortune seems to have a tight foothold in Rukmani and Nathan. The monsoon submerges the rice paddies where Rukmani works side by side with Nathan for the survival of a household of eight. No sooner, the monsoon peters out than a drought damages the harvest.

Poverty-stricken Rukmani sees her daughter Ira become a prostitute, her 4-year-old grandson, Kuti die from hunger, and her teenage son, Raja caught stealing and beaten to death, her oldest sons Thambi and Arjun setting off to Ceylon to work in a tea plantation. The opening of a tannery had spread like weeds and strangles whatever life grows in its way, changing the village beyond recognition. Yet, Rukmani survives.

A recurring theme of the book is the importance of land that fosters life, spirits, happiness and family. Rukmani often finds consolation in the land on which her husband built a home for her with his own hands. She reminisces about the very home to which Nathan had brought her with pride. The land becomes her life:

"I looked about me at the land and it was life to my starving spirit. I felt the earth beneath my feet and wept for happiness."

The following passage sums up the book:

". . . We have no money. My husband can till, sow, and reap with skill, but here there is no land. I can weave and spin, or plait matting, but there is no money for spindle, cotton or fibre. For where shall a man turn who has no money? Where can he go? Wide, wide world, but as narrow as the coins in your hand. Like a tethered goat, so far and not farther. Only money can make the rope stretch, only money."

The writing is powerful, taut, and moving. The living conditions, life struggles, poverty, fragility and abasement of life depicted are beyond imaginations to those who live in the first world and have never stretched a single meal portion to three meals.

Even though the ending of the story is sad in the physical sense, in contrast to The Good Earth, it ends with optimism, hope and with the remnants of the family who support each other by sticking together.