Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve

by Kamala Markandaya

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2016 Reprint of 1954 Edition. Full facsimile of the original edition, not reproduced with Optical Recognition Software. The novel is set in India during a period of intense urban development and is the chronicle of the marriage between Rukmani, youngest daughter of a village headman, and Nathan, a tenant farmer. The story is told in the first person by Rukmani, beginning from her arranged marriage to Nathan at the age of 12 to his death many years later. "This beautiful and eloquent story tells of a simple peasant woman in a primitive village in India whose whole life is a gallant and persistent battle to care for those she loves-an unforgettable novel that "will wring your heart out" (Associated Press).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781684220113
Publisher: Martino Fine Books
Publication date: 08/15/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 385,112
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, who was born in Bangalore, India in 1924 and died in England in 2004. Her family was Brahman, the highest caste in Hindu society. Markandaya made an effort to know not just the city in which she lived but also India's rural areas. She was educated at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, and worked briefly for a weekly newspaper before emigrating to England in 1948. There she met her husband, with whom she lived in London. While Markandaya made England her home, she made many visits to India over the years to stay in touch with her culture and to find inspiration and ideas for her fiction.

Reading Group Guide


Set in India during a period of intense urban development, Nectar in a Sieve was first published in 1954, a few years after India gained political independence from Britain. It is the poignant story of a large poverty-stricken Hindu family in a remote rural village in southern India. The story is told in the first person by Rukmani, beginning with her arranged marriage at age twelve to tenant farmer Nathan.

Rukmani and Nathan love each other and their marriage begins in relative peace and prosperity; however, a large tannery is built in the neighboring village and begins insidiously destroying their lives. As the tannery grows larger and more prosperous, Rukmani and Nathan struggle to feed their children and to pay the rent on the land that gives them life. Although matters continue to worsen, they quietly persevere through ever-increasing hardships—flood, famine, even death—and cling to their hopes for a better future.


Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924 in Mysore, in southern India. Between 1940 and 1947, she worked as a journalist and published short stories in Indian newspapers. She married an Englishman and immigrated to England in 1948, where she had one daughter.

Markandaya published Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel, in 1954, to wide critical acclaim. A huge commercial success, it quickly became a modern classic. Author Shashi Tharoor put it best when he said, "Markandaya was a pioneer who influenced all of us Indians writing in English."

  • The novel is told through first person narration, many years after the story takes place. Why might the author have used this technique? How would the novel have been different if it had been told through Rukmani's perspective as a child, or if a different character narrated the story?
  • The concept of hope is central to this novel. How do Rukmani and Nathan show their hope? What keeps them hopeful?
  • Why does Rukmani choose not to tell Nathan that she has gone to Kenny for help with her infertility? How does she eventually find peace in telling him the truth?
  • How does the coming of the tannery affect the family's life? How do the various characters react to its presence? 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?
  • Rukmani teaches all of her children to read and write, even though many in her village believe this can lead to trouble. What would have happened to her children if she had not done so? How else throughout the novel do the characters demonstrate knowledge as a powerful catalyst for change?
  • Throughout the novel Kenny's views of the peasants and Rukmani's views of Kenny and other white men set up an interesting debate. Do you agree with either of them? Is there a common ground?
  • At the time this novel was written, child marriage was a common practice in India. Why do you think this was so ingrained in the culture? How do you think its prohibition has changed life in India?
  • The title Nectar in a Sieve comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "Work Without Hope": "Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live." What does this mean? Why do you think Markandaya chose it for the title of her novel?
  • How does Markandaya address the fundamental question of Hindu belief: what does it mean to be human?

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Nectar in a Sieve 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 72 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya is an extremely interesting novel illustrating the struggles an Indian woman faces as she endures the changes white men bring to her small village. The author shows readers how Western industrialization and modernization greatly affected the lives of Indian civilians throughout the twenthieth century. The main character, Rukmani, witnesses her home transform from a connected, reliable, and enjoyable place to one where foreign ideas pollute the society and corrupt the minds and hearts of many. Through her struggles, Rukmani works hard to maintain hope for her family and remains supportive of the decisions made around her. Kamala Markandaya uses Rukmani to effectively portray the hardships imposed on Indians when the Westerners began implementing their own improvements. She preceisly depicts the changing perspectives and ways of life for people of India while white men transformed their society. After reading this revealing and heartfelt novel, I was able to see the true impact of Western influence in India. Kamala Markandaya creates many characters that help bring readers into the lives of struggling Indians in the twenthieth century. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading about one's strength despite adversity. Nectar in a Sieve is an excellent novel that depicts the many struggles and instances of happiness of Indian society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Set in a small village in India, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve is a griping novel that tells a story of a woman's struggle to find happiness and her own inner strength in a changing India. Markandaya writes a very real tale of a 12 year old girl, Rukmani, through all her troubles until her last days. The author explains through Rukmani, the toils and tribulations struggling famillies in India faced. Shes goes in depth at some points in the novel, to the point where you have to drag through pages, but other than a few extra details this novel is very well written. All in all, this was a wonderful read. The book was very detailed and made you feel like you actually knew Rukmanni. Nectar in a Sieve is such an eye opener to the world around us. I enjoyed reading about the Indian culture, how ever rough and different it may be from ours. I'd recommend this novel to anyone in middle school or older. We can always learn something new about ourselves and other through any literature at any time in our lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I jad to read this for school. I got a good grade on the test because the book is very well written and fairly easy to follow. Rukmani and Nathan suffer many hard times. Through a monsoon, drought, loss of family members and their life in thecity, they manage to maintain hope. I highly recommend this book!
Read_A_Book More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely beautiful novel that I’ve now read eight times, and I love it more with each reading. Markandaya really has a way with words, painting a vivid picture of what life is like in rural India, how wealth is decided by the season and weather, and how everything can be lost in an instant. In this circular novel, Rukmani tells her life story, beginning with a dream, then delving deep into the past, tracing her life from childhood to present, causing the reader to rejoice and cry alongside her as she reveals all in this heartbreaking yet triumphant novel. Having married young and leaving her family behind, Rukmani learns what it means to be the woman of the house, working the soil alongside her husband, praying for sons, and caring for those around her. Coming from wealth, her life is not what she expected, but her easy demeanor and good nature cause her never a grumble, making her a lovable character that the reader easily connects with, though we may never experience all the triumphs or tribulations that Ruku does. The fact that the story is so poignant and easy to follow, let alone interesting and intriguing, makes for a fast read, and though Rukmani’s life is so vastly different from my own, I can’t help but look up to her. She experiences vast heartache, but always comes back strong, making her twice the woman I am… The truths Markandaya presents in this novel are absolutely amazing and learning about Ruku’s culture, her way of life, her happiness, and her sadness really presses upon me the importance of living each day to the fullest and focusing on the good in life, as Ruku does. I find that this is a very powerful novel and I strongly believe that all should read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautiful young woman, married to a poor hopeless farmer with no choice of her own. Her parent chose this life for her and now she has to live life hour by hour, day by day and every minute of it she is regretting living. Never knowing when she will be able to eat or when she will be able see her children. She is living a life in hope that she will someday become the woman she has always dreamt about, or she is hoping that she might not have to live at all. Married to a farmer by age 12 she knew that she was not going to like her life. She would have to work on a farm with her husband and hope that she would be able to feed her family, if not herself. This farm is filled with bad memories that she would have to live with for the rest of her life. Not only was this hardship bad enough but her but the farm she and her husband owns has dry unfertile soil that is horrible for growing crops. This farm will also endure a life of hardship. Having to survive (if that is what you would call it) the droughts monsoons, and insects.
laurscartelli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair--The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing--And Winter, slumbering in the open air,Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!With lips unbrighten'd, wreathless brow, I stroll:And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,And Hope without an object cannot live."- (Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Work Without Hope")I've read a lot of Asian-American and Indian-American literature. My second English class focused quite a bit on "mixed" American writers. Korean-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, African-American, and the list, as I remember, goes on. It was an interesting period in my reading because I was reading literature that I would never have picked up on my own. Not to mention, much of it was in the form of short stories which I wouldn't find on my own. A lot of the work was photocopied specifically for the class out of books that I would never go near. My favorites were the Indian writers. I think I lost my adoration for them a bit when I worked on Dharamvir Bharati's The Blind Age during sophomore year, though. Among these writers were Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee (my favorite was Mukherjee's short story - "A Father"). Their work is so beautiful and honest and still retain a bit of grit. That being said, I'm very surprised that I never came across Kamala Markandaya. In fact, when I picked it up in the library's fiction section and finally looked to see what it was, my initial reaction was to return it to the shelf because I thought I HAD read it or that I should have, and I was not looking forward to reading something my teacher would have had me read. But then I glanced at the back and decided to check it out anyway.I'm so glad I did.It's the kind of novel you have to read the back of. Not because there's something lost in translation or because the story is hard to follow, but because you need to be prepared. I can best describe it as the story of a woman with nothing to lose who loses almost everything. It's sweet, it's damp and dirty, it's about tradition and modernity, it's honest and beautiful, it's tragic and it's wonderful. And even in its sadness, its tragedy, and its dirt, it is hopeful.Even in its frankness, it is hopeful. In the first 2 pages, you know how it will end. You know all of the tragedies that will happen in this woman's life. And yet you're drawn in. You keep reading even though you know it's going to be a big bad scary path. And you're rewarded for going with her on her journey. The visual quality of Markandaya's writing allows you to escape into that world, pretty or not. Strongly - very strongly - recommended.
NanceJ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love books about other cultures, and I enjoyed this one about a woman in India
t1bnotown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a book I read in my senior year world literature class. We learn about the lives of peasants in India and watch one thing after another go wrong for one woman and her family. She does not realize how lucky she is with anything until it gets worse. We slowly learn just how hard the life of a peasant can be as they struggle to survive. Though things are depressing, the story is fascinating.
kylljoi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A heartbreaking weekend read. I suggest a soft sofa, lots of tea and a rainy season.
inkstained on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I originally read this for class many years ago, and found it to be a difficult book to start. Once I got into a bit, though, it became much more interesting. I'd give you a better description of the story, but I don't remember it well enough to do it justice. It's a short book, and I took a lot away from it even if I can't remember the plot very well. I recommend it to anyone wanting to read something that takes place somewhere outside of modern America.
readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A moving story about a very difficult life.
Zmrzlina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful writing and the book is worthy of the praise heaped upon it. I didn't particular enjoy reading this as there was no tension. Life was dismal and just got more dismal. Not that I wanted a "happily ever after" ending because I despise contrived, neat endings. For me, this was a very, very long short story. The title is just so amazingly perfect, though. The people in the story always know the sweetness in life will seep out and be gone. So very sad. I wonder how much has changed, or hasn't changed in India. I do think there is life in the US that is like "nectar in a sieve," too, though not nearly as desperate as mid-20th century India. I keep thinking of Rukmani's comments about not being able to plan for the future and keep thinking how people come to accept that as the way things have to be. Too many people live by the "live for the day" rule, I think. All over the world.
mattviews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set in some village in India, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve is a gripping story of one indefatigable woman's survival of a checkered life, one that had no margin for misfortune. Neither does the book have surprises nor twist, but readers will find a determined, unrelinquished fighter in a woman who bears an unfailing faith and rams through impregnable clamor that invades her life.Rukmani married Nathan, a tenant farmer whom she had never met, as a child bride. Even though Rukmani was ignorant of the simplest of tasks, Nathan never uttered a single cross word and gave an impatient look. He looked at her as if nobody had discovered her beauty. He never asserted his rights to forbid her reading and writing, a talent that placed Rukmani above her illiterate husband.Misfortune seemed to have a tight foothold in Rukmani and Nathan. The monsoon inundated the rice paddies where Rukmani worked side by side with Nathan to wrest a living for a household of eight. No sooner had the monsoon tapered off than a drought ravaged the harvest. Hope and fear acted like twin forces that tugged at them in one direction and another.Poverty-stricken Rukmani saw her daughter Ira become a prostitute, her 4-year-old son Kuti died from hunger, her teenage son Raja caught stealing and beaten to death, her oldest sons Thambi and Arjun set off to Ceylon to work in a tea plantation. The opening of a tannery, of which Rukmani was only skeptical, had spread like weeds and strangled whatever life grew in its way, changed the village beyond recognition.And yet, Rukmani survived. The interminable poverty and impregnable fate of Rukmani and Nathan must evoke in readers' pity and sympathy. But at the same time, Rukmani, whom Nathan always appeased, might seem somewhat self-piteous, cynical, and complaisant (like Dr. Kennington said, she needed to cry out for help). Ira, who exchanged her body for Kuti's milk and food, had lost her reason and given up her sanity rather than faced the truth.A recurring theme of the book is the significance of land that fostered life, spirits, happiness and family. Rukmani often found solace in the land on which her husband built a home for her with his own hands in the time he was waiting for her. She often reminisced the very home to which Nathan had brought her with pride. The land became 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." (188)So much was the book about Rukmani. The one character that stood out to me was Selvam, one of her younger son who flinched and quailed at the firecracker and used the money intended for firecracker to buy a confection cane. As wealth lured all his elder brothers away, he stayed behind and took care of his family, shouldered the household responsibilities while assisting in the village hospital.Nectar in a Sieve is a book that will make you lump in the throat. The writing is painfully eloquent, taut, and cut-to-the-root. 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 stretch a single meal portion to three meals. Everyday was a life-and-death situation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oh the joy of finding such a book. So very beautiful. Beautifully written. A unforgetable love story an inspirational heroine. Best book in a long time So sad. The author died long ago.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
alexphilAU More than 1 year ago
Nectar in a Sieve is an Indian family story that is culturally and socially sound. It is a beautiful story of a family that went through a lot in their life. I find the Indian culture richly interwoven with the events of the story that involves a family grappling with survival in a setting that is immensely povertous. The struggle of each family member is one that shook heaven and earth in the story. Its beginning is beautiful until the events come one after the other in the story that lead the family to be in complete solidarity. This is a must read for those interested in Indian culture and family relationship.
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