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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya Summary

by Litinbox

Nectar in a Sieve‘ is one of the most acclaimed novel by the famous Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya. Published in 1954, the novel is about Rukmani, a peasant, her woman’s married life, the obstacles and challenges she has undergone due to her miserable financial setbacks and so on.

Nectar in a Sieve is Kamala Markandaya’s debut novel which has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Rukmani herself is the narrator of the novel.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

The novel’s title Nectar in a Sieve¬†derives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1825 poem “Work Without Hope“. Kamala Markandaya uses two lines from this poem as the epigraph of this novel:

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And hope without an object cannot live.

Nectar in a Sieve is a semi-autobiographical novel (as scholars predict that the plot of the novel is connected with the author to a certain extent) with the themes of familial love and sacrifice. The novel is set during the period of rapid industrial development and it explores how this industrialisation leads to environmental degradation and drastic changes in human life.

Nectar in a Sieve Summary

Rukmani is the daughter of a village chieftain, an educated woman who enjoyed a happy childhood. When she is at the age of 12 she marries a peasant named Nathan. Though Rukmani is not matured enough for a marriage life at this very young age, Nathan treats her kindly in all her shortcomings.

In less than a year, Rukmani gives birth to a female baby named Irawaddy. To add to their pleasure, they also enjoy an unanticipated bumper harvest this year. After the first child, they experience a six years of infertility to produce a child. After six years of infertility, she consults a foreign doctor named Kennington. Consequently, she produces 5 male babies successively: Arjun, Thambi, Raja, Murugan, and Selvam.

During these years the financial condition of the family gradually deteriorates. Increasing numbers in the family one side and less harvest another side leave the family in worst financial conditions.

Years after, the two eldest sons, Arjun and Thambi, find work in the newly built tannery nearby the village. Though their income is small, it helps the family greatly. But they are soon dismissed from the work for instigating a labour strike.

Ira is married to a man who is financially well enough. She leads her life with her husband for five years. In these years, she has to face the growing agony as she remains infertile. So, she is sent back to her mother’s home. There she turns a prostitute to feed her younger brother named Kuti who is starving without food. When the family comes to know this, they accept it considering their critical financial condition. As a result, Ira conceives an albino boy in prostitution.

An early monsoon destroys the crops. Almost all the sources of food are destroyed and exhausted. Murugan finds a servant position in the city. In mean time, Raja is killed in the tannery because he has presumably stolen a calfskin.

After raising enough fund, Kennington returns to the village to build a hospital. He promises Selvam a job in the hospital once it is ready. Rheumatism forces Nathan to be away from field works. The land they hold for lease is sold to tannery by the land owner. Left with no source for food, Nathan and Rukmani leave to find shelter under their son, Murugan in the city. A carter helps them to reach the city.

In the city, they are robbed of all their belongings and money in a temple. They also learn that Murugan has left the old office to find a better job at collector office. They return to the temple to find boarding and food as food is given there for destitute people every night. No source is left either for food or to return home. Puli, a leprous street urchin, helps the couple to secure a job in a stone quarry.

One day, owing to his continuous fever, as a result of working during days of continuous rain, Nathan’s health fails. Soon he dies in the temple. After his death, Rukmani brings Puli to her house. At the end of Nectar in a Sieve, Selvam and Ira console Rukmini, and Selvam is now confident that he can manage to make enough money for their survival.

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