Have you ever had one of those experiences in a used bookstore when a book you’ve never heard of grabs your attention and then, after you’ve pulled it curiously down from the shelf to glance at, demands to be taken home with you? And so you flip through it, even though you have no idea why it has captured your attention, having never heard of this book before, and in the end, the book wins and you buy it? That happened to me last fall, before I was even reading classic literature. Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954) came home with me from a used bookstore in St. Louis, and I’m still a little bemused by my unexpected acquisition of what turned out to be a really poignant, heartstring-tugging novel.
The title is explained in a quote before the book even begins: “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live. – Coleridge” And it is hope, the keeping of it even in times of great trouble, that makes up the central premise of this story. I appreciated this early explanation. It gave me a guide to focus my reading. This novel doesn’t keep secrets; it doesn’t try to manipulate its readers. It just lays out, straightforwardly, the life of an astonishingly hard-working Indian woman who faces devastating losses but endures with stoic acceptance and perseverance. Rukmani was married to a poor tenant farmer at the age of twelve. Her husband, Nathan, was not an educated man, but he had great love and patience both for his wife and for the land that was his livelihood. Rukmani soon bears a daughter, then faces barrenness that is devastating in a society that depends upon sons for their ability to work and care for their families. Secretly, she seeks help from a Western doctor by the name of Kenny, who restores Rukmani’s fertility, and she goes on to have six sons and adopt another. Her story is heavily entwined with that of each of her children. We find out how each of them chooses to spend their lives. Some of their stories are tragic, others admirable and hopeful, and all of them illustrate the realistic decisions of realistic people, and the consequences of these choices on the people around them. Along with the raising of her children, Rukmani must deal with a changing India, one that broadens the gap between rich and poor through increasing industrialization. As her once-tiny village becomes a larger town, Rukmani and Nathan become increasingly poorer, until each day is a struggle just to obtain enough food to survive.
Despite so many tragedies piled one on top of another, Rukmani remains a hopeful woman – a stoicism that frustrates and confuses Kenny. The collision between East and West, and the lack of understanding between the two, is one of the major themes of Nectar in a Sieve. Another is attention – Rukmani thinks a lot about attention from men (particularly that received by Kunthi and Ira, both prostitutes), attention one receives from one’s community after moving away (Janaki, in particular), and attention paid to someone at and after their death. Another topic Markandaya emphasizes is the lack of options for women in increasingly desperate situations. Rukmani is both angered and deeply saddened when her daughter Irawaddy becomes a prostitute, but the book makes it clear that this awful choice is a necessity. The ambiguous morality of Ira’s decision is underscored by its consequence – a beloved son, but one who is albino. Rukmani tends not to dwell on philosophical thoughts of right and wrong, choosing instead to illustrate nature and her changing world, but there are plenty such questions that readers can dwell upon should they choose.
Nectar in a Sieve has the same sweeping scale as R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days (you can read my review of that novel here). Like Delderfield’s book, this one tells the story of a country through the trials of an individual’s lifetime. Beautifully written moments flicker by, brief scenes in a larger tapestry. Markandaya never gives any dates in her novel, so it was impossible for me to tell what period in Indian history this book illustrates. Is this India of the 1950s (when the book was written)? Or earlier? It made me realize how much both my academic and literary attention has been focused on Western culture, and made me want to learn more about these amazingly strong and long-suffering women of the Middle East and Asia, whose lives I can’t picture because their cultures are so different than mine. Nectar in a Sieve was thus directly responsible for my next choice of book – Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (which I’ve finished and loved, and will review soon). I certainly intend to continue reading the fabulous English and American literature I’ve been discovering, but I think it would be very edifying if I make a conscious effort to read more of the non-Western canon as well.
Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks
Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein
Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker