Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Context


British Colonization of India

British colonization of India (economic, military, and political control of India) began with a single company, the East India Company, in 1600. The London-based company profited worldwide. In fact the company experienced such success it expanded its reach, exporting silk, dyes, sugar, opium, and other commodities. But by 1740 rival countries like France began importing cloth woven by India's expert weavers and reselling the lightweight fabric, threatening to weaken Britain's stronghold in the country. The French and their allies involved themselves in Indian politics, fighting to shift their own clients or political allies into positions of power. This jockeying for power culminated in the off-and-on Anglo-French Wars that spanned several decades between 1744 and 1763. Britain emerged victorious from the wars and claimed India as its province. The East India Company continued to trade after 1763, and many of its workers became administrators in the new British regime.

In the text, colonization means that tribe leaders like Rukmani's father no longer have power, and British-funded businesses, like the tannery and hospital, take over small villages. Additionally, Britain began exporting slaves and indentured servants to work their fields, which the novel suggests might have been Arjun and Thambi's fate. While Nectar in a Sieve doesn't explore British colonialism directly, the tannery becomes a symbol for the insidiousness of British control. The tannery arrives unexpectedly, and most villagers assume it will bring modernization. However, slowly the tannery takes over Indian businesses and pushes Indian farmers off their land.


Britain ruled over India from 1858 until 1947. Although Kamala Markandaya carefully avoids any timestamps or historical markers in Nectar in a Sieve, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, as seen when Rukmani sells vegetables to the Muslim housewife, suggests the novel is set before independence. In 1947 Britain divided India into two countries separated mostly by religion—India (largely Hindu) and Pakistan (largely Islamic). This religious division led to horrific violence. It's unlikely that the two families, one Muslim and one Hindu, would have lived together so peacefully after independence.

However, some critics suggest the famine during which the character of Kuti dies could be the 1943 Bengal famine that claimed three million Indian lives—which would mean the second half of the novel takes place postindependence.

1943 Famine

The famine that claimed over three million Indian lives likely could have been avoided. World War II (1939–45) was in its peak, and British prime minister Winston Churchill exported 70,000 tons of rice from India to stockpile for the British, despite knowing that famine had already spread across the impoverished colony. By the end of 1943, Britain had stockpiled over 18.5 million tons of rice—enough to feed nearly 106 million people for a year. At the time Britain's population was 47 million, meaning they had stockpiled enough food to feed the entire country for over two years. Meanwhile, three million Indians from whom they had taken the rice starved to death.


Religious Practices and Beliefs

One of the key beliefs in Hinduism is that of the acceptance of suffering. Hindus believe in both karma—that a person's actions, whether good or evil, dictate how they will be treated in the future—and reincarnation—returning to Earth after death in another body or form. Because of these two beliefs, Hindus tolerate suffering as a natural consequence (karma) for behavior in either this or a past life (reincarnation or the belief that the soul is reborn in new bodies or life forms). Hindus regard suffering to be a temporary inconvenience affecting their earthly bodies but not their souls. Most Hindus, like Rukmani in the novel, accept suffering unquestioningly, using it as an opportunity to deepen religious devotion. Throughout the novel Rukmani returns to her goddess, for example, praying and offering sacrifices to alleviate her suffering. The way Rukmani responds to suffering creates conflict in her relationship with Kennington, who calls Indians "acquiescent imbeciles" for unquestioningly accepting suffering.

Additionally, a large minority of Hindus are vegetarian and view cows as sacred. Devout Hindus would never eat beef or touch a slaughtered cow. The fact that Rukmani's sons work with calfskins at the tannery and one son loses his life stealing one while cows are sacred in their religion gives further insight into why Rukmani despises the tannery, despite the good pay.

Cultural Traditions and Education

Hinduism remains the most common religion in India, with about 80% of Indians following Hindu practices. Hindus worship many gods—over 30 million—appointed by the main Hindu god, Krishna, to oversee the universe.

Until 1950 when the new Indian constitution outlawed discrimination, Hindus adhered to a strict caste system: Brahmins (priests or teachers) at the top, followed by Kshatriyas (warriors or rulers), Vaishyas (farmers or merchants), Shudras (laborers), and Dalits (untouchables or outcastes). Although the new constitution of 1950 outlawed discrimination by caste, the effects of caste discrimination lingered for many years. Social discrimination against lower classes, particularly those deemed "unclean" like street sweepers or bathroom cleaners, arguably remains. Education would have been reserved for upper classes—the Brahmins and Kshatriyas—with less literacy in each lower caste. This explains why most villagers in the novel, who would have belonged to either Vaishyas or Shudras, are illiterate. Rukmani, on the other hand, borne into the Kshatriyas caste, values her education and passes literacy down to her children.

Most Indian Hindus follow the same cultural practices from the past, passing their traditions on through the generations. For example, at the time of the novel's publication, most Hindu families lived together, with women leaving their parents—as readers see Rukmani and Irawaddy do—only to join their husband's families. Because families live together and sons are expected to carry on their father's business, having children, particularly sons, is extremely important to Hindu families. Couples who fail to have children face cruel stigma within their families, which helps explain why having children is so important to Irawaddy's husband. This also helps explain the devastation Rukmani feels when Nathan has no sons to take over his fields.

Role of Women

In the mid-20th century, life for rural Hindu women like Rukmani remained the same as it had for hundreds of generations. Following traditional gender roles, women prepared food, cleaned the house, and tended to children, while men acted as breadwinners. Agricultural women like Rukmani helped their husbands in the fields and at the market, but these tasks were seen as supportive roles to their husbands rather than the woman's personal profession. Women played a secondary role to men. A woman's husband or father made family decisions, handled the money, and held all authority.

When a woman's husband died, she became reliant on whatever family could support her, sometimes marrying a brother-in-law so as to remain the "property" of her deceased husband's family. Although never widely practiced, in extreme cases widows were expected to burn themselves on their husband's funeral pyre in a practice called sati. Hindu widows were expected to mourn for their husbands the rest of their lives and would therefore never remarry, unless to remain in their same marital family. Abandoned women, like Irawaddy in the novel, would be considered "unclean" or "unsexed" and could not hope of finding another husband. Widows without family to support them were often forced into prostitution as their only means of survival.

Markandaya's writings present complex and flawed female characters, shattering the image of a "good" Hindu wife who simply feeds her family and remains steadfastly dedicated to her husband. While Rukmani exhibits many of these traits—she unquestioningly forgives Nathan's affair with Kunthi, for example—Rukmani lies, sneaks behind her husband's back, indulges in Western medicine, and comes up with her own ideas about how to keep the family alive during famine. While other writers at the time explored gender from an academic viewpoint, Markandaya was one of the first to present complex Indian women in fiction. Like Rukmani, Markandaya herself struggled to shake traditional gender roles. Although she went to college, moved abroad, and married an Englishman, Markandaya admittedly spent most of her life as a traditional housewife, once noting that in a year of writing a book, a female writer has to "make some 1500 cups of tea and coffee in the meantime."

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