Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Rukmani, who is the narrator and is now elderly, looks back on her life. She thinks of her children, particularly Puli, an adopted child without fingers. She thinks back to her wedding day, and how, as the fourth daughter in her family, her parents had little left to offer as dowry. Therefore, she marries below her caste, to a tenant farmer named Nathan.

At 12 years old Rukmani's parents send her to live with Nathan on the small patch of land he rents. Surveying the small, unfinished mud hut she is supposed to live in for the rest of her life, Rukmani feels overwhelmed with disappointment. Soon she meets some other village women while washing clothes, and they tell her Nathan built the mud hut for her and Rukmani is impressed. She also meets Kunthi, along with Janaki and Kali, who, even though she is young, is already pregnant with her first child.

Rukmani, as narrator, fondly remembers those early days, thinking about how hard her husband worked and how simple their lives were. Despite Kunthi, who treated Rukmani coldly, everyone in the village welcomed her, and her husband treated her kindly, patiently waiting for her to adjust to her new life.

Analysis

The novel's opening chapter provides a frame for readers. They learn immediately how Rukmani's story concludes: her husband dies before his time, she adopts a son named Puli, and, despite the many hardships the narration will detail she never loses her optimism or ability to love. The characteristic of summarizing a story before telling the story was common in Indian fiction at the time.

In this short chapter the reader learns Rukmani's backstory, which provides insight into the historical backdrop of the novel. As the daughter of a headman, Rukmani grows up feeling wealthy. As British colonialism wears away respect for traditional village elders, by the time it is Rukmani's turn to marry the family has run out of dowry money, and social standing isn't enough to find her a "good" match. Instead she marries an uneducated rice farmer. It will take the length of the novel for the reader to understand the impact of Rukmani's marrying below her caste. The narrator has no regrets to speak of, so the reader will likely not suspect how the marriage shapes the course of her life. The fact that Nathan does not own his land will be the source of many of her, and her children's, struggles.

The antagonism between Kunthi and Rukmani begins as soon as Rukmani moves to the village. The neighbors remark how quickly Kunthi's husband got her pregnant, hinting that something is amiss. Later in the novel it will be revealed that Nathan impregnated Kunthi before Rukmani arrived. Markandaya foreshadows the jealousy Kunthi feels for the love in Nathan and Rukmani's marriage, calling Kunthi's pregnancy "her burden." This jealousy will fuel Kunthi's conniving actions in the future. The way Rukmani, as narrator, speaks about Kunthi, looking back to first meeting her, shows Rukmani's compassion and ability to forgive and feel deep empathy for others.

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