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Nectar in a Sieve | Study Guide

Kamala Markandaya

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Nectar in a Sieve | Plot Summary

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Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of an Indian peasant who never loses hope in the face of insurmountable obstacles in her life. The novel opens in roughly 1930, in a small Indian village where the narrator, Rukmani, begins her new life with her new husband, Nathan. Rukmani, only 12 years old, struggles to adjust to married life, but her rice farmer husband remains patient and proves to be a loving person. Rukmani gives birth to their first child, a beautiful daughter named Irawaddy (Ira), about a year after their marriage, but for six long years after she fails to conceive another child. Secretly Rukmani meets with a Western doctor named Kennington (Kenny), who offers her fertility treatments. Rukmani gives birth to four sons in as many years. Although Rukmani and Nathan delight in their many children, each birth leaves the couple with another mouth to feed.

Family Economics

In the early years, the family manages to scrape by, but when a leather tannery opens in their village things begin to change. The tannery brings work and good pay, so nearby villagers flood to the area. The influx of people pushes up food prices, making it more difficult for Rukmani's family to afford supplies. Rukmani arranges 14-year-old Irawaddy's marriage and delights in finding a "good match" with a man financially secure enough to care for her. They have had a few good harvests, so Rukmani and Nathan spare no expense financing Irawaddy's wedding. That same year the monsoon rains begin early and destroy their crops, forcing them to rely on their saved supplies, many of which were used at the wedding celebration.

Five years later Rukmani's two oldest sons, now in their early teens, begin work at the tannery. Around the same time, Irawaddy's husband returns her to her parents because she cannot conceive. Again, in secret Rukmani pleads with Kennington, asking him to cure her daughter's infertility. He agrees, but it's too late. Irawaddy's former husband has taken a new wife, leaving Irawaddy reliant on her parents. The boys' incomes at the tannery help keep the family afloat for a few years, but they are eventually ousted as "troublemakers" for helping organize a labor strike. Then they leave the family forever to work on a tea farm abroad.

Poverty and Loss

Later in the year Rukmani gives birth to her final child, a son named Kuti. Caring for Kuti lifts Irawaddy from her depression, but the family continues to struggle. Then a drought strikes and the crops all wither and die. The landlord demands they pay at least half of the price they owe for renting the land. Rukmani sells what she can to buy grains, including their bullocks, but it isn't enough. Starvation forces her family to forage garbage and grass to eat. A conniving neighbor, Kunthi, blackmails both Rukmani and Nathan for what little rice they have saved. The family slowly starves.

Rukmani's son Raja is killed by tannery guards after being caught trying to steal a calfskin. A few weeks later, Irawaddy secretly begins prostituting herself to buy food for Kuti, Rukmani's youngest child, who is nearing death from starvation. One evening in a rage, Rukmani attacks Irawaddy, mistaking her for an intruder when Irawaddy comes home late at night. The family has no choice but to accept Irawaddy's new occupation. With Irawaddy's earnings Kuti seems at first to be recovering, but he deteriorates again and dies. Kennington eventually returns from his travels abroad and helps the family by securing a training position for Rukmani's son Selvam. Selvam will train as a doctor while the hospital Kennington has raised funds for is being built. Miraculously, the crops survive this time, and the family stays alive for another year. Irawaddy gives birth to an albino son, conceived during her days of prostitution. The village society shuns Sacrabani, but Irawaddy and Selvam love and protect him. Rukmani and Nathan also accept his difference.

Several years go by and the family lives in hope of Selvam making a better life, but many obstacles slow the new hospital's progress. The family receives its final blow when the landlord sells Nathan's land to the tannery. They are only given two weeks' notice before they must depart from their home and the land they farm. Selvam agrees to stay in his training position and care for Irawaddy and her son, while Nathan and Rukmani decide to pack up their few belongings with the hope that their middle son, Murugan, who lives in the city and works as a servant, will take them in.

City Life

They travel by cart for two days. Dropped off 15 miles from the city, they eventually make their way into the city. Once they arrive they wander around the streets in search of their son's last known address. Exhausted from all the walking, they decide to spend the night in a temple that feeds the poor each evening and begin their search again in the morning. In the temple, thieves steal their belongings while they stand in line for food, and later, another thief steals their money from under Rukmani's sari while she and Nathan are sleeping. They must set out the next day to look for their son with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

Murugan no longer works at his last known address, but some kind servants there feed Rukmani and Nathan and let them spend the night. The owner, a female doctor, tells them where Murugan likely went to work next. When Rukmani and Nathan finally locate Murugan's new address, they learn he abandoned his job and his wife two years earlier. The family he left behind is starving, and his wife, who has had to prostitute herself to survive, is resentful and bitter. She doesn't have enough resources to help her in-laws even though they are now stranded in the city, with no food or money.

Forced back onto the streets, Rukmani earns a few annas (small change, about 1/16th of a rupee) a day reading letters, which only affords them a rice cake to eat each day, in addition to what they can get for free at the temple every night. A leprous child beggar, Puli, helps them find work breaking rocks at a nearby quarry. They earn more for their labor than Rukmani's letter reading, but they work long, difficult hours in all weather. Still Rukmani and Nathan optimistically save money to return to their village. One day Nathan collapses in the street on his way back from the quarry. Workers carry him back to the temple, where he dies shortly after. Rukmani uses their meager savings to return to the village, accompanied by Puli, where Irawaddy and Selvam welcome them home.

Nectar in a Sieve Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Rukmani marries Nathan and moves to his village.

Rising Action

2 Rukmani has a daughter but can't conceive again for six years.

3 Kennington secretly treats Rukmani's infertility, and it works.

4 Men arrive to build a tannery, and it changes the village.

5 A monsoon floods the rice paddy, and the family suffers.

6 Irawaddy's husband abandons her. Arjun and Thambi move away.

7 A drought strikes and Nathan cannot afford his rent.

8 Kunthi blackmails the family for rice.

9 Irawaddy gives birth to Sacrabani, a result of prostitution.

10 Nathan's landlord sells the land, so the family splits up.


11 City thieves steal everything Rukmani and Nathan still own.

Falling Action

12 Rukmani and Nathan find out their son abandoned his wife.

13 Puli helps them make money and survive in the city.

14 Nathan collapses in the street and dies in the temple.


15 Rukmani and Puli return to the village.

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