Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
–Coleridge

I read this book last week and thought it gave a beautiful, but very sad, picture of life in India for many people. It’s the story of a poor family, a fourth daughter who, because she has no dowry, cannot marry well but must settle for marriage to a landless tenant farmer who brings her home to a mud hut he built himself. Fortunately for the girl, Rukmani, her husband Nathan is “poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife, whom he took at the age of twelve.”
Rukmani narrates the story in first person, telling of the birth of her daughter, the long wait during which the couple think they will have no more children, and then the birth of her five sons. The village where the family lives is on the edge of poverty and starvation; a bad year with too much rain or too little rain will push Rukmani’s family over the edge. Change and new economic oportunities come to the village; however, these new ideas and possibilities are full of danger too, for peasants who have nothing in reserve and are unable or unwilling to move with the times.
I wrote about a month ago about some of my favorite fantasy worlds. These fantasy worlds were first encountered on the pages of books. Then, there are historical and sociological worlds that I visit mostly in books, too. Finally, there is the actual world. I’ve never been to India or China or South America, but I have a picture of what life in those lands is (or was) like–again, from books. I think that Nectar in a Sieve, first published in 1954, will become a large part of my picture of India, along with missionary stories, the young man I met a few years ago at Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and other sources, such as the women I see at the grocery store here in Clear Lake dressed in saris.
Warning: The book has a bittersweet ending, but it’s realistic without being hopeless and depressing. Excellent.
These are some of my favorite books that have given me a picture of the world. Most of them are fiction.
Around the world in books:
South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope both by Alan Paton
India: Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
China: Imperial Woman by Pearl S.Buck, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
Antarctica: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
The Netherlands: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
England (Yorkshire): All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Lebanon: Alice by ? Doerr
Russia: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (And, of course, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, although they’re more historical)
Israel: Exodus by Leon Uris
Hawaii: Hawaii by James Michener

For some of these places, all my ideas about the culture come from the book I listed. For others, I am certainly indebted to the book for most of my information. Can you suggest any books that capture the culture and living conditions of a country in either fiction or biography? I do prefer and learn more from stories.

7 thoughts on “Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

  1. For Africa, two biographies: The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley (daughter of the famous Aldous, about her childhood there) and I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, one of my very favorite books about life with her husband Martin, traveling to places no white people had ever been as some of the first wildlife photographers.

  2. I think the book was great. I know if I was in the position Kamala was in I don’t know if I could survive but now I know just about anything is possible if your just strong.

  3. I thought this book was great and I recomend it to anyone you loves a hope raising story about poverty and starvation!

  4. This book had a lot of meaning. It took me a while to start reading, but once I did, I couldn’t stop. I felt if I were actually there. The images of the places the characters spoke of were so vivid in my mind and I felt as if I really knew there pain.

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  6. This book is great so far. I barley started reading this book and I’m up to chapter 10. It makes you think about how people in this world are struggling to support ther family and doing whatever they can to live. This book is great… I highly reccommend it to everybody that cares… :)

  7. Pingback: Preview of 2011 Booklists #1 | Semicolon

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