Review: Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across this book in a used bookstore--my favorite place to find such gems. I had likely heard of this book before in title but not in content. The novel follows the life of Rukmani, a child-bride in early 20th century rural India and her life as she moves from her family into her husband's Nathan's home. As a third daughter, the dowry she could provide was insubstantial and thus she is married away to a poor (but kind) man who works the rice fields. Together, they work year after year to yield life from the land but encounter increasing hardships as they have children--some who stick around but more who go--and deal with the inevitable ways life is made infinitely harder and more nuanced for the poor. After dealing with a particularly harsh drought, they continued to decline in their ability to sustain themselves and eventually, even the land they work on is taken from them. They make a final effort to seek out one of their sons whom they have not seen in years, but even that ends in misfortune. Obviously, this is no "feel good" book. It's a book that does not romanticize the life of the Indian poor but it does provide a strong sense of resilience, compassion, and ability and in that way resonates with many other such tales including (as the afterword notes) as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, and (my own connection), Child of the Dark by Carolina Maria De Jesus. The book can be rather intense at times in how straightforward it is about the hardships, brutality, and sometimes, callousness of life but that is its power as well; Markandaya doesn't overplay such scenes but rather shows us through Rukmani's eyes how she witnesses or responds to such scenes in ways that make complete sense for the characters and for the situation. In this way, Markandaya shows us there is an intentionality and intelligence in what and how they move through and respond to situations to which the likely-reader (an educated person from a higher socioeconomic class) has no real understanding of (but are often willing to cast judgment).

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