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Meet Kamala Markandaya

attitudes and modern Western views. In A Handful
of Rice (1966), Markandaya revisits the village life
of Nectar in a Sieve with the story of a young boy
who endures poverty and finally escapes from his
village to the city and its shadowy underworld.
In The Coffer Dams (1969), Markandaya
again takes up a theme of her first published
novel as Western and Indian engineers try to
build a dam in southern India. Tensions between
the old and the new rise as the dam threatens to
harness nature and destroy ancestral land. In The
Nowhere Man (1972), Markandaya uses her own
experiences as an Indian immigrant in London to
tell the story of a young student who suffers from
the racism of English thugs. In Two Virgins
(1973), she describes the lives of two Indian peas-
The eyes I see with are still Indian eyes. ant girls, one of whom chooses life in the city,
while the other remains in the village. Relations
—Kamala Markandaya between the British and their Indian colonial sub-
jects around the beginning of the twentieth cen-
tury are the focus of The Golden Honeycomb
(1977). In Shalimar (1982), an international cor-
poration’s decision to build an exclusive resort
K amala Markandaya was born in the southern
Indian city of Bangalore in 1924. Her real
name is Kamala Purnaiya Taylor. She was born a
along the unspoiled beaches of southern India
threatens the livelihood of local fisherman.
Markandaya has been acclaimed by critics for
Brahmin—the highest caste, or social category, of
her ability to craft a precise, well-written story.
Copyright © by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

traditional Hindu society. After studying at the
Charles Larson wrote of the author:
University of Madras, she took a job writing for a
small newspaper. Although she was city born, she Markandaya is a rare kind of magician—she
came to know the villages and rural areas, where the knows how to control the tension in every scene,
great majority of India’s people live. In 1948, when in every incident . . . , often by nothing more
she was twenty-four, she moved to England. Later than a word or two which cancel out everything
she married an Englishman and had one child. that has been said in a previous scene or
Nectar in a Sieve was the first of her novels to conversation.
be published, although it was the third one she Although Markandaya has lived in England
had written. When it appeared in 1954, the novel her entire adult life, she has visited India fre-
was greeted as a masterful picture of life in the quently. There, she gathers background informa-
unfamiliar world of India’s villages. It became a tion and other material for her novels. Some
worldwide best-seller and was translated into sev- Indian readers have criticized her for losing touch
enteen languages. In her next novel, Some Inner with her roots by choosing to live in another
Fury (1955), Markandaya explores the relation- country. Markandaya disagrees. She claims that
ship of an educated Indian woman and her her long residence in England and self-chosen role
English sweetheart. In A Silence of Desire (1960), as an outsider give her more objectivity and allow
she returns to one of the themes of Nectar in a her to examine without prejudice the society,
Sieve, the tension between traditional Indian customs, and character of her native land.

Nectar in a Sieve Study Guide 9
Introducing the Novel
India’s life is in her villages; they are her heart, changed? Or does she side with those who cry out
they are her calm, and Nectar in a Sieve is and try to grasp fate in their own hands and
written from that heart. change it?
—British author Rumer Godden Another important question addressed in
the novel concerns the role of hope in the face
How does an author perform the magic of making of suffering. The novel’s title and epigraph seem
you experience the world from the point of view to imply that the author regards hope as necessary
of someone else? What does it take to allow you to life. Without it, life cannot continue. As you
to enter into the mind and heart of someone you read, pay attention to what the different charac-
will never have the opportunity to meet? How do ters say and how they feel about hope and fear:
you develop sympathy and understanding for Are they hopeful? Are they fearful? Of what use
someone whose experiences may be vastly differ- is hope if daily life is almost unbearably cruel
ent from your own? and filled with frightening possibilities? How
Reading Nectar in a Sieve will help you answer can hope defeat fear of the future? When does
these questions. The novel’s characters are mostly fear become so powerful that hope is over-
southern Indian tenant farmers whose homes are whelmed? How can people continue to strive
one-room mud huts, with no running water, elec- without hope?
tricity, or heat. They rely almost entirely on them- Love is another important theme in Nectar in
selves for food and cook their meals over dung a Sieve. The characters’ love for one another
fires. When, and if, rain falls determines whether keeps their family together despite their desperate
they will have plenty or be in need. Usually, they poverty. The faith they have in one another is
are so busy providing for themselves and their tested severely by the tragedies they endure.
families that they cannot afford to be concerned Nevertheless, the bonds linking them are stronger
with governments, politics, or other aspects of the than the outside forces of nature, society, and
wider world. Almost all marriages are arranged. other people.
Most of the characters in Nectar in a Sieve Finally, in Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya
exhibit an unquestioning acceptance of fate, or explores the tensions caused by the coming of

Copyright © by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
their destiny. This feeling of acceptance runs modernization and industrial progress. Using one
throughout the novel. In fact, it is one of the powerful symbol, she shows the effects of the
important dividing lines between the different modern world on village life in southern India.
characters. To create tension and develop themes, Some of the characters adapt successfully to the
Kamala Markandaya focuses on how characters inevitable changes that ensue; others are crushed
address the issue of fate. Faced with a change from by them. Ask yourself whether the characters are
the outside that threatens to alter their way of life better off or worse off because of the change that
forever, one of the characters says, “Bend like the comes to their village.
grass, that you do not break.” Another character
strongly disagrees with this advice. “You must cry THE TIME AND PLACE
out if you want help,” he argues. “It is no use The novel takes place in the author’s native
whatsoever to suffer in silence.” This character southern India. Most of the action occurs in an
believes that rebellion against fate, poverty, and unnamed village, while scenes in the second part of
misery is the nobler option. As you read the novel, the book are set in a city. Although the author does
try to determine the different characters’ attitudes not give a specific time, the novel seems to be set a
toward change and the acceptance of their fates. few years after India gained its independence from the
Ask yourself where Markandaya stands. Does she British, in 1947. India had been essentially under
agree that it is better to accept what cannot be British control since the early eighteen hundreds.

10 Nectar in a Sieve Study Guide
The British believed that they were benefiting the The period following independence was
Indian people by providing India with railroads, fraught with problems stemming from the
irrigation projects, and the cessation of civil war. partition between India and Pakistan. Deaths
India was, in fact, developing at a very fast pace. caused by civil strife numbered in the hundreds
With improvements in education, an active of thousands. Continuing conflicts, refugee
Western-educated group of Indians began to resettlement, and inadequate resources were
emerge, calling for the representationof Indian but a few of the hindrances to economic and
interests in government. In 1885 the Indian political stability. India’s new prime minister,
National Congress, a broadly based political party, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed strongly in eco-
was formed. In 1914 Mahatma Gandhi returned nomic planning. In the early 1950s, most of
to India after a prolonged stay in South Africa and India’s funds were spent on rebuilding railroads,
eventually became head of the party. Under irrigation systems, and canals. Food production
Ghandi’s leadership, the party pushed for Indian rose between 1951 and 1961, but population
independence, using a strategy of passive nonco- rose even more. As a result, economic benefits
operation. In 1947 the Indian National Congress went mostly to the large landowners and the
took over the government following the departure elite upper class. The rest of the exploding
of the British. The separate state of Pakistan was population remained landless and unemployed,
created out of the predominately Muslim north- with an inadequate food supply, poor housing
western and northeastern portions of India. conditions, and a very low literacy rate.

Did You Know?
Kamala Markandaya is often grouped with of life, the ef fects of colonialism on colonized
many other writers under the heading of com- peoples, and the outsider status of persons
monwealth writers. This term refers to writers who choose to distance themselves from their
born in countries that were formerly British native traditions.
colonies and are now members of the eco- Commonwealth writers include some of the
Copyright © by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

nomic and political alliance known as the most famous authors of the twentieth century.
British Commonwealth. Most of these writers Nigerian Wole Soyinka, West Indian Derek
either speak English as their native language Walcott, South African Nadine Gordimer, and
or have chosen to write in English as a way of Australian Patrick White have all won the Nobel
reaching more readers. Some commonwealth Prize for Literature. Other commonwealth writ-
writers have emigrated from their homelands ers include Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler
to Britain, the United States, or other coun- of Canada; V. S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon of
tries, while others have remained in their Trinidad and Tobago; Chinua Achebe of Nigeria;
homelands or have returned home after Doris Lessing of Zimbabwe; Alan Paton of
traveling abroad. Among the common themes South Africa; and Kamala Markandaya, R. K.
addressed by many of these writers are the Narayan, Anita Desai, Raja Rao, and Salman
conflict between traditional and modern ways Rushdie of India.

Nectar in a Sieve Study Guide 11

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