Posted: March 18th, 2023
Nectar in a Sieve
Kamala Markandaya’s 1954 novel Nectar in a Sieve can be read as a historical artifact that illustrates issues extant in the years immediately after Indian independence. Some of the issues that Markandaya addresses in Nectar in a Sieve including income disparity, still plague Indian social and political life. The ambitious industrialization and modernization programs that Nehru undertook during his tenure as India’s first post-colonial Prime Minister did churn wealth in some sectors, while it also exacerbated the already existing divisions between classes throughout the subcontinent. In particular, the shift from a primarily agrarian and self-sustaining farming community life in rural areas towards urbanization created more problems than the process was intended to solve. Without a cohesive community infrastructure, peasant farmers were mainly worse off than they were before factories like the one depicted in Markandaya’s novel employed leagues of workers.
Nectar in a Sieve does reveal some of the paradoxes of modernization in India, as the title suggests. For one, the modernization of India’s universities and medical systems presented a major boon not just to the economy but to daily life in India. The novel does address medical advancements as being potentially beneficial, via Dr. Kenny’s character. Moreover, Rukmani somehow manages to maintain hope for the future as she watches her grandchildren grow. Furthermore, democracy theoretically empowered all of India’s residents but the system also incurred widespread corruption in both local and federal politics.
The story of Rukmani shows also that modernization facilitated the dismantling of traditional Indian social and cultural institutions. A tannery replaces the old fashioned village farming infrastructure and local politicians replace the traditional caste of village elders. Gender issues are also at stake, although Markandaya does not spend too much time dwelling on topics such as why male children were considered to be much more of a boon than female children, and the symbolic effects of institutions like arranged marriages and dowry. Moreover, Markandaya suggests that poverty affects women to a greater degree than men. Prostitution as a source of needed income is a topic that the author does not shy away from in Nectar in a Sieve. Ira is one of the novel’s most tragic figures, revealing the effects of a rigidly stratified culture that is practically built on gender inequity.
Income disparity is the main theme of Nectar in a Sieve, which suggests certainly that modernity widened the gulf between rich and poor throughout the country. The poor bore the brunt of the burden of urbanization and modernization. Factory jobs replaced independence and self-sufficiency with drastic, dire consequences for individual health and safety and for community integrity. Families fall apart. Mardandaya shows this through Ruku’s eyes, as her sons gradually disperse and abandon their homes and villages in the hopes of finding dependable incomes. Dependent on the factories for work, residents are powerless over their own food production. Working conditions at the tannery are horrid, and because of the weak regulatory environment in India worker abuses also take place. Low wages and less-than-satisfactory work have a devastating impact on individuals as well as communities. The labor conditions become akin to slavery. The novel also addresses the relationship between land ownership, politics, and power, as the tannery buys out the family farm and forces Nathan and Rukmani off of their land.
Modernization promises much to India, which had only recently extricated itself from British rule. Independence seemed like the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity in the subcontinent but in fact, it would spell the beginning of a new struggle. The novel portrays post-colonial India in a conflicted, multifaceted, and ultimately realistic life.
Industrialization and urbanization, two linked phenomena, created jobs on paper. The tannery in Nectar in a Sieve does demonstrate that large companies employ large numbers of local workers and create the illusion of a thriving local economy. However, wages are insufficient and working conditions are poor. The factories and companies that own them are not locally located and thus, the investors and owners of the means of production have no vested interest in the health and well-being of residents or the community as a whole. Politicians, also in the pockets of the major industrial companies, do not represent their constituents as they should be. Modernization has dismantled the traditional social and family structures that once empowered residents and gave them social stability.
If modernization and industrialization are inevitable, then there are some ways in which India could have navigated through such changes more seamlessly. For one, the diversity of the nation lends itself to local governance. Self-sustaining villages should never be abandoned, even if they have the appearance of being “backwards.” Residents of self-sufficient farming villages are much better off than residents of villages like the one Nathan and Rukmani live in. In short, Nectar in a Sieve addresses issues that plague not just India but indeed the rest of the world.
Markandaya, K. (1954). Nectar in a Sieve. Signet.
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