Saturday, January 9, 2010
Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone has been tossed.

Set in rural India at the dawning of a new age, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of one woman's quest for happiness and peace amidst heartache and hardship.  Despite attempts to ignore comparisons, one is indelibly reminded of Pearl S. Buck's classic The Good Earth.  The heroine, Rukmani, is a sort of female Wang Lung, who narrates the rise and fall of her family as India grows and changes around them.

The story begins with Rukmani remembering her past, already advanced and age and living without her husband and sons.  She begins her tale with the day she came to her husband's village; leaving her life of relative privilege behind at the age of twelve to become the wife of a poor tenant farmer. The book ebbs and flows, following the seasons of planting and harvest, rising and falling between plenty and famine. Markandaya as Rukmani speaks with a simplicity and an economy of words that is elegant and at times poignant.  Despite the struggle that life throws at the family, there is an undying sense of optimism that is simultaneously endearing and heartrending. It is a story of struggle, but also of joy in the simplicities of life, as the characters are happiest when our most mundane needs of sustenance and companionship are met.

But the story is not only the biography of a family, it is also a commentary on the realities of change and the impact of modernization.  It displays the futile struggle to preserve our connection to the land and each other as the world becomes ever more industrialized.  Markandaya uses the construction of a modern tannery in the small village to explore the impact of modernity on a way of life that has remained constant for centuries.  As time stretches on, the reach of the tannery (and the city that grows up around it) spiderwebs into the lives of every character, forever changing their course in life.

Through the character of Kenny, a western doctor who floats in and out of the story, Markandaya also produces a commentary on the social condition of the suffering in this world; painting a picture of the suffering Indian spirit, which accepts their plight and burden, refusing to cry out for help. Kenny is often seen as cold and frustrated, but the reader is to understand that he struggles to comprehend the complacency of the villagers, and their unwillingness to protest the destitution that runs rampant around them.

At only 186 pages, Markandaya's novel leaves a mark that far outstretches it's paucity.  Though, at times, the novel can seem to be a litany of struggle and hardship, the characters' reactions and reflections give insight into the human condition. Though the words of the title never appear in the novel itself, the reader has little difficulty understanding their meaning once the book is finished.  Like nectar in a sieve, the sweetness of life is fleeting.  We must cup it with both hands, and take solace and joy in each and every drop we are afforded in this life.


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