Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
I found this book to be moving and lyrical, sorrowful and yet hopeful. However, I think to fully appreciate the book the American reader to place it in historical context first. Rukmani marries Nathan in 1930’s rural India. This is a time and place where there is no such thing as adolescence. The poverty stricken Indian people have to make choices that provide the highest chance of survival to the highest number of people. So, when Rukmani’s parents contract her marriage when she is only twelve years old, the American reader has to understand that not only is this an acceptable age in that culture for a woman (and she is considered a woman by her culture) to be married, her parents are really trying to ensure their own survival (one less mouth to feed at home) and hers (she is the mistress of her own home and although her husband is a landless farmer, she will likely not starve).
Nectar In A Sieve moves through the rest of Rukmani’s life. She sees her family’s prospects grow as Nathan saves money hoping to buy the land he farms, and dwindle as a tannery opens in her town artificially raising prices and destroying the farm land. Eventually her daughter is forced to prostitution to feed her youngest son, who still dies of starvation and they are kicked off the land they’ve farmed for thirty years. Nearly all of their sons are lost to them either through death, because they’ve taken jobs in Ceylon, or through simple vanishing acts. Every day is a struggle, and it’s hard for an American to grasp situations where a family is stretching one meal of rice water to last three days. And yet, Rukmani never gives up. Even after Nathan has joined the dead while they in a distant city far from home, she doesn’t give up. Instead she adopts a leper boy (and saves his life by doing so) and returns home.
This is a novel about hope, the hope that is necessary for people to strive for a better, more secure life, achieved only through gainful employment and a stable income in a capitalist world. Where these opportunities don't exist, or barely exist, you will have thousands of Rukmanis, and Nathans begging in your towns and cities. And thankfully, there will be other "Kamala Markandayas" to document their stories for those who are willing to open their eyes to the world around them.
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