Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924 in Mysore, in southern India. She attended college at the University of Madras, where she studied history. Between 1940 and 1947, she worked as a journalist and published short stories in Indian newspapers. She married an Englishman and immigrated to England in 1948, where she had one daughter.
Markandaya published Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel, in 1954, to wide critical acclaim. In the United States, it was chosen as a Book of the Month Club Main Selection, and in 1955, the American Library Association named it a Notable Book. Remarkably, Markandaya was the only woman in a group of mid-century Indians writing in English, a group that included Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and Khushwant Singh. Despite her success, Markandaya remained an intensely private writer who revealed little about her personal influences. She was so private, in fact, that she used a pen name—she was born Kamala Purnaiya. However, we can gain insight into her work by evaluating the religious, political, and social contexts in which she lived and wrote.
Raised in India as a Hindu-Brahmin, Markandaya addresses a fundamental question of Hindu belief in her work: what does it mean to be human? To a Hindu, dharma is a moral or virtuous way of living, characterized in part by devotion to truth, the practice of forgiveness, inner and outer purity, controlling anger, not coveting material goods, and reducing attachments to worldly things. Karma means “deed” or “action,” and because all life is interrelated, every deed has consequences. Human beings have free will and can choose their own actions to produce joy or misery for themselves and others. Suffering is a form of purification. The soul’s highest goal is liberation, and truth transcends all other moral values. Such Hindu beliefs are central to Nectar in a Sieve.
Hindu traditions are also important in Markandaya’s writing. Rukmani, the main character in Nectar in a Sieve, worships the Mother Goddess, the Earth incarnate, who embodies creative energy, passion, and power. Echoes of the epic Ramayana, one of the best-loved Indian stories, are clear in this novel. Ramayana recounts the adventures of Prince Rama and his ideal Hindu wife, Sita, who must prove her faithfulness to her husband after her abduction. Years later, gossips question her fidelity. In despair, Sita cries out to her mother, the Earth Goddess, who opens the earth to take Sita home. Critics of Markandaya’s work compare Nectar’s Rukmani to the legendary Sita. Markandaya shapes Rukmani’s story around the traditional life stages of the Brahmin caste. Celibate studenthood is first, followed by the householder stage of marriage, procreation, work, and duty. After the first grandson, the forest-dweller stage begins, characterized by withdrawing from material concerns. The final stage, wandering beggar, marks the end of wanting and fearing and of being at peace with oneself and the gods. Rukmani passes through all of these traditional stages.
In addition to the beliefs and traditions of Hinduism, contemporary Indian politics contribute to an understanding of Nectar in a Sieve. When Markandaya was growing up and attending college, India was governed as a conquered colony of Great Britain. British law transformed Indian zamindars, traditional land-revenue collectors, into landowners and absentee landlords. British rule brought the Industrial Revolution to India, changing traditional rural life. Young men moved off the land to earn money in factories instead of by growing crops. The British also introduced English education and ideals to India’s students, including the literature of revolution and freedom. During World War II, Mahatma Gandhi, the great figure of freedom and civil disobedience, began his “Quit India” campaign against British rule. India earned its independence in 1947. Britain partitioned the country into predominately Hindu India and predominately Muslim Pakistan. This partition created millions of refugees, and in the chaos and terror that followed, a million people died. In India’s first general election in 1952, Nehru won the presidency with his goal of freedom from want for the masses. Two years later, Markandaya published Nectar in a Sieve, which draws upon the political concepts and turmoil of her age.
Markandaya was not yet twenty when the famine of 1943 in Bengal claimed over three million lives, and her detailed, realistic portrayal of human starvation comes from those desperate times. India’s conflicts between Hindus and Muslims often erupted in violence during the years before independence, and she scrutinizes religious intolerance in her novel as well. The status of women in Indian society was a major issue of the day, and new laws regarding women’s rights were not enacted until after independence. Traditionally, procreation was so important that if a bride failed to conceive, her husband could take another wife. The birth of a daughter was considered a liability, but the birth of a son was celebrated with festivities, and these events appear in the novel. Gandhi believed that the whole structure of urban, industrialized society was violent and repressive, crushing human souls and destroying the beauty of nature. Nectar in a Sieve captures the effects of such social upheaval on its characters.
Markandaya drew the title Nectar in a Sieve from a tragic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “Work Without Hope”: “Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live.” She went on to publish nine additional novels, and among these, Some Inner Fury (1958), about a young Indian woman in love with an Englishman, is perhaps her most autobiographical. She died in London in 2004.