Feminism and Gender Consciousness in Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve

Feminism and Gender Consciousness in Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve

“Life is a challenge”. It has to be met. The cliched
saying is far more true in the case of a woman. For a woman life is always a
challenge and since ages she has been subjected to the many challenges thrown
by society, customs, traditions and men.

Tradition, the world over, has assigned a lower and
subordinate position to women in it’s social set up. However important the
functions and duties of a woman are, she is always relegated to the background.
And woman is obliged to subordinate her interests and desires to the collective
will of her community, and in particular to the male members. These
constricting and narrow social norms
constrained her to obliterate her ‘self‘,
her individuality and separate identity.

Change is the law of life,
and the status of women all over the world has been undergoing a rapid change
in recent times. Traditionally, the Indian woman accepted the frame work of the
family with a blind faith and rarely, if ever, showed a spirit of rebellion.
But times have changed and the women of India too are taking strides though
slow at the moment towards attainment of selfhood, independence and personal

The post
independence era in the Indo-Anglican novel
marks a striking departure from the traditional depiction of the
female as but I weak, dependant adjunct to her counter parts in society. It is
an obvious advancement. A galaxy of women novelists have sprung up, a
remarkable phenomenon by itself. These women novelists have contributed to the
development of the Indo-Anglian novel
by an inclusion of new themes, with special focus on the issues that concern
women, their joys and sorrows, ills and blessings.

literature of the earlier era
depicted woman as one who is docile, self sacrificing, the very embodiment of
self less love and a veritable monument of patience, ever willing to suffer.
Such virtues are highlighted as the virtues of true womanhood, the virtues of a

The Smrithis, the Puranas, even the Epics and Vedas
speak of woman’s lower position. It is a man made world, and woman is bound
within the narrow confines prescribed by man. This kind of male chauvinism
resulting in female enslavement has been a set feature of Indian society, since
ages. However, with the spread of education, wider exposure to society, both at
home and abroad, woman in the Indian context, has been able to achieve a
breakthrough from the shackles of ages-old servility and subordination.

This aspect of woman’s life has been portrayed by the
women writers with sensitivity and understanding. Today, we may boldly assert,
a woman writing is a woman fighting. She is fighting for her rights, for truth,
for honesty, for identity, for freedom and for equality. The muted voice has
freed itself, and come on stage to air the concerns of the hitherto neglected,
ill treated and ignored “other gender”.

of the post-independence era
of our
land clearly marks the creativity release of the feminine sensibility. There is a long line of women writers of
eminence like Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sehgal, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, Anita
Desai, Santha Rama Rau, Attia Hussain, Padmini Sengupta, Nargis Dalal and a
host of others. Among these Kamala Markandaya is the most outstanding critical
and creative artist. An insightful and eminent critic, Dr. A. V. Krishna Rao,
holds her in high regard. He has said:

“Kamala Markandaya’s novels,
in comparison with those of her contemporary women writers, seem to be more
fully reflective of the awakened feminine sensibility in modern India as she
attempts to project the image of the changing traditional society.”

Kamala Markandaya’s first novel “Nectar in a
Sieve”, was published in 1954. In this novel, (which is to celebrate the Golden
Jubilee Year of it’s publication soon), Markandaya deftly deals with the pains,
pleasures, sufferings and the heart burning problems of women through the
character of Rukmani. Rukmani in
‘Nectar in a Sieve’ is a memorable character. She typifies, in her exemplary
conduct her character, traditional Indian womanhood. She suffers but is not
inclined to rebel against the traditional values.

The novel depicts the tragedy of a traditional village
under the assault of tremendous modernity. The symbol of modernity in this
novel is the tannery. The tension between tradition
and modernity
is symbolized by the tension between Rukmani and tannery and
those who favour it.

She has used Coleridge’s
famous lines as the epigraph of her novel on rural India. It is subtle, richly
allusive and at once strikes the keynote of the entire novel and it’s basic

“Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, 
And hope
without an object cannot live.”

Nectar in
a Sieve
” is an enactment of these lines. Rural life is like nectar in a
sieve. It is a comment on the waste of all human endeavour sustained by hope, a
hope to collect the nectar of happiness in life, all slipping through. The
placid rhythm of rural life is disturbed by the intrusion of the urban culture.

The traditional culture of
Rukmani’s village, it’s simplicity, its slow and calm beauty and innate human
values is destroyed by the intrusion of modernity. The nectar of life of the
rural spread is drained and the staleness and stink of the affluents from that
emblem of modernity, the tannery, stay to corrupt and condemn. Labour, gruesome
and unrewarding labour stays. Hope is drained and the
nectar of life is elusive. It is a veritable rape of innocence.

This tension
between tradition and modernity
pervades and entire novel, and through this
conflict remains unresolved, there is a silent acceptance of change. People
have to acquiesce into modernity. The idyllic rural
ambiance is rudely
ruptured, familial loyalties strained, if not totally shattered and migration
to the urban wilderness begins.

Kamala Markandaya’s main focus, which she effectively
presents, is the predicament of women
in these situations. Her Rukmani, no doubt, is a triumph of the spirit of
tradition. She is the archetype; the ideal idolized the adored woman of Indian
tradition. True to the traditions of an Indian woman, she shows exemplary’
patience and fortitude and an ungrudging acceptance of the reality of her

The force of tradition is operative in the way the birth of the girl is viewed in the
family. The birth of a girl is looked upon with resignation, if not with
sorrow. It is the male child that keeps up the father’s line and saves the
family from ‘Punnama Naraka’. A barren wife is pitilessly ill-treated in the
tradition bound Indian society and this is a universal phenomenon. Mother of a
male child is welcome and mother of a female child is not. Rukmani suffers the
ignominy of both, for sometime. To her great disappointment, her first born
child is a girl and in anguish she cries;

“I turned away and despite myself, the tears came,
tears of weakness and disappointment, for what woman wants a girl for her

One assumes that under the impact of this shock, she
stays unproductive and barren for sometime. After sometime her first male child
is born. Ira and Arjun are followed by many children, all males, Thambi,
Murugan, Raja, Selvan and Kutti. Rukmani, soon discovers that children do not
necessarily contribute to the happiness of the family nor do they invariably
ensure a woman the promised joys of motherhood.

The vagaries of nature bring in famine through heavy
rains and floods and starvation stares in the face of the family. It is again
the woman’s burden to find the where withal to feed the family. Rukmani starts
petty trading. She sells vegetables in the market to eke out a living to feed
her children. Soon the urban civilization makes its inroads into the rural life
shattering the placid rhythm of its life. The tannery intrudes and disrupts the
family. Much against her will, her eldest sons join the tannery as workmen and
soon after they leave her and the country and migrate to Ceylon. Murugan too
betrays her and shifts to the city, in search of livelihood. Raja dies and
Kutti falls ill. The compulsions of their situation force ‘Ira’ to become a
prostitute and Nathan is evicted from his land by and
landowning zamindar.

With the patience and fortitude instinctive with traditional
Indian womanhood Rukmani braves these adverse circumstances in her life and
leaves the village along with her husband for the city to start life a new with
her son Murugan there. In the city, Nathan falls ill and dies and Murugan could
not be traced in the city. Widowed now, and betrayed by her own sons on whom
she lavished her all, the native returns to her village in the company of Puli
an orphan boy who she has befriended during her sojourn in the city.

Rukmani is a straightforward
and hard-working peasant woman of the Nectar in a Sieve. But hunger and poverty
crush the spirit in Rukmani. Time has changed and women the world over are
fighting for recognition in the face of stiff resistance offered by man. Rukmani
is an example of suffering wife and patient mother
. Yet, she is the first
pioneering female protagonist who raises her voice of protest against the
repressive practices.

Iconoclastic upheavals are not new phenomena in our
world. Old order has to yield place to new order. Rukmani’s heroic struggle
against repressive traditional social structure is the central focus of this

Kamala Markandaya’s Rukmani is the forerunner of the modern
to liberate herself from the debasing, obviously oppressive and totally
irrelevant traditions. She lived her life within the bounds of the traditions
of her social order and yet she has shown that she was fully alive to the
inequity and injustice of it all.

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