The sad, hard and futile life of the rural poor in British Raj India pervades Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It begins with the marriage of the narrator Rukmani to a landless farmer named Nathan at age 12 and ends with his death by her side. What fills the in-between is a few years of happiness with good harvests and young children and many years of deprivation, starvation, disease and death due to drought and floods. Urbanization also rears its ugly head in their tiny village in the form of a smelly tannery and a British doctor named Kenny. Rukmani hates the sight of the polluting and crowded lifestyle brought about by these changes, but poverty drives her children to work at that very tannery and later sail off as labourers to British plantations in Ceylon. The middle-aged couple is hit hard when their landlord sells off his land to the tannery and they have to eke out a hard life in the nearest city.
Published in 1954, this novel is supposedly the first novel about India to get popular in USA and in its textbooks. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Markandaya was born in Mysore, studied in Madras and later settled in the UK. Though no places are named, the characters and settings are quite obviously of the Mysore-Madras region. The story is quite similar to The Good Earth, which I recently read, and the writing is similarly achingly beautiful, though the focus here remains on Rukmani and her family and not so much about the happenings in her country. The India here is somewhat unimaginable now in some its dimensions: an age before electricity, literacy and modern medicine. Caste is somehow absent, which is surprising. The onus is the plight of the rural (and later urban) poor and their hapless existence as mere pawns in a grand game played by nature, fate and the rich. The landless, illiterate, uneducated characters swallow whatever comes their way without a protest because neither do they have the means nor the social structure to do anything about it. This slim novel is laden with incredible prose and filled with many unforgettable characters like the Old Granny.
While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light as I went about my work, getting up at sunrise and going to sleep content. Peace and quiet were ours. How well I recall it, how grateful I am that not all the clamour which invaded our lives later could subdue the memory or still the longing for it. Rather, it has strengthened it: had there not been what has been, I might never have known how blessed we were.
Nathan prepares the bier, I see him lifting the body on to it. Then he goes out, walking towards the town. At dawn the funeral drums begin, and soon after our friends and neighbours come. Granny first, though hardly able to walk; then Durgan; Kannan with his wife, bearing a few jasmine buds; and Kali, bringing with her a muslin cloth to cover the bier. They pay their respects in silence, and when the sun has risen, the men pick up the bier and depart; but the women stay behind, for this is the custom. All that morning the sound of the drums comes faintly to us, rising and falling, rising and falling with the wind; until at last a final beat comes quivering through the air and we strain our ears for the next, but this, this sound which has already gone, is the last. Now not even a heap of bones: only a few ashes to show that once a man has lived.