Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve has affected me deeply, although I am familiar first hand with the life described in it. Although I am a westerner, born and raised in the U.S. Midwest, white, upper-middle class, well-educated, and Christian -- I know something of India -- and know that the spirit and essence of this story is as true as anything real. It is of immeasurable value.

L-R:Ruth (Willobee) Williams, Edith
(Flesher) Willobee, David Willobee,
Hope (Willobee) Winke, Ross Willobee
My mother (Ruth) and aunt (Hope) were born of missionary parents in India in 1912 and 1915. Their father (Ross), my grandfather, died there of black fever, and a few days later their 2-year old brother (David) dropped dead while playing -- all during a famine. Their mother (Edith) stayed on. India was British back then, but poverty was deep and wide throughout the land, and my grandmother lived nearly as poor as those around her, being supported by donations from the U.S. that amounted to 25 cents to a dollar at a time. I have her accounting books and I grew up with stories, and later came across over 1,000 pages of diaries from her that are very much in keeping with life that Kamala Markandaya writes about.

In 1982 I accompanied my mother and aunt back to their birthplaces, which were still in the midst of extreme poverty and the ignorant stupidity of which Kamala describes through the eyes of the white doctor Kenney. I've eaten with families on dung floors, and help stir pots of curry over open fires. I've met and photographed families living on streets with only what they can carry to their name. I've been to temple in the middle of the night and breathed the pungent smoke of dung cakes used for fuel, and watched as a dead leper was carried from her mud-dung hut and given an impromptu funeral in a field before being carried off to be buried in the sands of a river so animals could easily dispose of her body at night.

Perhaps it was all of that which spoke to me in Ms. Markandaya's writing. But I will tell you this. Reading this novel, if you are a Westerner of any ilk, is more important than eating. Let your children go without food for a few meals, if that will give you time to live, love, and walk with Rukmani. This book should be required reading (period - no qualifications). In its reading you will be a better person, and your children, sans meals, more healthy. If you are a priest that hands on penance, Nectar in a Sieve should be reading for any sin involving wealth, greed, abundance, or a lack of human dignity or marital infidelity. I dare to say that before Christ came to Earth to care and love the poor, he read this book. (It is a possible thing, you know.) On the outside Nectar in a Sieve is about the suffering and trials of living near the bottom of the cast system in rural India. But what it's really about is how love and hope can possess the human heart in the most desperate of lives.

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