Nectar in a Sieve, set in India during a period of intense urban development, is the chronicle of the marriage between Rukmani, youngest daughter of a village headman, and Nathan, a tenant farmer. The story is told in the first person by Rukmani, beginning from her arranged marriage to Nathan at the age of 12 to his death many years later.
Rukmani and Nathan love each other and their marriage begins in relative peace and plenty. When a large tannery is built in the neighboring village, it begins insidiously destroying their lives. As the tannery grows larger and more prosperous, Rukmani and Nathan struggle to feed their children and to pay the rent on the land that gives them life. Although matters continue to worsen, they quietly resign themselves to ever-increasing hardships—flood, famine, even death—and cling to their hopes for a better future.
Dr. Kennington, or "Kenny", an itinerant English doctor, is an important presence in the novel. Although Rukmani's fatalistic attitude toward hardship exasperates him, he feels compassion for her and helps her when he can. At the end, Rukmani goes to live with her youngest son, now a doctor at the hospital Kenny has built.