BORN: 1924, India
DIED: 2004, London
Nectar in a Sieve (1954)
A Handful of Rice (1966)
Nowhere Man (1972)
Two Virgins (1973)
Kamala Markandaya is one of India’s best-known novelists. The fact that her body of work, especially the novel The Nowhere Man, foreshadowed the explosion of published works by South Asian writers over the last several decades makes her novels required reading for anyone interested in Indian culture. Markandaya explores a number of issues in her novels, including urbanization, poverty, sexuality, gender, interracial relationships, India’s struggle to maintain its identity in an increasingly Westernized world, and colonialism’s impact.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Indian and British Influences. Kamala Markandaya was born in Mysore, India, in 1924 to a privileged Brahmin family. Born Kamala Purnaiyas, and often known as Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, she adopted the surname Markandaya when her first novel was published. Little is known about her childhood, but as a young woman, she graduated with a degree in history from the University of Madras before working in the Indian army during World War II. She then established herself as a journalist and short-story writer, married a fellow journalist, Englishman Bertrand Taylor, and immigrated to Britain in 1948.
During Markandaya’s youth, India was officially a colony of the British Empire. This led to a mix of both traditional Indian and contemporary English cultural influences, most notably the widespread use of the English language. A popular movement supporting the independence of India gained momentum throughout the 1920s and 1930s, largely due to the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi. India finally achieved its independence from Britain in 1948, the year Markandaya left the country.
Publications. Nectar in a Sieve (1954), Markandaya’s first published novel, was actually the third novel she wrote. The book became an international best seller and was translated into seventeen languages. A year later, the American Library Association named it a ‘‘Notable Book.’’ It has remained a favorite on American and British university reading lists ever since. Markandaya never reveals the setting of the novel and never sets the action in a particular time or place, thus ensuring the story’s timeless quality and universal appeal. This technique is especially effective given that the novel was published less than a decade after India won its independence from Britain.
Some Inner Fury (1956) is set during the British occupation, and her third novel, A Silence of Desire (1960), explores marriage, the effect modernity has on traditional Indian values, and what happens when the two merge. Possession (1963) continues in this vein, exploring the tensions between materialism and spiritualism in the context of an Anglo-Indian love relationship. Markandaya’s fifth novel, A Handful of Rice (1966), revisits the topic of poverty, this time in an urban setting. The Coffer Dams, Markandaya’s sixth novel, was published in 1969. At the time, the author could not know that her book would pave the way for future activist literature like Arundhati Roy’s recent offerings. In her novel, Markandaya explores the struggle Indian tribal nations face when an extensive dam project threatens to destroy their communities.
Many consider The Nowhere Man (1972) to be the author’s greatest novel. Epic in scope, the story focuses on the cultural consequences of widespread postwar South Asian migration to Britain. Again, the book is prescient and foreshadows the work of contemporary authors Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, and Hanif Kureishi. Markandaya followed her masterpiece with Two Virgins (1973), The Golden Honeycomb (1977), and Pleasure City (1982). Her last novel, published as Shalimar (1982) in the United States, was poorly received by critics, which led to her being dropped by her publisher. Although she lived for another twenty-two years, she never published another book.
She lived an intensely private life in England, traveling to India only occasionally. As with the beginning of her life, little is known about the author’s later years. Markandaya died of kidney failure on May 16, 2004, in London, England. She is survived by her daughter, Kim Oliver.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Markandaya's famous contemporaries include:
Ravi Shankar (1920-): A sitar player who helped introduce Indian music to the rest of the world.
Truman Capote (1924-1984): A canonical American author known for his novels, plays, and nonfiction, including Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965).
Rosamunde Pilcher (1924-): A British novelist who began her successful career in the romance genre but became known through her mainstream women's fiction.
Dennis Vincent Brutus (1924-): A South African poet who was exiled from his country for writing that reflected his activism against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Markandaya deals with struggle, particularly in her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve. The protagonist, Rukmani, faces many hardships but manages to get through most of them via hope and faith. Here are some other works that emphasize courage and persistence in times of crisis.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a novel by John Steinbeck. In this novel of the Great Depression, the Joad family leaves their farm and heads west.
Midnight's Children (1981), a novel by Salman Rushdie. The young narrator of this novel is born on the same day that India gains independence, and thus his childhood mimics the country's own adjustment problems.
Blindness (1995), a novel by Jose Saramago. In an unnamed city, a plague of blindness descends inexplicably upon its citizens, who must then struggle to survive.
Life of Pi (2001), a novel by Yann Martel. A boy is shipwrecked for 227 days, and his only companion on the boat happens to be a tiger.
Works in Literary Context
East vs. West. Whether Markandaya’s novels are set in India or abroad, they consistently concern themselves with the struggle between traditional Indian values and Western modernity. This dilemma, including tensions between rationalism and faith, materialism and spirituality, and urban and rural ways of life, has become a part of India’s identity over the last several decades. Markandaya embraces these opposites. Shiv Kumar of Books Abroad uses colorful imagery in his observation about her juxtaposition of the traditional against the contemporary, suggesting that her books portray ‘‘in symbolical characters and situations this thrust toward modernity, which often assumes in her work the guise of a malignant tumor infecting the vitals of a culture traditionally quietistic.’’
The Diaspora. Kamala Markandaya’s style is characterized by the use of metaphors and motifs, and short, clipped sentence structure. Her writing is generally empathetic, and she provides multiple perspectives on a range of subjects. In 1976, she wrote, ‘‘the Commonwealth writer abroad is lumbered with double vision. Double vision not in the sense of a flawed vision, but a vision that is slightly enlarged ... and insists in perceiving two sides to every picture.’’ Her interest in issues related to the diaspora (the spread of people to other lands, usually initiated by political or economic difficulty) and to colonialism motivated her to explore ideas that, at the time, were fairly revolutionary. Indeed, many critics and scholars consider her the first diasporic Indian writer.
Works in Critical Context
Markandaya is a realistic writer, a fact that has somewhat diminished her reputation, particularly since other Indian writers have chosen instead to embrace the more fantastical style of magic realism. Much of Markandaya’s value lies in the clarity of her prose, the inventiveness of her metaphors, and her gift for understanding the subtleties of human motives.
Nectar in a Sieve. Nectar in a Sieve was highly praised for its accurate picture of Indian village life. Donald Barr of the New York Times wrote: ‘‘The basis of eloquence is knowledge, and Nectar in a Sieve has a wonderful, quiet authority over our sympathies because [Markandaya] is manifestly an authority on village life in India. Because of what she knows, she has been able to write a story without reticence or excess.’’ ‘‘It is a powerful book,’’ commented critic J. F. Muehl of Saturday Review, ‘‘but the power is in the content.... You read it because it answers so many real questions: What is the day-to-day life of the villager like? How does a village woman really think of herself? What goes through the minds of people who are starving?''
Two Virgins. Reviewing Two Virgins, a New Yorker critic observed that Markandaya ‘‘writes in a forthright, almost breakneck style that could have been paced a little less relentlessly but could not be more precise or lucid. From the minutiae of the girls's lives we learn a great deal about the fabric of life in India today. They are constantly choosing between Eastern and Western ways of looking at the world—in their school, at home, in their language, and in their attitudes toward their own ripening sexuality, of which they are both keenly aware.... Both their stories are fascinating and demonstrate that [Markandaya] writes as well about such universal feelings as lust, friendship, envy, and pride as she does about matters idiosyncratic to her country.''
Responses to Literature
1. How might Markandaya's history degree factor into her writing, particularly of The Nowhere Man? Arrange your ideas into an informal essay that centers on one or two examples from the text.
2. Read a novel by Markandaya. Find three passages in the text that you think exemplify the way in which Markandaya's move to England affected her writing about her homeland of India. Write a paragraph explaining your interpretation of each passage.
3. Look up the term ‘‘diaspora’’ and discuss how Markandaya's work fits into that category. Who are some other writers who belong to a ‘‘diaspora’’? How are their works like Markandaya's?
Bhatnagar, Anil Kumar. Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 1995.
Chada, Ramesh. Cross-Cultural Interaction in Indian English Fiction: An Analysis of the Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: National Book Organisation, 1988.
Jha, Rekha. The Novels ofKamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New Delhi: Prestige, 1990.
Joseph, Margaret P. Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1980.
Parameswaran, Uma. Kamala Markandaya. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 2000.
Pathania, Usha. Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Kanishka, 1992.
Shrivastava, Sharad. The New Woman in Indian English Fiction: A Study of Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Namita Gokhale and Shobha De. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1996.
Kumar, Shiv K. ‘‘Tradition and Change in the Novels of Kamala Markandaya.’’ Books Abroad 43: 4 (Autumn 1969): 508.