Kamala Markandaya's strength as a novelist comes from her sensitive creation of individual characters and situations which are simultaneously representative of a larger collective. Her prose style is mellifluous and controlled. She is a pioneer member of the Indian Diaspora, and her best novel, The Nowhere Man (1972) foreshadows many diasporic issues with which we are preoccupied today.
Kamala Purnaiya was born into a Hindu-Brahmin family in a small town in Mysore in 1924. She enrolled for a history degree at the University of Madras in 1940. She was a journalist and social worker from 1940 to 1947. In 1948, she left India to get married to an Englishman named Taylor, and she has lived in London ever since, making frequent visits to India.
An anecdotal digression, if I may. In late 1970s, when I contacted the editor of the World Author Series about a volume on Markandaya, I was told it had been assigned already to someone else. Several years later, when I wrote again to ask why the volume had not appeared, I was told that the assigned critic could not get the biographical details required for the first chapter in each volume in their series. Amazingly enough, despite biographical notes by various critics, (Premila Paul, Martin Tucker, Rekha Jha, Ruth Montgomery), we still do not know too many details about her life. Despite meeting her several times, I forgot to ask for her husband's first name. Her daughter has been identified as “Kim” by Montgomery, but in our conversations, Markandaya referred to her by her Indian name. I mention this lack of specifics because it seems to be so much part of the Indian tradition of temple sculptures where the sculptor left exquisite masterpieces but nothing about himself, not even a name.
Markandaya is the author of ten novels: Nectar in a Sieve (1954), Some Inner Fury (1955), A Silence of Desire (1960), Possession (1963), A Handful of Rice (1966), The Coffer Dams (1969), The Nowhere Man (1972), Two Virgins (1973), The Golden Honeycomb (1977), and Pleasure City (titled Shalimar in the American edition, 1982/1983).
Nectar in a Sieve, translated into more than a dozen languages, is a poignant story of peasant India, the storms of Nature and the winds of Change stoically borne by landless lessee peasants.
Some Inner Fury is semi-autobiographical, the story of a young woman in love with an Englishman, in the tumultuous 1940s when India was fighting for independence. A Silence of Desire is about an office clerk caught between different values - old and new, eastern and western, religious and agnostic. These three novels form a trilogy as it were, of Indian society - peasants, upper middle class, and lower middle class. The Golden Honeycomb gives us a glimpse of princely India. The Coffer Dams and Pleasure City form a pair, one showing the best of both English and tribal India and the other showing the worst of foreign and indigenous commercialism.
The Nowhere Man resonates for me because it speaks insightfully of diasporic situations twenty years before others spoke of it. Salman Rushdie, in Shame (1983), says anyone who is oppressed will be driven to react in extreme violence, and later in The Satanic Verses he describes race riots in Britain. Markandaya's novel, set in 1968, talks not only about the violence of racism but also about other diasporic realities - educational degrees that are not given accreditation, the resistance of immigrants to the expectations of the “host” culture, chasms of communication between generations, cultural values and needless cultural baggage.... Weaving through it all is the bonds of common humanity that run through the main characters, each an idealist who has suffered personal pain or disillusionment. The main diasporic issue that I value in the novel is the warning it gives us, and especially our children who think they are “American” or “Canadian.” When Srinivas, after thirty years in England (ten years longer than he had spent in his native India), during which time he has sacrificed a son to England's war, is heckled by racist hoodlums to “go back to your country,” he is bewildered, “But this is my country.” No matter what we ourselves may feel about our present homeland, too many see us only as aliens who belong elsewhere, not here.
(Uma Parameswaran is the author of a study of Kamala Markandaya in the Writers of the Indian Diaspora series, edited by Jasbir Jain, and published by Rawat Books in 2000.)
South Asian Women authors