Kamala Markandaya: An Important Twentieth Century Indian Woman Novelist in English

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Basudeb profiles one of the early woman novelists of India, Kamala Markandaya. A critique, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The Bronte sisters, Mrs. Gaskell, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf come to our minds as the brilliant story tellers. It is very often believed that by nature and instinct women are inborn storytellers. If we turn our eyes to the literary domain of 20th-century Indian novel, written by women novelists, we will find some luminous names of women novelists, who may be considered the brilliant story tellers.

In the Indian context of novels written in English, after the World War II, some Indian women novelists, who enriched Indian fiction are worth mentioning. They are Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. They, no doubt, are of outstanding merit. Kamala Markandaya’s first novel is Nectar in a Sieve (1954). This is a novel, the narratology of which may be compared to some well-known English novels. The reading of her novels leads us to visualise vividly the innermost realities of the South Indian lives and their landscape.

Nectar in a Sieve is a novel that is a protest document against the industry and modern technology that destroys the rural fabric of the Indian society. People in villages are panicked because of their fear about the future. Society changes in the name of the rural development. The fear is the “fear of the dark future; fear of the sharpness of hunger; fear of the blackness of death” (Nectar in a Sieve). As Nageswara Rao has rightly said, “The novel deals with the peasants, their activities, problems and anxieties, hopes and expectations, and joys and sorrows. It is, therefore, natural to find in it an emphasis on rural ethos and rural value systems. In this value system, the productivity of the land, the fecundity of men, the fertility of women or the fruitfulness of the plants is of great importance”.

Finally, it can be said that the central character in Nectar in a Sieve is Rukmini, the narrator-heroine of the novel. All other characters revolve around her. The novel, thus, is reflective and philosophical in nature. Rukmini sees all around her darkness and only darkness because of crises that befall upon their lives for the introduction of science and technology. The establishment of industries in her village has changed its face.

With the growth and the development of industries in the north of England, the southern part of England underwent sea-change. The age old economy based upon agriculture started collapsing and people of the south of England had to migrate to the north for the ready cash. Thomas Hardy’s novels like Tees of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge are appropriate paralleled examples. Almost the same picture we find in Nectar in Sieve. But in Markandaya’s novel, we find Rukmini cursing the Divine makes her Karma for all her sorrows and sufferings.

Indeed, in her novels what we find is a divergence between the East and the West, a kind of cultural clash between the Indian way of looking at things and lives and its western counterpart. In this connection let me refer to a comment made by C.D. Narasimhaia, which is relevant to the context, “Generally her novels reflect the strong penchant for Indian values as against the spiritual improvement of English society, but Indians are not spared. Actually, her good men and women come from both cultures.” There are two types of characters in her novels; one type representing the East and the second type the West. One type represents the century old feudal system of society and Indian values of life and the second represents the western way of looking at life. For example, we may refer to the character of Dr. Kenny, who stands for speedy industrialisation, who loves India and who does not support Rukmini for her conviction that everything in our life is in His Hand and we have nothing to do. She does not believe in the transformation of her society.

Her novel, Some Inner Fury (1955), is set, in 1942, when the Indian Struggle for Freedom arrested nationwide attention. A Silence of Desire (1960) shows a clash of values between the Eastern and Western. To her, Western values are modern and materialistic, whereas the values cherished by Indians are spiritual millennium old tradition. Some important novels of Kamala Markandaya, written later are The Coffer Dams (1969), The Nowhere Man (1972), Two Virgins (1973), The Golden Honey Comb (1977) and Pleasure City (1982).

Kamala Markandaya is the first generation of Indian women novelist who delineates the untold and indescribable sufferings of the rural farmers, middle-class city dwellers. In her novel, we see the reflection of the interracial collaboration and conflict. She depicts the fierce struggle of Indians lives in a transitional Indian society. She is a meticulous observer of India’s one leg planted in the past and another leg planted in the twenty-first century of the Western world that is marked by science and technology.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.