Kamala Markandaya's novels use East-West ties as contexts to focus on interpersonal relationships between Indian and British characters. Such ties often lead to a clash of cultures but also at times to a meaningful exchange and fusion of goals. The cultural interaction is usually presented from a woman's point of view. In spite of traumatic experiences, the central women characters emerge strong and resilient.
Markandaya preferred to be a private person; little biographical information is available, and she gave few interviews. Kamala Purnaiya Markandaya was born in 1924 to a South Indian upper-middle-class Brahmin family in what was once Mysore and is now known as the state of Karnataka. Her father (to whose memory her 1963 novel, Possession, was dedicated) was a high-level railway officer. Because of his job, the family had to move often, which meant the young Kamala had to study in different schools. Frequent travel and adjusting to new environments became a part of her early life, but she began to enjoy the experience immensely. She enrolled herself in a degree course in history at the University of Madras in 1940, but the family's relocations disrupted her academic pursuits. However, her exciting experiences and keen observation of a variety of places and people eventually directed her to creative writing. She took up journalism between 1940 and 1947 and also tried her hand at clerical and liaison work for the army during World War II. She also worked in a solicitor's office for a while in London. Markandaya married Bertrand Taylor, an English journalist, in 1948 and had a daughter, Kim Oliver, to whom her novel The Golden Honeycomb (1977) is dedicated. She lived in England from 1948 onward, though she returned to India for visits.
Markandaya's debut novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), is probably her best known. It evoked enthusiastic responses from many different countries. Apart from becoming a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection in the United States, it was translated into seventeen languages and was named a Notable Book of 1955 by the American Library Association. It is still used in the colleges and universities in the West that offer courses on India. The novel depicts the plight of villagers affected by the onslaught of industrialism. They find it difficult to deal with the new lifestyle forced on them by rich businessmen. The tannery established by the British in the village stands for the evils of capitalism and imperialism. There is a medical missionary, Dr. Kennington, whose commitment to the poor puts him on the other side of the establishment, but he too furthers Western interest in India. He longs for acceptance from the villagers but is merely respected as a giver and benefactor. He is unable to get rid of his status as an outsider.
Protagonist Rukmani and her husband, Nathan, are uprooted from their peasant existence. Nathan is forced off the land he has farmed for thirty years and out of the hut he has built with his own hands. The family's predicament becomes worse when they move to the city to make a living. Iravadi, their daughter, is rejected by her husband after being accused of barrenness and has to resort to prostitution to feed her dying brother Kuti. Later, an albino son is born to her and is seen as a punishment for her sins. Rukmani also undertakes the responsibility of caring for Puli, a leper boy.
In spite of these pictures of degradation, the novel is affirmative in tone. Rukmani is an admirable picture of stoicism and resilience. Dr. Kennington's hospital gets built, and Puli is healed. Sharing is a way of life for the poor. However, "Dr. Kenny" will never be accepted by the Indian villagers as one of their own. His efforts to free the villagers from fatalism prove futile. Rukmani's statement to him, "Our ways are not yours," seems to emphasize that total interracial understanding is impossible, despite the respect the villagers have for him.
Markandaya's next novel, Some Inner Fury (1955), explores the strength of interracial relationships. Ultimately, characters emerge as Indians or Britons, nationalists or loyalists of the establishment. Intimate relationships between Indians and the English remain a distant dream. The Independence Movement itself fails in its professed nonviolence: sporadic violence erupts, betraying deep-rooted resentments. Moreover, political tension invariably continues to affect personal relationships.
The spirit of Premala, the central character in the novel, is stifled in the Westernized household of her husband, Kitasamy (Kit). But she relates easily to the British missionary Hichey and enjoys working with him on a village resettlement scheme. Divided loyalties at the national level are reflected in Kit's house. The Western-educated Kit leads a modern lifestyle, but his brother Govind's parochial nationalism drives him to militancy. Kit's parents maintain two guest rooms, one for Indian and the other for English guests, showing how Indian and English identities remain distinct even in the consciousness of liberal Indians. The interracial couple Richard and Mira are also forced to acknowledge the ethnic disparity between them and declare their narrow allegiances. Thus, this novel reiterates the impossibility of equality between Indians and the English as long as they continue to play the roles of colonizers and the colonized. The ability to absorb the good in both cultures and work it to one's advantage is represented by the successful journalist Roshan; but her self-sufficiency is established only after her separation from her husband. On the whole, Some Inner Fury depicts failed relationships in the context of political allegiance.
A Silence of Desire (1960) deals with the age-old dichotomy of head and heart, reason and emotion. The importance given to reason over emotion is seen to be the result of Western influence. In this novel the divide takes the form of the domestic conflict between Dandekar and his wife, Sarojini. Dandekar tries to wean Sarojini away from superstitions and rituals, whereas she wants him to put aside Western notions and see "what lies beyond reason." She seeks medical attention from a faith healer, a swami; Dandekar regards her faith trips as futile. The tumor in Sarojini's womb is a challenge to her faith cure. The conflict between Dandekar and Sarojini eventually subsides into silence and total noncommunication. Even a team sent to investigate the swami is divided in its understanding of his relevance for people. Only after this man leaves the village can Dandekar sense the solace he offered villagers. The swami's absence is felt acutely by the sick and the needy. Markandaya's stance on him, however, remains ambiguous at the end of the novel.
Possession raises powerful issues relating to ownership. The novel is set in both India and England, and its characters move between the two countries. The continual shift of setting helps the novelist deal with the psychological implications of possession in the colonial context.
In the story, a swami encourages a shepherd boy, Valmiki, to realize his potential as a painter. The boy enjoys painting Hindu gods and goddesses on rocks. Caroline Bell, an Englishwoman, takes him to her country as if he is an exotic discovery. His name becomes "Val," and the money and the fame earned overnight in the new surroundings intoxicate him. This situation leads to a conflict of values in the boy. He does not even visit his dying mother in India, because Caroline is unwilling, even temporarily, to let go of her oriental "find." She adopts devious ways to spoil his relationship with Ellie, a younger woman, in order to retain her prized possession. But the native in Valmiki eventually wins, and he returns to the caves to be able to paint what he wants to again. He achieves his release and moral victory with the help of another woman, Anusuya, who visits England in an attempt to get her novels published. Caroline is callous enough to assume that Valmiki could be productive and salable only as her possession. Her treatment of him as a rare oriental commodity contrasts with the humane sustenance and inspiration that the swami provided.
At one level the novel is about the psychological aspects of possessiveness in human relations. At another level, Caroline Bell's dominance is suggestive of the imperial will. Valmiki's struggle is that of India trying to free itself from colonial clutches. In Anusuya one can see the postcolonial attempt to strike an egalitarian partnership with the West.
In A Handful of Rice (1966), Markandaya returns to the concern with hunger and social justice that had originally impelled her to turn to creative writing. The rural poor mistakenly see urban life as a way out of their penury. In Madras, the son of the central character, Ravi Shankar, dies of meningitis, and all Ravi's attempts to survive in the city prove to be demoralizing. His educational qualifications are a hindrance to his employability. Underworld criminals tempt him with easy prosperity, but in vain. Ravi ends up joining an angry mob of rioters, but he is too principled to hurt anyone with his raised hand or to grab a handful of rice illicitly.
In The Coffer Dams (1969), Indians and the British come in close contact to build a dam across the turbulent river in Malnad. Though a few Britons are eager to relate to Indians, the master-servant relationship continues, and the exploitation is blatant. Indians, however, are no longer apathetic: they show more resistance and demand their rights. Tension between native pride and imperial arrogance mounts as the dam goes up. Clinton, the head of the British firm that helps to build the dam, pretends to want to benefit the local tribals by employing them for the construction work. But the tribals are uprooted from their familiar habitat for the housing facilities built for the British engineers. Clinton is a picture of indomitable will and is bent on completing the task at all costs. He is more interested in machines and progress than in human beings. Totally devoid of ethical values, he is unmindful of the welfare and safety of the Indians. The tribals become victims of several accidents, including a premature bomb blast that kills about forty of them. Clinton suspends work in honor of Bailey and Wilkins, two British victims of the accident, and arranges a Christian burial for them; but he finds no reason to rescue the corpses of the Indians, which could end up as part of the foundation.
Clinton's wife, Helen, on the other hand, is ashamed of the insensitiveness of the British toward Indians. She suspects foul play when her people urge Bashiam, a tribal, to operate a faulty crane that Smith, a British engineer, had declined using. She realizes the futility of progress in the absence of human values. Her fascination for the enigmatic jungle and the exotic ways of the tribals, and her guilt at being part of the British establishment, drive her to an extramarital relationship with Bashiam.
The Coffer Dams also deals with the lives of the English who had stayed on in postindependence India. Their sense of belonging is upset when their privileged position as the rulers of the land is lost. The novel presents not only Englishmen who continue to uphold imperial stereotypes but also younger Britons eager to make amends for the mistakes of their colonizing ancestors. Some of the Indians admire the strength, determination, and work ethic of the British. But they also resent the high-handedness of some of the expatriates. Despite their scientific orientation and knowledge, the Britons are in the end forced to depend on tribals, who have a better understanding of the vagaries of nature.
The Nowhere Man (1972) is the only work by Markandaya set entirely in London, and it is the most pessimistic of all her novels. Here acculturation is presented as a mere myth and an ideal that can never be realized. Srinivas is an Indian who lives in London with his family. His efforts toward integration with the Londoners prove futile. His wife, Vasantha, has no inclination to adapt and has to live and die like an alien. Srinivas's life in London is a story of loss and disillusionment. His son Seshu dies for the country that refuses to accept him: he is an ambulance driver killed by a German bomb during World War II. The younger son, Lakshman, becomes thoroughly Anglicized and marries a British girl. He rejects his Indian heritage and his parents. He denies them the right to visit him at the birth of his child, under the pretext of not having a spare bedroom for them. When Vasantha dies of tuberculosis, Srinivas loses his most important support system. The help provided by his neighbors does not amount to a lasting form of support. His status as an outsider is confirmed when he contracts leprosy, considered an oriental disease. The marginalized Indian is thus ostracized as a "nowhere man" even after decades of living in England.
The Nowhere Man offers little hope regarding race relations. Srinivas looks down on Christianity and the meat-eating English. The resident Indians wish to immerse the ashes of their dead in the Thames River, but the British police regard this practice as tantamount to polluting the river. The younger generation of Britons resent the Asian presence in England as a threat to their position. Asians are perceived as competitors for jobs, and that attitude does not improve the prospect of better race relations.
Two Virgins (1973) contrasts rural with urban life but maintains a deliberate vagueness of location. Only the names indicate that the background is South India. The novel makes several generalizations that do not in any way add to the understanding of race relations. Two Virgins does not offer any fresh insight into the rural-urban divide, a recurrent theme in Markandaya's fiction. The only significant addition to her earlier writing is the thematic strand of initiation into adult awareness and the resultant reaction against parental restrictions. The West is squarely blamed for the erosion of human values and for whatever has upset the tranquility of Indian life.
The basic difference in outlook between Lalitha and Saroja, the two adolescent sisters in this novel, and their responses to life form the structuring principle of Two Virgins. Lalitha's introduction to two Western-educated friends, Mr. Gupta and Miss Mendoza, leads to her moral degeneration. Lalitha goes to an unspecified city to appear in a documentary movie produced by Gupta. The premarital abortion she has to undergo in no way destroys her fascination for city life. The village-bound Saroja does not give into temptation, as sexuality is more safely dealt with in fantasy than in reality. She is sure of what she wants in life. She is mature enough to understand that sexual needs can be different for different people. She can even accept homosexual men as they are. She recognizes that rural problems are different from urban ones and that there are problems everywhere that one must be mentally prepared to handle.
The Golden Honeycomb deals with the attitudes of three generations of Indians toward their colonial rulers. The Indian characters belong to the privileged class: Markandaya contrasts the position and mentality of the colonial rulers with that of princely Indians. The curious relationship between the two is presented through the consciousness of Rabi, a prince. His nationalistic spirit is encouraged by the women in his family, particularly his mother and grandmother. He relates to the working class with ease and mingles freely with the servants' children. He even gets involved in a demonstration in support of the laborers. Some of the other Indian royals are eager to protect their superior position but are mere lackeys before the British. The British viceroy upholds the rule of the state by an illegitimate prince, an ascension bound to be a fragile "golden honeycomb." Sophie, the daughter of Sir Arthur Copeland, involves herself initially with the cause of the working class and motivates Rabi to do so. But her inherited race-consciousness soon reveals itself, and she withdraws from the cause. Rabi realizes that he could work better with Usha, a fellow Indian, for a common cause, without having to worry about interference arising out of racial disparity. The novel depicts events set in different locations without making specific reference to these places. This fact contributes to its episodic nature.
Markandaya's tenth novel, Pleasure City (1982), was published as Shalimar in the United States. The main action in the novel is the construction of a holiday resort near a fishing village. The resort is named Shalimar after Emperor Jehangir's pleasure garden. British and Indians come together in a working relationship in this project, undertaken by the Atlas International Development Corporation. But the racial hierarchy remains. The chairman and the director are British, whereas the construction workers are all Indians. The urbanization initiated by the British in India is seen here as a cause for the gradual erosion of traditional values. But the brighter aspects of urbanization are not entirely overlooked. There is no downright condemnation of the influence of the West on India either. Markandaya glorifies the possibilities of genuine race relations, as seen in the two friends Rikki and Tully.
Though Rikki is an orphan, he is lucky to receive genuine love and become the object of concern of his foster parents and of an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bride, who are in charge of a school. He communicates well in English because of his early associations with this couple. This relationship also brings him close to Tully, the director at Shalimar, who employs Rikki as a tea-boy. Rikki learns to make a boat, and Tully's wife, Corinna, teaches him surfing. His instinctive knowledge of the sea saves her from drowning in one of the more dramatic moments in the novel.
The Tully family develops close ties with Rikki: "They shared a language that went beyond English, and was outside the scope of mere words." But some of the British characters in the novel blame the Tullys for dishonoring race boundaries and race proprieties in their friendship with Rikki. Despite his skill and closeness with some influential Britons, Rikki's Indian identity gets in the way of his participation in a surfing competition. Many of the Britons have a condescending attitude toward the Indians and feel a compulsive need to "civilize" them. Compared to Markandaya's earlier novels, however, Pleasure City has a positive outlook and an optimistic tone. Some of the Indians and the English in the novel show mutual respect and love and recognize the good that emerges out of their close interaction.
Markandaya died at home in London on 16 May 2004 at the age of eighty. At first her death went largely unnoticed by the press. Yet, there are hundreds of published articles on Markandaya, and most of them focus on the East-West relationship depicted in her work. There are also several full-length studies of her fiction. Of these, Pravati Misra's 2001 book confines itself to class consciousness, whereas Lakshmi Kumari Sharma's 2001 book deals with the position of women in Markandaya's novels.
The books by Rochelle Almeida (2000) and Uma Parameswaran (2000) also analyze in detail different aspects of Markandaya's novels. The strength of Almeida's book is the close textual analysis. Almeida also identifies elements of Indianness in the novels and discusses the impact of the West on indigenous modes of writing. The inferences that she makes with regard to the influences on Markandaya could be attributed to the many conversations that she had with the novelist. Parameswaran, a reputed Indo-Canadian writer who celebrates diasporic consciousness in her own creative work, calls her approach to the novelist "revisiting Kamala Markandaya." Parameswaran takes into account the fact that critical perspectives have changed completely since Markandaya's last novel was published, because of the evolution of feminist and postcolonial thinking.
A reading of the existing critical material shows that the novels of Kamala Markandaya evoke two entirely different critical positions. While some critics credit her novels with acute perception and sensitive portrayal of East-West relationships, others feel that her fiction fails to grapple with the complexities of racial interaction. Some critics even feel that because of her long stay in England she was out of touch with Indian reality, and therefore her understanding of India was superficial; but all of her novels abound in closely observed sociological details. This detail, however, has led some of her critics to contend that she attempted to package India for a Western audience. However, the least that should be said in her defense is that in the three decades of Markandaya's active writing career, India remained an unfailingly rich source for her work and kept stimulating her creatively despite her immigrant status. Living away from India enabled her, in her fiction, to have a complex and rich perspective on what was once her home.
From: Paul, Premila. "Kamala Markandaya (1924-16 May 2004)." South Asian Writers in English, edited by Fakrul Alam, vol. 323, Gale, 2006, pp. 218-224. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 323.