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. 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.
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Nectar in a Sieve. London, Putnam, ; New York, Day, Some Inner Fury. A Silence of Desire. London, Putnam, and New York, Day, A Handful of Rice. The Coffer Dams. The Nowhere Man. Two Virgins.
The Golden Honeycomb. Pleasure City. Krishna Rao and K. Madhavi Menon, Delhi, B. Her novels are remarkable for their range of experience. Nectar in a Sieve is set in a village and examines the hard agricultural life of the Indian peasant; Some Inner Fury, which includes a highly educated woman and her English lover who are torn apart by the Quit India campaign of the time, has to do with the quarrel between Western and Indian influences, as they are focussed in a marriage; A Silence of Desire deals with the middle class, and A Handful of Rice with the city poor; Possession moves from the West End of London to a South Indian village, and is centred on the conflict of Eastern spirituality with Western materialism; The Coffer Dams is a highly contemporary examination of the activities of a British engineering firm which is invited to build a dam in India.
Markandaya has not the same intimacy and familiarity with all these areas of life, and she has indeed been criticised by Indian critics for a certain lack of inwardness with the life of the Indian poor. Her particular strength lies in the delicate analysis of the relationships of persons, particularly when these have a more developed consciousness of their problems, and particularly when they are attempting to grope towards some more independent existence.
She has, too, the genuine novelist's gift for fixing the exact individuality of the character, even if she is less successful at establishing it in a reasonably convincing social context. She has been most successful and at her best, an impressive best, in dealing with the problems of the educated middle class, and she has a gift in particular for delineating the self-imposed laceration of the dissatisfied. Perhaps Markandaya's most achieved and characteristic work is A Silence of Desire.
It is a delicate, precise study of husband and wife, although the wife has less actuality than the husband, Dandekar, a nervy, conscientious, petty government clerk.
He is rocked off his age-old balance by his wife's strange absences, excuses, and lies. It turns out that she has a growth and is attending a Faith Healer. The husband is by no means a Westernised person, but he is to some degree secular and modern, and the situation enables the author to reflect on the tensions, the strength and the inadequacies and aspirations of middle-class Indian life.
The book is gentle in tone but sharp in perception, and the mixture of moods, the friction of faith and reason, the quarrel of old and young, are beautifully pointed.
There are conventional, perfunctory patches in the novel, but Markandaya shows a very high skill in unravelling sympathetically but unflinchingly the structure of the protagonist's motives and the bumbling and stumbling progress of his anxieties. Towards the end of A Silence of Desire there occurs a suggestion in an encounter between Sarojini and Dandekar, the husband and wife, of a theme which clearly much engages Markandaya.
The wife reverences the tulasi tree as embodying the divine spirit, whereas the husband understands its purely symbolic function.
To you the tulasi is a plant that grows in earth like the rest—an ordinary common plant…. This is a theme which works its way in and out of Possession, in which the artist Valmiki is discovered and taken over by Lady Caroline Bell, a relationship which appears to offer itself as a tiny image of India's being taken over by Britain.
Neither Valmiki nor Lady Caroline is irresistibly convincing. There is a certain put-up, slightly expected, air about them. The novel's merit lies in the clarity and point of the prose, in an unusual metaphorical capacity and in a gift for the nice discrimination of human motives. Markandaya's failure as yet is to establish a context as impressively real and as sympathetically grasped as her central characters. She is very much more conscious in A Handful of Rice of the context, in this case an urban one, which nevertheless still suffers from a lack of solidity.
Ravi, on the other hand, the central character, an educated peasant, is seen with the coolest and most accurate eye and realised with a very considerable creative skill. Nor does this novel offer any easy solution or any obvious superiority of one side of a spiritual dilemma over the other. The novel ends flatly and hopelessly but rightly in a way which suggests the achievement by the author of a bleaker and more necessary kind of wisdom.
Kamala Markandaya, 79, Novelist Evoking Rural India
Nectar in a Sieve. London, Putnam, ; New York, Day, Some Inner Fury. A Silence of Desire. London, Putnam, and New York, Day, A Handful of Rice. The Coffer Dams.
Share via Email The novels of the Indian writer Kamala Markandaya, who has died aged 79, give an incomparably vivid picture of Indian life and depict the dilemma of people with conflicting eastern and western values. She belonged to the first generation of Indian novelists to write about the plight of the rural peasantry and the urban middle-class, immigration and interracial relationships. Her strength as a writer lay in her delineation of the struggle of the individual in a changing society. Born in Mysore, Markandaya studied history at the University of Madras. From to , she worked as a journalist and published some short stories in Indian magazines. She married an English journalist, Bertrand Taylor, and, in , emigrated to England, where she spent the rest of her life. She achieved huge literary success with her first novel, Nectar In A Sieve , an international bestseller which was translated into several languages.
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Kamala Markandaya Biography