Nectar in a Sieve, 1954
Some Inner Fury, 1955
A Silence of Desire, 1960
A Handful of Rice, 1966
The Coffer Dams, 1969
The Nowhere Man, 1972
Two Virgins, 1973
The Golden Honeycomb, 1977
Pleasure City, 1982 (pb. in the U.S. as Shalimar, 1983)
Kamala Markandaya (mahr-kahn-DAH-yah), the pseudonym of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, one of the most talented woman writers of Indian fiction in English, was born to a well-connected Brahman family. Her early education was intermittent because her father, a railway officer, was frequently transferred, but she traveled widely with him both in India and abroad. At the age of sixteen, she entered Madras University as a history major but left without a degree to pursue a career in writing and journalism. After working briefly as a journalist in India, she emigrated to England in 1948, where she married an Englishman and settled in London as a freelance writer. With the publication of her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, in 1954, she began a successful career writing novels.
Like most writers of the Indian diaspora, Markandaya is preoccupied with the conflict between East and West, or that between tradition and modernity. She also ruminates on the contemporary Indian scene, both rural and urban, and in her fiction she explores its economic, sociocultural, and spiritual aspects.
Nectar in a Sieve is a moving saga of peasant life in India presented in a reminiscent mood by Rukmani, the narrator and female protagonist. The wife of a poor tenant farmer, she has been the helpless witness to the destruction of the pristine beauty of her quiet village and of the old way of life when a tannery is set up near the village. With great faith and a capacity for both love and suffering, this simple, courageous woman survives the calamities of nature and industrialism as well as personal sorrows. Based on the author’s knowledge of Indian village life, the novel received wide critical acclaim and became a best-seller.
Nectar in a Sieve was followed by Some Inner Fury, a tragic novel in which Markandaya dramatizes the East-West conflict against the backdrop of India’s struggle for independence from British rule. Here the narrator is a highly educated and Westernized young Brahman woman who has defied Brahmanic tradition by falling in love with an Englishman. The narrative is a painful recollection of racial barriers and nationalistic fervor that force her to sacrifice her personal love.
A Silence of Desire is an exploration of the East-West conflict in a more subtle form, the conflict between faith and reason in the context of a marital relationship in a Brahman family. Markandaya shows how the harmony of a peaceful marriage is shattered when the wife, suffering from a tumor, starts secretly seeing a faith healer instead of a doctor.
East-West conflict is further developed in Possession, in which a young British widow, during a visit to India, discovers a young Indian artist and takes him to England to groom him into a distinguished painter. Because she regards the youth as her “possession” and exploits him for her own physical gratification, she ends up stifling and debasing his creativity. Some critics have interpreted the novel as a paradigm of Anglo-Indian relations.
In her fifth novel, A Handful of Rice, Markandaya returns to the theme of poverty and hunger and portrays the dehumanizing impact of a sprawling city on the life of a poor village youth. In The Coffer Dams, on the other hand, she shows the devastating impact of technological civilization on the peaceful, sequestered life of tribal people when a group of Indian and British technocrats are brought together to build a dam across a wild river in the southern highlands of India.
The East-West encounter takes a different form in The Nowhere Man, which deals with the problem of widespread racism encountered by Asian immigrants in England by focusing on the traumatic experiences of an Indian family living in London. The novel clearly reflects Markandaya’s diasporic sensibility. In her next novel, Two Virgins, the story of two sisters, Markandaya again accentuates the contrast between the corruption of city life and the innocence of the traditional village life.
The theme of tradition and change is treated from a historically retrospective point of view in The Golden Honeycomb, where Markandaya nostalgically evokes the romantic lifestyle in the princely states in India from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I. Markandaya’s tenth novel, Pleasure City, also published as Shalimar, is again an indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East, showing how the construction of a luxurious resort for rich tourists by a Western corporation in an isolated Indian fishing village ruins the village economy and destroys its traditional way of life.
Critics have speculated about the autobiographical elements in Markandaya’s novels, but she does not encourage such investigation of her work. Her novels, though embedded in her diasporic consciousness, cover a broad spectrum of human experience and deal ultimately with the dilemmas of the human condition.