Kamala Purnaiya (Kamala Markandaya), writer: born Mysore, India 1924; married Bertrand Taylor (died 1986; one daughter); died London 16 May 2004.
"Once a human being is dead there are people enough to provide the last decencies; perhaps it is so because only then can there be no question of further or recurring assistance being sought." So notes Rukmani, the female narrator of Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya.
Published in 1954 under this pseudonym, to acclaim and international sales, Markandaya's first novel, about life in a south India village, brought her a prominent place in the post-independence novel. She went on to publish 10 novels in all. Although she had lived for a while in the hurly-burly of journalism, in India and England, the success of Nectar in a Sieve made her prefer privacy, which enabled her to travel and write without the burden of being feted at every turn.
In a double-bind, there were many in Britain who did not realise that for over 50 years she was living in London, while, among those in India who were indeed aware of it, there were sometimes mutterings which made them look askance at her work.
She was born Kamala Purnaiya, into a prosperous Brahmin family in Mysore in 1924. After studying history at the University of Madras, she worked for magazines and newspapers in India and began to write short stories. With a move to England in 1948, she met and married a journalist, Bertrand Taylor.
At her desk at home in London, she immersed herself in the world of south India in which she had grown up, and, in a feat of imagination and sympathetic depiction, produced Nectar in a Sieve. This was a rapid best-seller in America, where it was a Book of the Month Club choice, became a staple of the classroom course and was translated into a score of languages. An epigraph taken from Coleridge establishes its place in a limpid Western tradition: "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live."
Marriage brings the novel's narrator Rukmani a hard life in a crop-growing village near which, in due course, a tannery is built to process goat, calf, lizard and snake skins - and to complicate lives already marked by monsoon and drought, by dowries and barren, rejected wives. Within 200 pages many concerns are addressed, but the weighty matters of rural and urban life, of the material and spiritual, never swamp the human concerns of a woman accustomed to disaster.
Sometimes, Markandaya roamed from India, as in Possession (1963), where Lady Caroline takes up with, and falls for, a duplicitous genius peasant artist, and the best effects are in such details as the British Museum
capped and laced with snow, but withal dignified and solid, with a solemnity that seems to seep beyond the walls and the railings into the streets and even the buildings that surround it.
Better is The Nowhere Man (1972), which, far from its Lennon title, partly takes place in a London house where a long-resident Indian widower is joined by a well-meaning but disastrous neighbour, Mrs Pickering.
It is, however, for portraits of life in India that Markandaya's fiction endures. Marriage is acutely analysed in A Silence of Desire (1960). A civil-service clerk, Dandekar, fears his wife's infidelity, only to learn that a suspected tumour has prompted her to make afternoon visits to a witch-doctor. He finds,
There's no privacy in marriage . . . It's one of the things you give up, and you never realise you've given it up until something goes wrong and you want it.
Markandaya has an eye for social upheaval, for the way which which small change heralds more:
A great many people as blameless as he were being gouged from grooves they had made for themselves and exposed dangling like blindworms to air and lights whose existence they had not suspected.
Such is life in the city, in A Handful of Rice (1966), a searing work, perhaps her best, in which violence lurks, as ever-present a force as it was in Nectar in a Sieve. It seethes with such evocations as a blacksmith's lost eye:
at least it was still there but it looked greyish and putrid somehow, like a decayed shellfish, and it had shrunk, so that the lids around it were horribly puckered.
Among her later novels were another Lennon title, Two Virgins (1973), which returns to village life, and The Golden Honeycomb (1977) in which lascivious maharajahs and knighted, benighted English come to the fore in a story which delights more in her usual details than the broad sweep. She was in more familiar territory with Pleasure City (1982), in which Empire has given way to conglomerates, and there are such figures as Carmen, a dancer "with lacquered nails placed low on each flying buttress of her pelvis".
One might have hoped for more but, with the publication in 1981 of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, fashions were changing in Indian writing. Markandaya was magical, she was a realist, but she was not a magic realist and, after those three last novels published in Britain by Chatto and Windus, she was then marooned without a publisher, at less than 60.
What we may have lost can be judged by her best work which, as John Masters remarked in the mid-Sixties, is
about those parts of us, as human beings, which are permanent and universal - love, hunger, lust, passion . . . sacrifice, death.
Christopher HawtreeReuse content