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Kamala Markandaya Biography

Pseudonym for Kamala Purnaiya Taylor. Nationality: Indian. Born: 1924. Education: Madras University. Career: Journalist; now full-time writer. Lives in London. Awards: National Association of Independent Schools award (U.S.A.), 1967; English-Speaking Union award, 1974.



Nectar in a Sieve. London, Putnam, 1954; New York, Day, 1955.

Some Inner Fury. London, Putnam, 1955; New York, Day, 1956.

A Silence of Desire. London, Putnam, and New York, Day, 1960.

Possession. Bombay, Jaico, London, Putnam, and New York, Day, 1963.

A Handful of Rice. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Day, 1966.

The Coffer Dams. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Day, 1969.

The Nowhere Man. New York, Day, 1972; London, Allen Lane, 1973.

Two Virgins. New York, Day, 1973; London, Chatto and Windus, 1974.

The Golden Honeycomb. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Crowell, 1977.

Pleasure City. London, Chatto and Windus, 1982; as Shalimar, New York, Harper, 1983.


Critical Studies:

Kamala Markandaya by Margaret P. Joseph, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1980; Cross-Cultural Interaction in Indian English Fiction: An Analysis of the Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya by Ramesh Chadha, New Delhi, National Book Organisation, 1988; The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Rekha Jha, New Delhi, Prestige, 1990; Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology in R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and Salman Rushdie by Fawzia Afzal-Khan; Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya by Usha Pathania, Delhi, Kanishka, 1992; Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study by Anil Kumar Bhatnagar, New Delhi, Sarup & Sons, 1995; The New Woman in Indian English Fiction: A Study of Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Namita Gokhale and Shobha De by Sharad Shrivastava, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Six Indian Novelists: Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Balachandran Rajan, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai by A.V. Suresh Kumar, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study of Her Novels, 1954-1982 by A.V. Krishna Rao and K. Madhavi Menon, Delhi, B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1997; The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Arun Joshi by A.A. Sinha, Jalandhar, India, ABS Publications, 1998; The Novels of Kamala Markandaya: A Critical Study by Ramesh K. Srivastava, Amritsar, India, Guru Nanak Dev University, 1998; Kamala Markandaya by Uma Parameswaran, Jaipur, India, Rawat Publications, 2000.

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Kamala Markandaya is one of the best of contemporary Indian novelists. 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. "You with your Western notions, your superior talk of ignorance and superstition … you don't know what lies beyond reason and you prefer not to find out. To you the tulasi is a plant that grows in earth like the rest—an ordinary common plant…." She is preoccupied with the opposition between a cerebral, Western—and, she seems to be suggesting, a narrowly Benthamite—habit of mind and the more inclusive, the more ancient and ritualistic Indian sensibility. 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.

—William Walsh

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