In the beautiful closing section of Kamala Markandaya’s newly reissued Nectar in a Sieve (1954), we see the protagonist, Rukmani, and her husband, the tenant farmer Nathan, sorrowfully leaving their native village. The land they used
to till has been sold, and homeless at this late stage in their lives, they are heading for the city to seek out one of their sons, who works there. On the journey by bullock cart, lasting several days, Rukmani notices that one of the bullocks has a raw patch on its shoulder, where the yoke has rubbed the skin off. She feels for the bullock, but there can be no respite for it—the journey cannot stop, so it has to keep working even though its wound grows deeper.
Nectar in a Sieve: Penguin/Viking, 192 pages, Rs295.
It is difficult for the reader here to ignore the likeness between the suffering beast of burden and Rukmani and Nathan. Life for them, as depicted in Nectar in a Sieve, is something like that bullock’s raw patch, offering hardship to begin with and always threatening to become totally disabling.
Markandaya’s book depicts the eternal verities of the Indian peasant, unable to own the very land he tills, in thrall to the whims of the seasons, never far from exhausting his savings, and meekly and numbly submitting to social convention. He has no defence against the invasive social and economic churning of his times—Markandaya describes how Rukmani’s sylvan village slowly turns into a small town with the setting up of a tannery that eventually swallows up their land—while his own cry of pain or protest immediately fades in the world’s rush and noise. Having eked out a perilous existence all their lives, Rukmani and Nathan finally have “neither youth nor strength left to barter”.
Markandaya, who passed away in Boston in 2004 at the age of 80, was a journalist who left India just after independence and lived first in England and then the US, where Nectar in a Sieve (the first of 10 novels) was published, to great acclaim. She was thus an early Indian novelist of the diaspora, deserving of a place in any history of the Indian novel in English. Whether her book itself deserves the status of an Indian classic is, however, less clear.
First half: Most of Markandaya’s books are set before independence
One problem with Markandaya’s work that seems especially clear with the passage of time is that of linguistic plausibility. Although her characters are poor and mostly illiterate Indian peasants, they speak like characters from Victorian fiction. And because the entire novel is told through Rukmani’s eyes, this fault spreads like a canker through the entire narration. “No sugar or dal or ghee have we tasted since they came,” says Rukmani at one point, “and should have had none so long as they remained.” To the ear of some readers this may sound cloying, to others mellifluous, but it emphatically does not sound like the speech of a peasant woman—rather it is the polished, educated voice of the writer that we hear.
Indeed, the influence of the English canon on Markandaya’s work is quite clear. The title is taken from a line from Coleridge, the sonority and balanced structures of the language recall Samuel Johnson and Wordsworth, and the sense of a malignant universe frustrating human will at every step is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
This makes for a pleasing style, but style in fiction can never be judged in the abstract—there is always a context in which it works or doesn’t, and the context in this particular case is the language and worldview of the rural poor. Had Markandaya dared to adopt a rougher idiom, Nectar in a Sieve might paradoxically have tasted sweeter.
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