Kamala Markandaya Essay - Critical Essays

Markandaya, Kamala (Purnalya)

Markandaya, Kamala (Purnalya) 1924–

Indian novelist Markandaya is particularly skilled at analyzing human relationships, which she does in a clear, delicate, and richly metaphorical prose style. Although her works have been translated in many languages, she is generally regarded as a minor talent.

["Two Virgins" is a] simple, moving story about two adolescent Indian sisters, their closely knit, impoverished family, and the backwater village they live in. Miss Markandaya writes in a forthright, almost breakneck style that could have been paced a little less relentlessly but could not be more precise or lucid. From the minutiae of the girls' lives we learn a great deal about the fabric of life in India today. They are constantly choosing between Eastern and Western ways of looking at the world—in their school, at home, in their language, and in their attitudes toward their own ripening sexuality, of which they are both keenly aware. One sister dares all, moves to the city, and is brought low. The other dares nothing but observes everything, and quivers like a tuning fork. Both their stories are fascinating and demonstrate that Miss Markandaya writes as well about such universal feelings as lust, friendship, envy, and pride as she does about matters idiosyncratic to her country. (p. 174)

The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 22, 1973.

Since [the publication of Nectar in a Sieve in 1954] Markandaya has published seven other novels that place her with other talented Indo-Anglican novelists like Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand. Unlike them, unlike most writers, there has been no deterioration in her work. She has been writing better and better novels during the course of her 20-year literary career. [She has continually expanded] her interests and the geography of her writing…. It is, however, with Two Virgins, her most recent work, that she reaches the pinnacle of her achievement. (p. 30)

In its entirety Two Virgins is a story of mythic proportions, an archetypal story of the loss of innocence. It embodies a journey—a going forth and a return…. Kamala Markandaya has written a novel of quiet resignation. The first revolution for India ended years ago, with independence. Now a more difficult aspect of nation-building is beginning, rooted in the simplicity and dignity of traditional life. Two Virgins is superb fiction. (p. 31)

Charles R. Larson, "Honored Novel," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © The New Republic, Inc.), June 1, 1974, pp. 30-1.

Miss Markandaya's eighth novel [Two Virgins] is one of those unpretentious books which require a little time to make their impact: their unique perfume, as it were, is of the slow-release variety…. I would guess that, apart from native influences on her writing which the Westerner can only guess at, she has learned something from the art of understatement as practised by the great American novelists of the middle decades of this century. The book opens on a rather low key, and very gradually rises to a climax; the only exciting action is reserved for the last fifty pages. But the slow climb of the dramatic interest is very skilfully managed, and the beginning linked to the end with a deftness that can only have come with long practice….

This penetrating study of the awakening of sexuality in a young girl (who, like Ernestina in The French Lieutenant's Woman, had "seen animals couple, and the violence haunted her mind" …) is also a sensitive account of the impact on a rural community of city mores. (p. 80)

John Fletcher, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975.

The Golden Honeycomb is the major novel of Kamala Markandaya's literary career. An Indian who writes in English, she is still best known in this country for her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, published in 1954, although she has written works of far greater significance than that first one: her two more recent books, The Nowhere Man (1972) and Two Virgins (1973), for example.

The outer parameters of The Golden Honeycomb circumscribe the golden age of the Indian Princes—roughly from about 1870 until World War I….

Though the outer framework of The Golden Honeycomb is historical, it would be difficult to classify this work as historical fiction. Markandaya, rightly, places her emphasis on her characters: Bawajiraj, Mohini, Rabi, the Dewan, the British. We are privy to their thoughts, projected into their innermost desires. Bawajiraj is a likeable person, totally human, because of his multiple weaknesses and excesses. Herein lies the core of Markandaya's achievement: she has written a humanistic account of the princely oppressors—a subject which must certainly be anathema to Indian intellectuals.

Moreover, Markandaya is a rare kind of magician—she knows how to control the tension in every scene, in every incident in the narrative, often by nothing more than a word or two which cancel out everything that has been said in a previous scene or conversation. Early in the story we want things to hurry up, so we can discover what is going to happen next. Later, as we approach the end of this lengthy novel and the ending which we expect will be violent, the author achieves a certain mellowness. We want things to slow down, so we never have to turn that last page.

Charles R. Larson, "The Prince and the Paupers," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 6, 1977, p. F10.

The author of Nectar in a Sieve has set [The Golden Honeycomb] in the declining years of the Raj, before Gandhi's influence pushed India irretrievably toward independence. With language as ornate, detailed, and slow-moving as the court life she describes, Markandaya weaves a rich tapestry in which subtle shifts of power and the nurture of illusions are the primary pursuits. Her characters are essentially from stock; overt action is minimal; dialogue, when it comes, can be intrusive, teetering on the brink of modern idiom. The art of the book lies in the author's command of the sometimes humorous, sometimes threatening nuances in formalized relationships, and in her considerable gift for irony, which is relentlessly plied.

Indian and Englishman both are treated with a compound of charity and scorn; they are rendered almost quaint by historical distance and by Markandaya's aloof yet precise depiction of them. One can't help wondering how much her barbs would sharpen if they were turned against the monumental irony of India's present administration. (p. 116)

Martha Spaulding, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1977.

The story of "The Golden Honeycomb" may not be full of surprises … once you have got the characters down…. A certain historical inevitability leaves no room for surprises in the interplay among the characters….

But what, you may ask, about the "glittering backdrop" of this "rich, colorful dynasty novel," as the blurb calls it? Well, if you know nothing about the period, when you finish "The Golden Honeycomb" you will probably know more about it than the British Viceroys did. The author's research has been prodigious, and the historical details, I am sure, are faultless….

But Kamala Markandaya seems to have been affected by the elaborately ornamented world she is describing. This is her first foray into the past; her other eight novels are set in contemporary India….

I don't know whether Mrs. Markandaya thought the theme of Princely India merited a more ornate style, but in her new novel the chapters grow as encrusted as a Maharajah's turban. Sentence inversions, strings of clauses, obscure words and tense changes accumulate throughout the 468 pages until the reader gasps for air. The author evidently loves the sound of English (unlike some Indians, who urge its abolition as the national language on the grounds of its British Imperial overtones and fossilization), but her writing here is overwrought. In her embellishments the characters flounder and India seeps away.

You may want to read this book for its absorbing historical detail. Afterwards, if you feel up to it, read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "Heat and Dust" for the real flavors, resonances and deeper meanings of Anglo-India, delivered with an economy of characterization and language altogether exemplary.

Caroline Seebohm, "Class and Caste in India," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 3, 1977, p. 42.

The sustained grip of this novel about princely India derives from the quality of the writing…. In The Golden Honeycomb the writing has become almost an object in its own right, a structure so exquisite and so highly wrought that its purpose seems to be less the transmission of life than of artistic experience…. [Kamala Markandaya's] subject is wildly fanciful though not lacking in plausibility. A third of the Indian subcontinent was left by the British as protected states, and Devapur, where her scenario is laid, is no bad fictional representation of a sizable Rajput state in the days of British paramountcy….

If her purpose was to write a historical novel, then her chosen setting certainly provides the quintessential mixture of the real and the exotic. Yet her studied inattention to details of time and place and her comparative indifference to plot suggest that her interests lie elsewhere. She seems fascinated by patterns of emotional response towards the constraints imposed by historical situation. Her characters have all manipulated their immediate environments so as to give their apprehension of the world an aesthetic dimension and to immure their personality in a pleasure dome of sensuous mental feelings. It is this which enable them to come to terms with reality while holding it at bay. "Life", to quote Rabi, the central figure, "was intended to be ravished by the senses".

Lady Copeland, the Resident's wife, creates a world of ordered beauty in house and garden to enable her to cope with the bitterness of exile and lend her courage against neurotic fears of a racial massacre. The Maharajah and Resident revel in subtle traditions of civility and ceremony which permit them to form a restrained friendship and screen the naked facts of power. All this is depicted so well, with so much understanding that it seems to testify to some instinctual belief on the author's part that any genuine political, social or even artistic culture must be an artefact of this kind. Yet the historical theme of the book is the recovery of reality and the overcoming of estrangement, hypocrisy, and alienation. This is the function of Rabi, the heir-apparent born out of wedlock.

Reality is to be found in the people, in the harsh actuality of their poverty, in British imperial oppression and in princely greed and self-indulgence. But in the novel it is kept in the wings and never possesses the stage: the author's own aesthetic sense is too strong for her to get close. She cannot manipulate stench, filth and violence, or transmit other than an ordered and tidy image. No blood is spilt, the gathering personal and political tension is readily dissipated by British concessions. There is no climax since there is no drama being staged. At the end both the British Raj and the Indian princes pass into historical limbo.

If this is not a historical novel, neither does it properly succeed as a character study. The leading figures gain shape and body but the minor ones like the Copelands and the Dewan possess a stronger internal consistency. All have to play a double role as individuals and as historical symbols. Rabi is too difficult a character to bring off entire. The double pull of East and West, of rags and riches, woven into his relations with the Dewan's daughter, with the sweeper-girl, the Bombay prostitute, the Resident's daughter, the Resident's wife and finally his parents, leaves him a powerful but uncertain quantity.

A novel which seeks to register the broken immediacy of life rather than to pursue the ordered purpose of tying and untying a dramatic knot has to be held together by a constant renewal of sensation. Here there is a wealth of incident and situation, and Kamala Markandaya is resolutely fashionable in serving up her dish of sweetmeats with some well-sugared titbits of sexual delight, although (strangely) it is the purblind but lovable Maharajah rather than his intense hero son for whom sexual love has the profoundest spiritual significance. Similarly we are presented with a few four-lettered obscenities to show that the author is up with the times and down to crude reality when it comes to recording the conversations of Rabi with the common folk. We must forgive these concessions to contemporary fashion which sit self-consciously and awkwardly on the page, for this is a beautifully and tightly written book. It is built up out of short separate sections, each carefully and delicately worked to achieve an exact economy of statement. The sections fit together like cells in a honeycomb, although the honeycomb itself lacks determinate dimensions.

Eric Stokes, "Generally Ravishing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 29, 1977, p. 507.