Kamala Markandaya Biography

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Kamala Markandaya Biography

Kamala Markandaya had great hopes for India. Her most famous novel, Nectar in a Sieve, told the story of a woman who faced incredible hardships yet never ceased to dream of a better life. Nectar, which takes its title from a poem by Samuel Coleridge, is typical of Markandaya’s forward-thinking perspective. It became an instant classic and a staple of college literature coursework. Drawing comparisons to Thomas Hardy’s novels, Nectar in a Sieve is anchored by a strong female character. The protagonist’s optimism serves dual purposes. It allows Markandaya the writer to imagine a better future both for the characters and the country, yet it also renders the realities and disappointments all the more real in light of such blind faith.

Facts and Trivia

  • The name “Kamala Markandaya” is actually a pseudonym. The author’s real name is Kamala Purnaiya Taylor.
  • Markandaya came from a very upper-class family. They were members of the Brahmins, the highest order of the Indian caste system.
  • Markandaya studied history while at the University of Madras and later worked in journalism. Both disciplines had a major impact on the cultural examinations that characterized her work.
  • Much of the criticism devoted to Markandaya’s work has been focused on its postcolonial overtones and the ways in which India has evolved since its independence from British rule.
  • Despite her interest in writing about Indian identity and culture, Markandaya herself was an expatriate, living in England for most of her life. She died there in 2004.

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.{$S[A]Taylor, Kamala Purnaiya;Markandaya, Kamala}

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.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Kamala Markandaya (Kamala Purnaiya Taylor) was born in 1924 in Bangalore, India, and died in England in May 2004. She was a Brahman, which is the highest caste of Hindu, yet she wrote empathetically and convincingly about peasant life in south Indian villages. Markandaya studied at the University of Madras, worked as a journalist in India, then married an Englishman and moved to London in 1948, a year after India gained independence from Britain. There, she continued to write novels about Indian life and the relationships between India and England. Markandaya had an interest in dignifying her people, so she created complex, moving characters and covered themes that she hoped would debunk preconceived notions many Westerners have of Indian people as inferior to whites both socially and intellectually. Nectar in a Sieve was widely acclaimed for its portrayal of the culture clash between whites and nonwhites, and its success at revealing the commonality of the human condition. It received rave reviews and won the American Library Association's Notable Book Award in 1955.


(Novels for Students)

Kamala Purnaiya Taylor, who often wrote under the name Kamala Markandaya was born in Bangalore India in 1924, and died in England in May 2004. Her family was Brahman, the highest caste in Hindu society. Markandaya made an effort to know not just the city in which she lived but also the rural areas. She was educated at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, and worked briefly for a weekly newspaper before emigrating to England in 1948. There she met her husband, with whom she lived in London. They had one daughter.

Markandaya made England her home, but she made many visits to India over the years, returning to stay in touch with her culture and to find inspiration and information for her fiction. As a writer, Markandaya is respected for her accessible writing style and the range of experience expressed in her novels. Critics generally commend her portrayals of personal relationships, social consciousness, and the desire for independence.

While Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of a peasant woman facing an array of difficulties, Markandaya's other novels range in subject matter from the middle class to the urban poor to the struggle between Western and Indian ideas and ways of life. Because her own life did not include all of these experiences, Markandaya has been criticized by some Indian reviewers for a lack of true connection to the poor. Other critics have accused Markandaya of losing touch with her identity by living in England. Markandaya's response was that her adult life in England—her choice to be an outsider—gave her an objective perspective on her native culture.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chandrashekhar, K. R. “East and West in the Novels of Kamala Markandaya.” In Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English, edited by M. K. Naik et al. Dharwar, India: Karnatak University, 1968. A thirty-page essay that examines Markandaya’s philosophy of negotiation between British and Indian cultural contexts.

Harrex, S. C. “A Sense of Identity: The Novels of Kamala Markandaya.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1, no. 3 (1965): 44-56. Argues that Markandaya resists the depiction of a single Indian nationalist identity, because in her work rural and urban India appear as two completely different environments.

Jha, Rekha. The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Jhabvala. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1990. Examines Markandaya’s depiction of Hindu philosophy and value systems. Includes an extensive bibliography for material on Hindu society and culture, as well as criticism on Markandaya.

Joseph, Margaret P. Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1980. Characterizes Markandaya as a deeply pessimistic writer who prophesizes the end of all Indian culture following British colonial rule.

Parameswaran, Uma. “India for the Western Reader: A Study of Kamala Markandaya’s Novels.” Texas Quarterly 10, no. 2 (Summer, 1968): 82-104. Gives a historical account of Markandaya’s expatriate situation, the reception of her works, and context of her writings.

Parameswaran, Uma. Kamala Markandaya. Jaipur, India: Rawat, 2000. A volume from the series Writers of the Indian Diaspora.

Prasad, Madhusudan, ed. Perspectives on Kamala Markandaya. Ghaziabad, India: Vimal Prakashan, 1984. A collection of critical articles offering a comprehensive overview of Markandaya’s fictional themes and narrative techniques.

Rao, Vimala. “Indian Expatriates.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 10, no. 3 (1975): 45-62. Argues that Markandaya’s exile makes her less perceptive of Indian economic and social realities. Essentially a critique of Markandaya’s efforts at depicting rural women.