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Kamala Markandaya published her seventh novel, The Nowhere Man, in 1972. The huge success of her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, published in 1954, had not been repeated and her reputation, at least in the west, had declined. So perhaps it was no surprise that The Nowhere Man failed to reverse the trend.
Except that The Nowhere Man was different from the others.
To begin with, it was set in London, where she had lived and worked all her adult life, while the others had been set in India, where she was born. Where previously she had written about divisions in India, especially the problems experienced by people living in rural India as the pace of change increased and traditional ways of life declined, now she wrote for the first time about divisions in English society as attitudes changed and the welcome that had previously been given to immigrants from former colonies turned to hostility.
She wrote The Nowhere Man in the years immediately following a speech made by the previously not very well known but soon to be notorious British MP, Enoch Powell, in which he warned of the dire consequences of unchecked immigration for the indigenous population.
For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted.
Srinivas, the central character in Markandaya’s novel, at first welcomed by his neighbours among whom he has lived happily for many years, experiences a change. He is now the unwanted.
All I want is peace, said Srinivas, staring at himself, stranger in the glass; all I want is peace. Is that too much to ask? It seemed so. It seemed so to a good many people, who ingenuously assumed it was a little thing they asked for, whereas in fact in the world they inhabited it happened to be one of the most difficult to come by.
Markandaya substitutes fire for ‘rivers of blood’ as the climax of her novel, but otherwise traces through the lives and attitudes of her fictional characters the changes that Enoch Powell spoke of. But whereas Powell’s supposed victims were white, her victim is brown.
Powell spoke of an apocalypse comparable to that predicted by the Sybil in Virgil’s Aeneid, “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”, which journalists quickly abbreviated to the more memorable ‘rivers of blood’. Markandaya invents Fred as her bringer of divine retribution, a rather pathetic but nonetheless dangerous racist who makes Srinivas the object of his murderous hatred.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the novel did not sell well in Britain. Until it was re-published recently it had been completely forgotten, as had its author. The story of poor people in rural India that she had told in Nectar in a Sieve, was one that could be read without any sense of personal responsibility, except perhaps for a twinge of regret at having left these people to fend for themselves instead of looking after them as we used to do when India was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire.
In Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya writes in the character of a woman who has lived all her life in an Indian village. She was married off like her older sisters when she not much more than a child, but her father, who had been the village headman then, had gone down in the world when it came to her turn.
Perhaps that was why they could not find me a rich husband, and married me to a tenant farmer who was poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife, whom he took at the age of twelve. Our relatives, I know, murmured that the match was below me; my mother herself was not happy, but I was without beauty and without dowry and it was the best she could do. “A poor match,” they said, and not always quietly. How little they knew, any of them!
Rukmani tells her story in plain English (Markandaya wrote all her novels in English) and emerges as honest, open and forgiving, with no illusions about herself or anyone else. She is never guilty of self-pity, such pity as she feels being only for others.
The story is full of sadness but never sentimental. It is told very simply, starting with a reflection on her life which anticipates the novel’s ending.
Sometimes at night I think that my husband is with me again, coming gently through the mists, and we are tranquil together. Then morning comes, the wavering grey turns to gold, there is a stirring within me as the sleepers awake, and he softly departs.
The narrator’s reflections, of which this is one example, are what gives the novel its humanity and somehow turn what is otherwise as tragic a story as any told by Thomas Hardy into a story about hope, endurance and love.
Not a love story in the conventional, romantic sense, but a story about love, ending as simply as it began, with a few words between mother and son.
‘Do not worry,” Selvam said. “We shall manage.”
There was a silence, I struggled to say what had to be said.
“Do not talk about it,” he said tenderly, “unless you must.”
“It was a gentle passing,” I said. “I will tell you later.”
The Nowhere Man is a longer and more complex novel, written in an impersonal third person. Srinivas is at the heart of the novel, like Rukmani, but unlike her he does not survive and so could not, like her, tell his own story.
There is some comfort in the conversation between Rukmani and her son that ends Nectar in a Sieve, but none in that between Mrs Pickering, the woman with whom Srinivas came to share his house after the death of his wife, and their neighbour, Mrs Glass.
“You mustn’t blame yourself,” said Mrs Glass, sweating.
“Blame myself,” said Mrs Pickering. “Why should I? I cared for him.”
And indeed, that seemed to her to be the core of it.
It is ironic that Enoch Powell should have been the one to put his finger on it when he spoke of the ‘voices which told them that they were now the unwanted’. Caring for each other, being wanted, is what both of those novels are about.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Kamala Markandaya’s British readers should have felt less comfortable reading about it in a novel set in Britain than in one set in faraway India.