In the clamour of the emerging high profile Indian writers in English, the names of the trend setters are nearly forgotten. And hence, the republication of Kamala Markandaya by Penguin is most welcome. Kamala Markandaya published her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve in 1954. She has written about 10 novels and the last of them Shalimar was published in 1982. All her novels have been out of print.
Nectar in a Sieve prescribed in many colleges for many years now, reprinted by Penguin in hardbound is a heart wrenching story of a simple but proud tenant farmer couple in south India. The woman, Rukmani is the main protagonist, bearing as she does with forbearance all the tragedies that befall her. And the miseries come one after another in waves.
Rukmani'sfather, the village headman teaches her the alphabets and she cherishes this knowledge all her life. Late in life, stranded away from home penniless, she earns money by writing letters for passers-by in a highway. That is the only hope for her and her husband to save enough money to buy their way home.
Kenny, the English doctor and Rukmani establish a very strange empathetic friendship. She feels bad for him because he is always alone and sometimes too angry to approach and he is almost always on the brink of anger with her and her ilk who suffer silently. Rukmani is often puzzled about the doctor'sanger. After all, what can be done for one'ssuffering except to suffer, she asks. The thought that people like her too could do something to remedy the situation never crosses the minds of her or her husband.
But she sees each of her sons rebelling and it scares her. She loses her boys one by one, some to starvation and some to distant lands, never to return. Her daughter, deserted by her husband for being infertile, takes to flesh trade to overcome poverty that threatens to kill her youngest brother, whom she loves as her own son.
Finally she loses her husband, Nathan, whom she dearly loved, in an alien place. She returns to her surviving son and daughter, owning nothing but the clothes on her. When her huband, about to die asks, ?Have we not been happy together?? she readily replies ?Always, my dearest, always.?
The coming of the tannery in the region, the changes that it brought with it, Rukmani'sencounter with the Muslim women and her reactions are all social commentaries weaved neatly into narration. She even accepts resignedly to her daughter turning to prostitution.
Kamala Markandaya'slatest book Bombay Tiger, published this year is her last work. She died in 2004. Married to a British, she did not use his name because she did not want her works to be coloured by his name. She was an Indian and wrote on the land she knew. Nectar in Sieve is a touching story written with a lot of passion.
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)