Saturday, July 3, 2010


Hunger and Degradation in the Novels of Kamala Markandaya
By :
Dr. Ram Sharma
Sr. Lecturer in English
C-26, Shradhapuri Phase-II
Meerut Cantt-250001
E-mail :

Kamala Markandaya was genuinely concerned with the problems of rural India before independence. Among many ailments, hunger and degradation were the most torturing and disgusting. . "Kamala Markandaya's novels are generated by the tragic vision that finds in contemporary life a fruitful seed-bed for conflict."1
Kamala's first novel 'Nectar in a Sieve' was fervent cry of protest against social injustice, hunger and degradation which were the common factors of countless villages in India before independence. The novel was a powerful presentation of patience in the face of suffering. It was also a glaring example of labour when there was no hope. The narrator Rukmani was married to Nathan at the age of twelve, he was a tenant farmer rich in nothing except in love. They sold their utensils, sarees, and other domestic things and suffered patiently. The problem of starvation sprang up when their children grew and there was not enough land to accommodate all.
An English man established tannery in the village which ruined the peaceful atmosphere of the village on the name of progress and advancement. "Destructive in its side effects it indicates a new way of life."2

. Nathan and Rukmani felt one problem after another. Finally, they had to leave their land which they had formed for thirty years. They were on the verge of hunger and starvation.

Kamala Markandaya's description of hunger and pain were very poignant and impressive.
Kamala's assets were that she was very realistic and authentic in the presentation of hunger and degradation. They were created not only by Nature but also by over-lordism. Nathan and Rukmani faced cruelty caused by an unavoidable fate; Rukmani had her stoic resignation. These poor peasants had to fight against an unjust social order. These problems of hunger and degradation were because of 'the inequalities in the whole structure of society.'3
Kamala Markandaya presented the theme with all its facets and aspects. "Far more terrible than physical hunger is the negation of self-respect, that denies the basic right of dignity to a human being."4
Kamala Markandaya presented the heart-felt degradation of Rukmani in the following words :
This home my husband had built for me with his own hands in the time he was waiting for me; brought me to it, with a pride which I, used to better living, had so very nearly crushed. In it, we had lain together and our children had been born. This hut with all its memories was to be taken from us, for it stood on land that belonged to another. And the land itself by which we lived. It is a cruel thing. I thought, They do not know what they do to us.5[ p-137]

In 'Nectar in a Sieve', Markandaya had firmly said that proverty, hunger and starvation could lead to the disintegration of family with a number of misfortune and problems. Floods had destroyed all crops, Rukmani had some rice which would last until times were better. Kenny was angry, he cried out; Times are better, times are better; Times will never be better for many moths. Meanwhile you will suffer and die, you meek suffering fools."6

Kenny further asked Rukmani if spiritual powers come to solve their problems of hunger and degradation? At this she replied : "Yet our priests fast, and inflict on themselves severe punishments and we are taught to bear our sorrows in silence and all this is so that the soul may be cleansed."7
Kamala exhorted people to change their mentality with a view to getting rid of such nasty problems of hunger and degradation. Herein lay Kamala's positive attitude o life. The leper boy Puli was healed of his leprosy in the hospital and Selvam had found a congenial job in the tannery. For the solution of the problems of hunger and degradation, we could not harp on the same strings, we had to look ahead with Dr. Kenny's eyes or a Western attitude.
In another novel 'A Handful of Rice' Kamala presented the other facets of poverty and starvation. It was hunger which compelled people to commit crimes. Ravi, the hero entered Jayamma's house forcefully as a thief because he was over-powered by hunger. The conversation which took place was reflective of the whole situation :
"What do you want?"
"Food, I told you," he said impatiently.
"And be quick."8
In 'Nectar in a Sieve,' she presented hunger and degradation in a village, in this novel, 'A Handful of Rice,' she depicted these social problems in the city. "Rukmani in the village and Ravi in the town complement each to the design representing social injustice."9
Ravi did not face only economic insecurity but also moral degradation. He was in a constant predicament that honesty and prosperity would not go together..
One night Ravi was heavily drunk in prohibition time to get rid of his hunger and frustration. :
Ravi was choosey in his choice of food, he told Damodar: "All I want is a meal - a nice, hot, home-cooked meal not bazaar muck."10 The next morning, the house-wife gave him a thorough beating, the husband scolded and advised him to behave decently as a decent boy like him ought to do.
Ravi was transformed into a decent boy, he went back to replace the bars he had broken. He married Nalini and joined Apu as his apprentlice.
The novel was based on this conflict of conscience.
Being tortured by the dilemma of conscience. Ravi started behaving with his wife Nalini in a very cruel manner.
That afternoon Ravi joined a mob in looting a granary. Kannan advised him against such an action as 'the rice is for all, this way is wrong, this way the innocent suffer.'11 But he went and was beaten by the police. Ravi was young man symbolising thousands of unemployed young men who intended to pass a respectable and honourable life. Ravi visualised a happy life.
Ravi's son Raju became a victim of poverty when Nalini requested him to call a doctor, Ravi burst out. It did not mean that Ravi did not love his son, but he was helpless by his poverty. He was broken by his son's death, and went to Damodar and cried out. But Damodar refused him. At last, he joined a group of young people to loot grains,.
Against all poverty, hunger and degradation, 'Nectar in a Sieve' had optimistic notes. Uma Parameswaran observed: "Nectar in Sieve is the story of the faceless peasant who stands silhouetted in the unending twilight of Indian agrarian bankruptcy, the horizon showing through the silent trees now with crimson gashes, now with soul-exalting splendour, always holding out the promise that the setting sun will rise again after night, the night ever approaching yet never encompassing."12 .
In 'Some Inner Fury,' Kamala gave pictures of an upper class family which had plenty of food left over after every meal. The hungry children jumped on it. In 'Possession' a father sold his son Valmiki to Caroline for five thousand rupees under the pressure of extreme poverty. His mother observed : "he has already decided. Did you not hear him? It was the money - it was too much for him. But it is always so, men are ever free and easy with that for which they have neither suffered nor laboured."13
In 'Two Virgins,' Markandaya had presented another aspect of degradation - that was moral degradation. It was not the result of hunger and starvation, it was a part of modern society which claimed to be advanced. Mr. Gupta, the film director symbolised a corrupt modern man of society who easily exploited innocent girls for their sexual purposes. Lalithan under the impact of the Western Civilization fell a victim to the temptations of Gupta and ultimately became pregnant. The entire family fell into the greatest degradation. Miss Mendoza and Mr. Gupta were intended to symbolise the corrupting influence of the Western culture on India. Both were instrumental in taking Lalitha away from her family. They tempted Lalitha to fall into her ultimate degaradation. She was charmed by the glamour shown by Mr. Gupta. Amma condemned him perfectly : '.... that Western punkcurse the day he and his ways crossed our threshold.' We could not condemn the Western civilization only, Lalitha also had her weakness for glamour and show.
Appa and Amma decided that Lalitha's child must be aborted and 'this is the only indication of a judgment that seems social rather than moral.'15 Lalitha had fallen into both kinds of degradation - social and moral. Lalitha disappeared from her family twice being over-powered by her shame. Chingleput was another morally degraded character who intended to exploit Saroja for her sweetness and innocence. When she went to him, he tried to seduce her. Thus, she lost all her faith in him as her guide.
. Although 'Some Inner Fury' had an emotional and political theme, human degradation was also found there in the form of political degradation. The whole country was united for the sake of Independence. Some Indians with Englishness like Kitsamy and even Mira suffered from a great political stress and humiliation. Kitsamy was too much Western and English to cope up with an Indian girl like Premala. She suffered from a great personal degradation in love, therefore, she deserted her husband and lived in a village looting after a school which was managed by an English missionary Hickey.

The element of degradation could be discovered in Kamala's novel 'Possession.' The very theme was based on the British lust for possessing things - which was, of course, a degrading experience. Lady Caroline Bell, a rich aristocratic woman purchased a young illiterate boy Valmiki from his parents who had the talents for painting. The whole situation was degrading, he was brought up in London and she made him in the purely Western sense, accelerated painter. But while he became the artist she intended him to be, Valmiki but lost his soul he was undergoing through a degrading experience which was shown by his pet monkey. He had his involvements with the Jewish refugee girl Ellie and later with Annabel which brought all his humiliation and he had to sever his ties with Caroline in order to come back to India and find his true self.

In 'The Nowhere Man', Kamala Markandaya had given a documentary on racial prejudices and their origin in colonialism. Kamala had dealt with the problem of degradation in this novel also. Both Abdul and Srinivas had memories of their countries Africa and India, respectively. Srinivas and his wife were compelled to leave India because 'their families are suspected of underground activities against British rule in India.'22 Srinivas and Vasantha felt the degradation of rootlessness, but they could never get rid of it.
Srinivas felt highly tortured and degraded that he was considered as an alien and an outcaste in England, although he had passed fifty years in England. This realisation was breaking, he developed leprosy and he even tried to commit suicide. Mrs. Pickering prevented him from doing so. Fred prepared a bonfire but became a victim of his own guilt, Srinivas was saved but he died of shock. Rootlessness created degrading situations for Srinivas and Vasantha and Kamala had visualised their suffering and painted it wonderfully exhorting people to be sincere to their roots.
In 'The Nowhere Man,' Kamala had shown a reaction of society in modern Britain to the inflow of coloured immigrants. They found themselves in an awkward and degradating position, Srinivas and Vasantha were placed in similar circumstances. Srinivas became a victim of leprosy, his son became very angry. He further suffered from emotional degradation, when he was rebuked by a police man for offering the ashes of his wife into the river Thames. The police man chided that it was rubbish, Srinivas emotionally answered : "It was not rubbish - it was my wife."16
In 'The Golden Honeycomb' also we could find the instances of human degradation under the domination of the British rule. It was the time not only of political subjugation but also of social degradation. It was further aggravated by native princes who became perfect slaves of the Britishers. The Raja of Devapur was a different prince, he was not upto the expectations of the Britishers. Therefore, he was ousted, a remote relation having the same name Bawajiraj was installed to the throne with his wife Manjula. This was the greatest degrading position which was the result of slavery.
Bawajiraj III had a son by his mistress Mohini - Rabindranath who became a great patriot and naturalist. He fought for the eradication of people's degradation and moral downfall.
. At last, India got freedom on 15th August, 1947 and the patriotism and nationalism of people like Rabindra Nath deserved all applause and admiration for liberationg people from a degrading and humiliating position in which they had been suffering for years.
In the end we can say that-
Kamala Markandaya had presented her themes of Hunger and Degradation in the most realistic and aesthetic manner.

References :
1. Margaret P. Joseph, 'Kamala Markandaya, Arnold Heinemann, New Delhi ' p. 211.
2. ibid,' p. 14. ' p. 15.
3. ibid p. 16.
4. Kamala Markandaya, 'Nectar in a Sieve,' p. 137.
5. Margaret P. Joseph, 'Kamala Markandaya,' p. 16.
6. ibid' p. 47.

7. Ibid., p. 116.
8. Ibid., p. 133.
9. Kamala Markandaya, 'A Handful of Rice' (New Delhi : Orient Paperbacks, 1985), p.45
10. Ibid., p. 235.
11. Uma Parameswaran, 'A Study of Representative Indo-English Novelists' (New Delhi : Vikas Publishing House, 1976), p. 92.
12. Kamala Markendey, 'Possession,'Jaico Publication,Bombay,1966 p. 24.
13. Margaret P. Joseph, 'Kamala Markandaya,' p. 85.
14. ibid p. 51.
15. Kamala Markandaya, 'Possession,' p.206.
16. Ibid.

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