Nectar in a Sieve
by Kamala Markandaya
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Markandaya is an Indian writer living in England and writing in English about a life of rural poverty that is not exactly her own. Markandaya was sometimes criticized as less than authentic because she didn’t live the rural poverty-stricken existence about which she writes. She often countered that her physical distance from India gave her the power to objectively comment on what she observed.
This defense certainly resonates when we think about Markandaya’s portrayal of her characters’ actions and thoughts. She addresses the best and worst aspects of rural life and poverty (which she saw firsthand traveling through South India), but she doesn’t get caught up in romanticizing (or vilifying) aspects of daily village life. Instead, she imbues her characters, particularly Rukmani, with strengths and weaknesses that essentially typify the rural Indian existence. Rukmani is hopeful and enduring, but she often reacts with emotion when it comes to her family. Markandaya sympathizes with her characters, but she manages to ground their emotion in very real events.
Because Markandaya has a sense of the reality of living in rural India, her characters are realistic. Most importantly, our narrator Rukmani embodies Markandaya’s reflective attitude. The author’s objective eye is given voice in the narrator’s realistic reflections. For instance, Markandaya may know that there is an inherent controversy in having a foreign doctor battle the problems of infertility. Rukmani’s own interactions with Kenny, sometimes edgy, sometimes shy, capture that tension without any high-handed declarations about the significance and implications of colonialism.
Ultimately, Markandaya’s distance to her own Indian culture serves as both a strength and weakness to her writing.