This week Karen and Simon are hosting another one of their amazing reading events – the 1954 Club. I love these events as they force me to read outside my genre and explore more literary styles and authors. However with frequent Chemo side effects days ( where each part of my body felt like it belonged to someone else ) and work being ridiculously crazy again, I was not sure if I would be able to read, let alone finish something in a week. But I did manage and here I am posting a review only one day late!!
I went through the list of all books published in 1954 and after much deliberation ( there were many great publications that year ) I decided to pick up Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. The book blurb did not appeal to – another story about poverty in India but something about the book felt that this was an important read. Also I had been curious to read Kamala Markandaya for years. She was the first Indian author to write in English and one of the most premier writers of modern India. Therefore with the idea of now or never, I plunged ahead with this book which her first novel.
The story is narrated by an old woman called Rukmani, the youngest and educated daughter of the village headsman and follows her life after her marriage to Nathan , a tenant farmer. Nathan is very clearly lower in the social ladder than Rukmani but he proves to be a kind and thoughtful husband and together the couple start building a life together. A daughter named Ira, is soon born to the couple but the much desired male offsprings until years later when Dr. Kensington, a British doctor who had treated Rukmani’s mother gives her medication. Soon Rukmani has 6 sons but providing for the children becomes a struggle but Nathan and Rukmani make do until a new tannery factory is set up near their village and things begin to turn.
The plot is exactly the reason why I was not initially interested in reading this novel. Set somewhere between 1930s to 1950s India, the novel pivots on the beaten track of the struggles of farming community in India. In fact there were slew of novels that were published during this time that focused on this theme , some considered modern classics of Indian literature. There is no doubt that this was an important subject; until the Land Reform laws and the Green Revolution, farmers struggled between debt and starvation thanks to the gratuitous commercialization of land to produce only profitable crops like indigo by the British colonizers. Most these British colonizers and traders were more interested in making a quick profit, forcing farmers to grow crops that will not feed the populace and then sell them at pittance. This kind of brutal exploitation lasted for a few hundred years until India gained her independence and along with it a horrifying legacy from those years – huge fiscal deficits with majority of her people living below the poverty line. This was important theme for us to understand our past but I had read enough of this plot line and was not keen to take up another harrowing read especially when ill and irritated. But this where I made a mistake in underestimating the power and ability of Ms. Markandaya. The story does follow the struggles of Rukmani and her husband but the book is filled with hope and simple joys. Even when things are at the lowest, there is an effort to live and live to the best one can and to plan for a better tomorrow. The genius of Ms. Markandaya comes out strongest in her ability to portray this philosophy without sentimentality or dramatics; there are no miracles or swooping rescues from a knight in white armor, rather like real life if things can go bad, they do! But she weaves her story through the small everyday actions that actually adds value to life and the strength of character that resolves on never giving up. She captures the struggle between the old world and the new rising industrial world accurately; the change in societal order and mores are depicted subtly without getting pedantic or going into any ism. There is a nostalgia for the older more simpler way of life, but that is all it is and also a realistic acceptance of what the future would be like The characters are superbly etched out – Rukmani , not a loud character or even markedly extraordinary, shines bright through her quiet courage, her ability to love and the complete lack of judgement when choices are forced on the family. She is way ahead of her years in understanding the value of education and more importantly, in accepting that sometimes life happens and a straight jacketed black and white is not the correct lens to see things. Her husband Nathan is a perfect foil, dignified and self reliant. He goes through his life with wisdom and kindness. The thing that makes his character stand out is his constant display of emotional intelligence; not only in accepting and respecting a wife who is a social superior in every way but also the ways of his children, who carve out lives very differently from his own life and beliefs. The supporting cast and crew also are brilliantly drawn with each character standing independently, a remarkable achievement, considering the novel is action packed and is only 200 pages. The narrative is simple and linear but never for a moment does the pace flag; while I understood the plot arch, it was written so well and so tightly, that I finished the book in one sitting. And finally there is gorgeous prose of Ms. Markandaya , both sparse and lyrical, capturing the country and it’s culture vividly, bringing it alive in all its beauty and beliefs.
I am so immensely glad that I read this novel. Beautiful, enriching and memorable, one of the best books I have read lately! Exactly why despite everything I make it a point to be part of these reading events!