FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Engulfed in British Prejudice

Though Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004) spent most of her life as a writer in England, her eleven novels (beginning with Nectar in a Sieve, 1954), were set almost exclusively in India, typically depicting traditional life and values and the ways they came into conflict with modernity.  Her seventh novel, The Nowhere Man (1972), was the only story with an English setting, though there are flashbacks to India.  It was also her favorite—of all her works—no doubt because the story was something she had observed frequently in her adopted country: racism.  By addressing that issue frontally, she paved the way for novelists from the Indian subcontinent (especially Salman Rushdie and Nadeem Aslam) who would subsequently take the issue to more upsetting levels of confrontation.  My assumption is that Markandaya must have been apprehensive of the response the novel would have with British readers, pushing them out of their comfort zones.

As the story begins, Srinivas, an elderly Brahmin, has lived most of his adult life—nearly thirty years—in London, outliving his wife and one of his sons.  It’s 1968, and both of his sons fought for the British in the war, but only one returned.  Ironically, the surviving son also lives in London but Srinivas was never close to him.  Communication between the two is virtually non-existent.  Srinivas rattles around in the attic of the house he has lived in for years, since he’s rented out the first two floors.  Not many years ago when his wife died, he was about to be arrested for throwing her ashes into the Thames. “The river’s not the place for rubbish,” a policeman tells him.  But Srinivas’ response—“It was not rubbish…  It was my wife.”—brings a moment of compassion from the man, the last time that anyone will treat him decently.

Britain is changing color because of all the immigrants who have arrived from its colonies.  Whole neighborhoods suddenly look different and—as has happened so many times in other Western countries—those at the bottom are threatened, fearing that their jobs will disappear (to the much harder-working immigrants) and that these new foreigners will soon get rich.  Observing the incipient hostility, Srinivas briefly considers returning to India but finally concludes, “He had no notion of where to go to in India, or what to do when he got there.” He knows that the country has changed.  He also thinks to himself, “This is my country now.”  In some ways he has become more English than the English around him.  Much later he will realize, “If he left he had nowhere to go.” He’s a nowhere man.

If Kamala Markandaya were alive today she would no doubt be horrified by the millions of refugees throughout the world who, for one reason or another, have nowhere to go.  They’re often stateless, caught in political limbo, the result of overthrown governments, wars, famine, and—most recently—climate change.  How ironic, then, that Srinivas is not the product of any of these cleavages but simple homegrown racism. Hard to determine which is worse.

As incidents of British racism impact upon his life, Srinivas remembers earlier racial incidents from his past, when he was still a student, and experienced similar slights under British colonialism.  He fled India as a young man because of a number of humiliations he had experienced at the university because of that racism.  Thus, there’s a kind of continuum of discrimination from the same people—first in his own country and later in theirs.

How surprising (or perhaps not) that the worst acts of violence inflicted on him are from the loutish young man who lives in the house next door.  He’s unemployed, hardly more than a punk, though married with several children and living under the roof with his mother, who considers Srinivas one of her friends.  Yet Srinivas—an old man and clearly no threat to anyone—becomes the focal point of his racism because Fred Fletcher can’t take his eye off his neighbor, turning his life into hell.  But the hellish ending of Markandaya’s novel you will need to discover for yourself—along with its many rewards as a compelling narrative.

And now a confession.  I knew Kamala Markandaya (an absolutely elegant woman) for many years.  I read The Nowhere Man the year after it was first published.  I was instrumental in convincing Penguin/India to reprint all of the novels of this major Indian writer in a uniform edition.  A few months ago when The Nowhere Man was released, I knew it was time to read this major daring a second time.  I was not disappointed and remain hopeful that the Markandaya volumes—thus far only for sale in India—will be available to readers throughout the rest of the English-speaking world.

Kamala Markandaya: The Nowhere Man

Penguin (India), 322 pp., r. 399

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.      

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omaorosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
Dean Baker
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Medicare-for-All
Weekend Edition
August 10, 2018
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Militarizing Space: Starship Troopers, Same As It Ever Was
Andrew Levine
No Attack on Iran, Yet
Melvin Goodman
The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Grifter’s Lament
Aidan O'Brien
In Italy, There are 12,000 American Soldiers and 500,000 African Refugees: Connect the Dots 
Robert Fantina
Pity the Democrats and Republicans
Ishmael Reed
Am I More Nordic Than Members of the Alt Right?
Kristine Mattis
Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: a Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
James Munson
The Upside of Defeat
Brian Cloughley
Pentagon Spending Funds the Politicians
Pavel Kozhevnikov
Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail