Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One little-known South Indian book

A comment on Sepia Mutiny:

"...I'd like to feel refreshed and uplifted upon finishing a South Indian authored book, not weighed down and vaguely guilty about something I can't quite put my finger on."

One book, little-known in contemporary reading-circles, seems to be Kamala Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve.' I believe that if you choose to read just one South-Indian authored book (in the English language) in your lifetime, it should be none other than Markandaya's almost-poetic, sensitive portrayal of a landless peasant woman's life in an India that was rapidly changing. R.K. Narayanan fans may disagree with me on this but comparing the subject matter, social relevance, characterization, writing style and its ability to move and connect you with the characters, the place, and their hardships, I would still recommend Markandaya first. If you, like me, have some connections to impoverished rural India (even if that link has weakened with each successive generation), then you owe it to your people to learn about their perseverance in the face of hardships if only to cherish their dreams and hopes that have been passed on to you.

Make no mistake: Markandaya dishes up plenty of suffering in this book. But strangely enough her book left me feeling utterly grateful for everything I have been given in life--food in abundance; a roof over my head; a language associated with economic power in India; education; opportunities; some level of control over my life; my ability to keep moving periodically and reinventing myself--without my asking for some of this or even deserving any of this. I figured that one way for us to give back is to learn to have compassion for those that have been left behind (or stayed behind--whichever way you like to look at it) and, at the very least, to find it in our hearts to remember such stories and pass them on. Not for sentimental, sanctimonious reasons but for very practical reasons. A respectful appreciation, if nothing else, for the people who accept and endure devastating, multiple hardships and humiliations, can only lead us to see that our glasses are full enough. An understanding of the tenacity of the people who experience the loss of everything they own, know about, or connect with, except their ability to hope, can teach us to move our own personal mountains in ways that prayers cannot.

I discovered Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve' on my own, by chance--in a library sale in West Lafayette, Indiana. At the time of my reading (over 10 years ago), my mind (with respect to both author and the specific book) was a blank slate. No reviewer had influenced me, no marketing gimmick wooed me, no school teacher had demanded a synopsis out of me, no academic had taught me how to interpret the characters or where to place the book in the grand scheme of literature. Yet the book resonated positively with me like few others did. It was a rare, pristine experience that I may never experience, ever again. Since then I have come to know that the book has been studied, approved, criticized and embraced by many. Here is an anthropologist's view on the characters Rukmani and Ira.

Don't let the cover illustration of the current edition fool you. The book is set in South-India. Rukmani and her husband work in their paddy-fields, growing rice. There are several Tamil words throughout the book, although I don't specifically recall the characters describing themselves as Tamil. Two sons leave to find work as indentured labourers in the tea plantations of upcountry Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)--which also added to the impression that Markandaya was writing about rural Tamils.

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