Essay | Introduction to Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man

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The Nowhere Man cover

The following essay is the introduction to the latest edition of The Nowhere Man, a novel by Kamala Markandaya, first published in 1972, now re-published by HopeRoad to mark the launch of their new imprint Small Axes. A version of this essay first appeared in The Paris Review Daily.

Emma Garman


Introduction to The Nowhere Man

When Kamala Markandaya wrote The Nowhere Man in the early 1970s, she may well have imagined that the fault lines of British society she portrayed would, half a century on, be a bygone aspect of less enlightened times. Set in 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, this intricate, perceptive tragedy of alienation centres around the violent racism sparked by post-war immigration to Britain. A vivid reminder that progress is not a straight line, the novel is full of conspicuous parallels to our messy present, not least the Trump/Brexit attribution of economic woes to the presence of a maligned outgroup. Writing ahead of one’s time risks cultural neglect, and The Nowhere Man was all but ignored on its publication. Nevertheless, it was Markandaya’s favourite of her own works. She knew, with the defiance of the true artist, that she had created a subtle masterpiece. With this new edition, it finally takes its place as a classic of diaspora fiction and will find appreciation with a new generation of readers.

Arthur Miller wrote that ‘the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity.’ In The Nowhere Man this character is Srinivas, an elderly spice importer, native of India, and decades-long resident of a leafy South London suburb. Along with many newer arrivals from South Asia and the Caribbean, Srinivas realizes with horror that, at nearly seventy years old, he has been marked as a pariah, ‘a convict on parole’. At first, the danger signs don’t quite penetrate his consciousness. He is by nature dreamy and peaceable, not given to assuming the worst of people. And he has always regarded England as a haven of tolerance and sanity. ‘My country,’ he calls it. ‘I feel at home in it, more so than I would in my own.’ But eventually, the ambient threat turns palpable, and he begins to hear of ‘a new gospel,’

a gospel he had not heard since those echoes from Germany before the war. He recalled them now, almost phrase by phrase, presenting hate as a permissible emotion for decent German people. Not only permissible but laudable, and more than that, an obligatory emotion, which they summoned up subtly and starkly from a reading of a checklist, or charge sheet, of the differences between men, their customs and observances, their sexual, religious and pecuniary habits, sparing nothing as they peeped and probed, neither bed nor bathroom nor tabernacle, citing in the end, without shame, the shape and size of their noses, lips, balls, skulls, and the pigment of their skin.

The novel opens with Srinivas’s pariah status manifesting on his body: he has developed the ‘medieval’ illness of leprosy. Already unwanted in his newly hostile neighbourhood, which is daubed with ‘hang the blacks’ and ‘blacks go home’, Srinivas must now participate in his own ostracization. His GP, Dr Radcliffe, advises that ‘it would be as well if you did not visit any public places’. It’s all a far cry from the calm and companionable existence Srinivas had once envisioned unfolding with his wife, Vasantha, and their sons, Laxman and Seshu. As we learn via extended flashbacks, the young Srinivases left India for England in 1919 and rented ‘a succession of rooms and flats’, before deciding to buy ‘a gaunt old building’ large enough to welcome their sons’ future wives. But Srinivas’s name, which means ‘abode of good fortune’, turns out to be ironic. Seshu, at age nineteen, is killed by a German bomb while driving an ambulance during the Blitz. Soon after, Vasantha dies of tuberculosis. Laxman, who has settled in Plymouth and absorbed himself in his own family and career, barely keeps in touch.

Isolated and bereft, Srinivas is afflicted with a depression bordering on catatonia. In the kind of perfectly turned metaphor that induces a shiver of recognition, his life is described as ‘a dust bowl of being. Empty. Without meaning. Scooped out, picked clean, no climbing up the slippery sides.’ He neglects his business, his appearance, and his house, which sinks into squalor:

Bluebottles buzzed around the dustbins, and litter from the unswept yard swirled over other people’s tidy properties, severely trying the patience of housewives. A few – those most affected, like Nos. 3 and 7 – made sharp wounding comments, but generally people were charitable, knowing the history of the widower at No. 5.

Those earlier post-war days, remarks the omniscient narrator, were ‘decent’ and kindness was still the norm. Laxman, however, is less than kind. A fully ‘English’ young man who measures human worth according to financial success and ‘potential,’ he cannot comprehend his father’s melancholic passivity. He tells Srinivas to pull himself together, ‘and felt indeed that this aptly described what had to be done, as if his father were some slack old bag whose strings must be pulled tight before the entire contents fell out.’ Srinivas is painfully aware of the unbridgeable gulf between himself and his son, compounded by both generational and cultural differences. He ‘saw himself as his son did and as his son’s children would … an ill-dressed ancient Indian, deficient in good living and small talk, with whom they would have nothing in common.’

Portrait of author Kamala Markandaya

Previously, when the newly-wed Laxman brings his wife, Pat, to stay at No. 5 for a week, he is indeed embarrassed by his parents’ lack of sophistication, by the way they dress and speak, by his father’s valiant attempts to fill the awkward silences with talk about business. ‘Drooling on’, thinks Laxman, ‘about his rancid spices’. Pretty blonde Pat, meanwhile, tries her self-congratulatory best to manage the social strain of the visit. She tells Laxman how ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ she considers the Srinivases, ‘believing she was being the kind of wife any man would want, the sort that would never come between him and his parents’. Laxman, irritated, says he finds them impossible to talk to. The conflict and sense of separation that can arise between first and second immigrant generations would, thirty years later, be explored to great effect in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. But at the time Markandaya was writing, it was a subject few novelists had confronted.

Salvation comes to the widowed Srinivas in the unexpected form of Mrs Pickering, an impoverished divorcée, older than him and almost as down-at-heel. Chance encounters in the street lead to walks in the park and conversations that are tentative, yet freighted with significance. Their gentle rapport relies on a mutual, delicately observed tact. ‘I hate people who pry,’ says Mrs Pickering, ‘and force themselves upon you for their benefit and pretend it’s for yours.’ A partnership is forged, at first platonic, yet no less committed and affectionate for that. Mrs Pickering – we never discover her given name – moves into No. 5, and soon the house is as clean and tidy as when Vasantha was alive. The neighbours, reassured to see the ‘shine on the doorstep’, confer respectability on the odd couple by referring, fastidiously, to ‘Mr Srinivas, the landlord, and Mrs Pickering, his tenant.’ To Srinivas, resurrected from his emotionally comatose state, their easy togetherness feels both miraculous and like the most natural thing in the world. This moving and credible portrayal of a romance between two aging, unglamorous outcasts, whose love lacks passion and excitement yet utterly compels the reader, is an exceptional writerly feat.

When racist hatred shatters their hard-won tranquillity, Srinivas and Mrs Pickering’s divergent reactions dramatize a common theme in Markandaya’s fiction: the clash of Eastern and Western sensibilities, and the persistence of cultural values despite deracination. Though he is ‘cut off from his roots’ of Indian Hinduism, Srinivas’s ahimsa – his honouring of all living beings – endures. A stamped-on mouse dropped on his doorstep by Fred, the local racist lout, causes deep distress: Srinivas feels responsible for the creature’s needless death. That tiny grey mouse, he thinks, ‘has entitlements no less than a man’. The same attitude was held by Markandaya. A lifelong defender of animal rights and vegetarian, she detested cruelty to animals and treated it, in her writing, as an auspice of general brutality. But to Mrs Pickering, Srinivas’s anguish is ridiculous. ‘Really, some people,’ she thinks, ‘the way they tore themselves to pieces over nothing.’ Her priority is to resist and fight back against the mindless prejudice, which she does doggedly. Srinivas simply says: ‘People will believe what they want to.’ It is a measure of Markandaya’s mastery of character and voice that neither approach to life seems less noble. And the hostility’s shocking culmination, foreshadowed as though by gathering storm clouds, is in any case unstoppable.

Nor are the story’s antagonists cardboard villains. Whilst we’re not asked to pity down-on-his-luck racist Fred, Markandaya takes us into his mind and depicts, with convincing psychological realism and a hint of compassion, the underpinnings of his siege mentality. Emasculated by unemployment, resentful of having ‘lost his place in the housing queue’ after an abortive move to Australia, and desperate to maintain his ‘reputation as a proper bloke’, Fred casts around for someone to blame for his circumstances. To his immense relief, he realises that everything is ‘the blacks’’ fault. ‘They came in hordes’, is the spiel he seizes upon, ‘occupied all the houses, filled the hospital beds and their offspring took all the places in the schools.’

This rhetoric of politically expedient nationalism has scarcely altered over the decades, although in 2015 migrants were described as ‘swarms’ rather than ‘hordes’ by both David Cameron and Nigel Farage. (Donald Trump prefers ‘invasion’.) The other beacons of xenophobia flaring in Srinivas’s world are no less familiar in our current social landscape. Mrs Pickering, intercepting the post to shield him from abusive missives (though they receive equal amounts), finds that the neater the writing, ‘the worse the contents: the more innocent the envelope, the more vicious the enclosure’. Now it would be emails/Direct Messages, and in place of neat writing and plain envelopes the curious phenomenon, experienced particularly by women in public life, of the politest and most grammatical introductions presaging the vilest attacks. And when Dr Radcliffe reads a published letter about immigrant staff in the NHS, the sentiments precisely echo those often aired in English newspapers today:

It concerned itself with the welfare of the sick, who might fall into foreign hands. On their behalf it inquired into the qualifications of those who tended them, their medical skills, their command of English. It hazarded – for facts were facts, and must be faced – that these might not, perhaps, come quite up to the standards of Britain which the world envied.

Perhaps this unerring diagnosis of British society’s fault lines from a perceived outsider – a woman and a foreigner – felt disconcerting or even impertinent to 1970s readers. Could that help explain The Nowhere Man’s commercial and critical neglect? Markandaya, a rarity in the mid-twentieth century as an internationally read Indian novelist, was previously known for finely-drawn portraits of her homeland. Her debut, Nectar in a Sieve, published in 1954 when she was thirty, is a cri de coeur on behalf of South Indian tenant farmers whose fates, in Hardyesque fashion, are buffeted by forces outside their control: industrialism, colonialism, heartless landlords, droughts and floods. The title is taken from a Coleridge sonnet: ‘Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,/And hope without an object cannot live.’ An international bestseller, an American Library Association Notable Book, and a Book of the Month Club main selection (worth at the time $100,000), Nectar in a Sieve also appeared on the curriculum at many schools and colleges. ‘Most Americans’ perception of India,’ maintained the literature scholar Charles Larson, ‘came through Kamala Markandaya.’

In the United Kingdom, her adopted country, Markandaya made no such splash. She always regarded it as her toughest market, and blamed the inevitable snobbishness towards an author from a former, and very recent, British colony. It was soon after Independence, in 1948 when she was twenty-four, that Markandaya moved from South India to England with the ambition of becoming a novelist. Like many writers, she could contemplate her homeland with greater clarity and perspective from a distance. Her daughter, Kim Oliver, remembers that at their home in Forest Hill, South London, Markandaya wrote longhand drafts in exercise books, then typed them up on a manual typewriter. She was, says Oliver, highly disciplined, a firm adherent of the philosophy that books get finished through a daily routine of hard work. She didn’t romanticise her calling as a fragile, sacrosanct activity, and never objected to her small daughter’s regular interruptions.

After the 1956 publication of Markandaya’s second novel, Some Inner Fury, set amid India’s turbulent campaign for self-rule in the 1940s, a journalist asked if she might write a book about England. ‘No,’ she responded, ‘I don’t know England well enough, and don’t think a static society – that is to say a society which has solved its problems in a mild and satisfactory way – can prod me into writing about it. I regret to say I have to be infuriated about something before I write.’ A decade and a half would pass before her greater familiarity with English society, and its increasing volatility, inspired The Nowhere Man. It was her seventh book. Presumably discouraged by the reaction – or rather the lack of reaction – to her harrowing portrait of modern Britain, Markandaya returned to India for the setting of her subsequent four novels (including Bombay Tiger, published posthumously in 2008).

But Markandaya was never to match the sensational success of Nectar in a Sieve, and her name gradually faded from literary prominence. Not that she ever sought the limelight, even in her heyday. A deeply private person, ‘she rarely talked about herself, or her background, or her writing’, says Oliver. Markandaya wrote under a pseudonym: she was born Kamala Purnaiya and became Kamala Taylor when she married her English husband, Bernard Taylor, in 1948. She rarely granted interviews, and brushed aside suggestions that her novels contained autobiographical details. For example, she claimed that unlike Srinivas, she had not personally experienced any racism in Britain, although the subject preoccupied her. A particular irritation was the Western coding of Christian as virtuous. ‘Britons condemn bad behaviour as un-Christian,’ she said, ‘and it is unconsciously offensive. Barbarity strikes as barbarous to anyone, not just to Christians.’

Her most autobiographical novel is Some Inner Fury. Like its heroine, Mira, Markandaya came from a prosperous high-caste family, worked as a journalist, and fell in love with an Englishman. But whereas Markandaya’s cross-cultural relationship led to marriage and a child, Some Inner Fury has no similar happy ending. Mira’s romance with Richard, an Oxford-educated civil servant, cannot in her opinion withstand his being ‘of the ruling nation’ and her own passionate nationalism. ‘There is no in between’, she thinks ruefully. ‘You have shown your badge, you have taken your stance, you on the left, you on the right, there is no middle standing. You hadn’t a badge? – but it was there in your face, the colour of your skin, in the clothes on your back.’ Some Inner Fury drew comparisons to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and one US critic called it ‘actually a more valuable study of Indian upper-class life and problems than Forster’s great novel.’ Another review characterised the story as ‘essentially a woman’s viewpoint, and the expression of that viewpoint in very moving terms is Miss Markandaya’s forte.’

Markandaya, understandably, had no wish to be patronised as a female author, and the ‘Indian novelist’ label felt similarly restrictive. ‘I would prefer,’ she said, ‘to be called just a writer, not a nationality. No critic has ever actually said “she writes surprisingly good English for an Indian” – but the subliminal message was there, and duly received.’ How galling, then, to be in effect forced into retirement for being the wrong kind of Indian novelist. In the 1980s, the magical realist innovations of writers like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh gave Indian literature an exciting and lucrative new image, and Markandaya was deemed passé. Publishers, seeking the next Midnight’s Children, offered her no more book deals.

Markandaya continued to write regardless, and she also served as an Arts Council adjudicator. But for the twenty years before her death in 2004 at age seventy-nine, she disappeared from public view. She is still remembered by some as the pioneer who, the author Manu S. Pillai wrote, ‘told India’s tales to the world beyond, and brought a young, new nation into the global literary conversation.’ And with The Nowhere Man, Markandaya wrote a British state-of-the- nation novel whose acuteness and depth of understanding resounds eerily today.

First published in 1972, The Nowhere Man is the only novel Kamala Markandaya wrote about England and describes the everyday racism experienced by immigrants on a South London street. A contemporary of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and R.K. Narayan, Kamala Markandaya is now being rediscovered as an essential figure in the post-colonial cannon. 

Kamala Markandaya (1924 – 2004) was born in Mysore, India. She came to London in 1948 in pursuit of a career in journalism. There she began writing her novels; Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel published in 1954, was in international best-seller.

Emma Garman is a freelance writer and critic in the UK. Her essays and reviews have appeared in LongreadsNewsweekSalonLapham’s Quarterly RoundtableThe Daily Beast, and Words Without Borders. She currently writes The Paris Review’s Feminize Your Canon series on under-read women authors.

For more information about The Nowhere Man, and to order the book, visit independent publisher HopeRoad.


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