Review | The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya

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The Nowhere Man, Kamala Markandaya, Small Axes, 2019, £10.99 (paperback) 

Real danger is never born of anything concrete.
There are only words in the beginning.
– Kamala Markandaya

There were 71,251 race-related hate crimes recorded in 2017/18, according to a Home Office report. That’s an average of 195 racist incidents every day. Crimes such as these have rapidly increased in recent years due to escalations in the scapegoating of marginalised groups, manifesting the rise of far-right politics.

When Kamala Markandaya wrote The Nowhere Man in the early 1970s, she was documenting a similar surge in intolerance, which she witnessed as an immigrant in post-war Britain. Through Srinivas, the novel’s protagonist, who, like Markandaya, migrated to Britain from India during the pre-war period, we experience the heart-breaking story of a man’s relationship with his adopted country – a country which, over time, determines to prevent him from calling it home.

The Nowhere Man begins with Srinivas’s diagnosis as a leper, a medieval disease that comes to symbolise Srinivas’s rejection and isolation from society, as a physical manifestation of his outcast state. His leprosy marks him as an unwanted man. From this moment, Markandaya revisits key periods of Srinivas’ life, from his early years in India, to married life in London, the wartime period and his later widowhood. The novel follows his personal experiences alongside society’s shift from tolerance towards burgeoning racism, which culminate in the markings of rejection on his skin.

Through extended flashbacks, Markandaya paints a vivid image of colonial India in her characteristic ornamented style, contrasting the beautiful natural setting of India with the intense pain and oppression caused by colonial rule. Srinivas’s experiences are such that he has little desire to return to India, and indeed acts for his own safety in his departure.

Along with his wife Vasantha, Srinivas seeks a new life in London. Markandaya treats London with the same tangible realism as her descriptions of India, drawing from her own experiences of the capital during this period. Her focus is deeply embedded in the domestic and the everyday: we follow Srinivas’s career as a spice merchant, his purchase of a large rambling house; not to mention two chapters dedicated entirely to sketching out a backstory for minor characters, Srinivas’s doctor, Dr Radcliffe, and the doctor’s wife Marjorie.

Pursuing a full sensory experience of her characters’ lives, Markandaya occasionally dives into lengthy passages of description, drawing us away from more interesting narrative developments, such as the family’s experience of wartime Britain or the growing chasm between Indian parents and their Anglicised sons. Here The Nowhere Man excels at probing mutual understandings between generations which are often prohibited by cultural differences and the upbringings they entail.

However, it is in the 1960s of the novel that the narrative comes into its own, exploring how wartime camaraderie fell away, leaving room for resentments to develop from harsh economic conditions. The story unfolds a desperate search for a scapegoat, ultimately identified as anyone deemed to be ‘non-English’. Forty years on, with the growth of the far-right across Europe and the US, we recognise a similar story. As Markandaya’s characters voice fears of immigrants stealing houses and jobs – sentiments sadly echoed by a Brexit Britain battered by austerity – lines are drawn connecting economic hardship, xenophobia and right-wing extremism.

Tensions rise as the novel progresses. Srinivas experiences multiple forms of hate crime: racist letters through the post, excrement and dead mice on his doorstop, graffitied hangmen emblazoned with racist slogans, physical violence. Markandaya expertly explores every angle of the issue. Shifting between a diverse range of characters and perspectives in the third person, she gives voice to all of society, from the most liberal-minded to the most narrow and extreme of views. Core to the novel’s power, Markandaya portrays the horrors of racism with an acute understanding of the ordinary people who latch onto it, as well as the origins of these sentiments.

Markandaya’s writing observes but does not preach; it leads readers gently to conclusions without forcing them upon them. That Srinivas cares strongly for nature seems to make his experience even more painful in light of this fact. Desperate as he is to protect all living things, through his strict vegetarianism (most people were willing to eat what they could due to rationing), or refusing even to report his abusers to the police, the suffering he faces at the hands of others comes to feel all the more unjust.

How British society can ostracize one of its citizens so absolutely – can reject Srinivas as to make him “a nowhere man looking for a nowhere city” – resonates profoundly with social attitudes today. Perhaps The Nowhere Man’s lack of critical success at the time of its original publication suggests that it was as much ahead of its time as it was a part of it. Whatever the reason, it should now be welcomed into the postcolonial canon.

The Nowhere Man is a beautiful piece of fiction; an intelligent analysis of human character, which unpicks racism at its root. I hope its recent republication suggests that, while sadly our society still holds such sentiments, we may reach a point where they can at least be brought into conversation and scrutinized, as an invaluable step towards combatting them.

Words by Katrina Bennett.
To buy The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya, visit Small Axes. For more on Kamala Markandaya, read Emma Garman’s Introduction to the newly republished edition in The London Magazine online.


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