Kamala Markandaya’s “The Nowhere Man”

‘If one lives in a foreign country,’ he said with some pride, and felt as he had felt when they championed the cause of his conchie son, warmed by the experience of tolerance and sanity. ‘My country,’ he repeated. ‘I feel at home in it, more so than I would in my own.’

‘All the more reason not to offend,’ she said bluntly.

‘Which country?’ demanded Abdul.

‘Well, England,’ admitted Srinivas.

‘England! What’s the matter with you, man, you can’t think about anything else?’

‘I suppose I could, but why? This is where I live, in England.’

‘It’s your country like?’

‘It’s become.’

‘You think so? You think they’ll let you?;

‘Yes.’

‘Then you better stop,’ said Abdul, ‘because they won’t. the British won’t allow it. First thing that goes wrong it’ll be their country, and you go back, nigger, to yours, back from where you came from.’

Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man is about an ageing Brahmin Sriniwas who emigrated to Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. Later his wife, Vasantha, joined him. His two sons were born and brought up in the country. He was a spice trader. During the second world war, he “lost” his sons. The younger one, Seshu, literally when he died in a bombing attack. The older one, Laxman, found himself a wife and moved to Plymouth where he preferred to be more “integrated” than his own parents had ever been able to achieve. Soon after the war Vasantha succumbed to TB. And then the story continues about how Sriniwas the lonely widower tries to navigate the changing socio-political landscape of this country where he has spent nearly half a century.

I re-read The Nowhere Man in complete disbelief. When I read it at first many years ago, it was a story about an Indian immigrant growing old in UK facing some racism and being shunned by his own son. Published in 1973, set in Nov 1968, a few months after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech and a year after the Beatles song “Nowhere Man”. By all accounts that I have dug up on the Internet it was not exactly well received yet the book paved the way for a manuscript like Rushdie’s Midnight Children to be accepted. But reading Nowhere Man now makes it seem so prescient. No wonder it is being republished by Pete Ayrton, formerly of Serpent’s Tail, now at Small Axes in August 2019. Some of the dialogues in it are sharp — much like the racist slurs one hears being shared on social media. Kamala Markandaya did not mince any words when it came to writing about the immigrant experiences in the early 1970s. It is a novel that sweeps through the twentieth century. For us now it will be considered a “classic”, a “historical” novel but at the time of publication it was most certainly a contemporary novel. There is a whiff of the old given the time it was written in too. Writing today is edgier, faster paced, many more details about etched in but this is a cross between the nineteenth century novel and the emerging modern novel. Also upon reading it at in 2019, years after the aggressive promotion of immigrant voices, diversity and inclusivity, our reading sensibilities are little dulled. We no longer seem to expect “English Literature” to be all white but to be inclusive of diverse voices. There is colour. There is Women’s Prize, BAME, Jhalak Prize, Kit de Wal promoting publishing and encouraging new writers etc. And this is a radical change in publishing in the last decade or so, not much earlier than that. So within this context to be re-reading Kamala Markandaya is quite an eye-opener about the immigrant experience. Of course after that there have been many more but this particular book is a great example! Here are two fabulous links about The Nowhere ManParis Review ( 2018) and London Fictions ( 2013, 2018). 

On the day the winner of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 is to be announced in London, perhaps it is befitting to remember this extraordinary novelist who would have probably won such an award hands down, if it had existed then!

4 June 2019

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