Review The Nowhere Man, Kamala Markandaya

kamala makrandaya nowhere man bookblast review

BookBlast reviews Kamala Markandaya’s novel The Nowhere Man about the everyday racism experienced by immigrants on a South London street. A post-colonial classic, it is as relevant today as when it was first published. A contemporary of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and R.K. Narayan, Kamala Markandaya (1924 – 2004) is being rediscovered as an essential figure in the post-colonial cannon. 

History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us,” James Baldwin

The partition of India in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan after 300 years of British domination was muddled and bloody. Those who “came home” from Empire to the metropolitan centre itself, seeking a new life in the land they called the “Mother Country”, were mostly met by intolerance and ignorance, inequality and hostility.

He lapsed into bitterness, as people tended to do now, despite some shreds of conviction that still remained that Britain was an honourable adversary. ‘Over three hundred lives,’ he said. ‘A hundred Indians for each Briton. That is their scale, the scale by which they value themselves and against which we are measured. That is what we are up against: not their greed, or their anger, nor land hunger, nor the need to trade, but their arrogance, the mentality that produces such policies and acts.’”

A Lost Homeland

First published in 1972, The Nowhere Man is a powerful and truly ground-breaking state-of-England novel that exposes the underlying xenophobic hatred and violence festering in communities against perceived “foreigners” which is still with us today in Brexit Britain.

nigel farage ukip poster xenophobia

“Whiteness is a metaphor for power,” James Baldwin

Srinivas, an elderly Brahmin and spice merchant, has lived in a south London suburb for thirty years. Persuaded to buy a house by his sensible wife, its basement had served as a bomb shelter for neighbours during the Blitz. One son, Seshu, was blown up by a flying bomb, while Laxmann survived unscathed, and ended up in Plymouth where he married Pat. “A pale brown Englishman with a pale pink wife” . . . his assimilation and the arrival of “Anglicised kids” leads to relations with his widower father becoming increasingly fractious and distant.

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

The arrival of Mrs Pickering, a sixty-something widow, further exacerbates father-son tensions, and gets the neighbours of Ashcroft Avenue gossiping. The two form a deep and abiding relationship imbued with tenderness and understanding. But their oasis is under threat from outside forces, and Srinivas’s internally-suppressed past of anger and turmoil is a potential source of reawakened anguish.

When council flats are built in a bomb crater between houses and outsiders move in, racism rears its ugly head. The neighbour’s son returns from Australia: Fred Fletcher is angry and bitter, but instead of taking responsibility for his failure, he blames it on the arrival of “black hordes” and gets a reputation for being a “black basher”. He spends much of his time getting drunk in the pub, ranting about black and brown skinned people “getting above themselves” and spewing racist jibes that evoke Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Disillusion sets in. How could Srinivas leave? “He found he had no notion of where to go to in India, or what to do when he got there, since so much had been destroyed or given up – self-respect, livelihood, family cohesions – during the struggle for independence.”

The childish game Hangman, in which one player draws lines for each letter in an unknown word and the other has to guess, has sinister undertones when done by a graffiti artist. In the club for Asian businessmen where Srinivas sometimes goes, the talk is ominous. “‘Trouble is, Pop, you’ve been here too long, you don’t know what you’re up against,’ a young Sikh said.”

By the end of the novel, hostility flares into a conflagration of violence.

A brilliant and humane novel written with beauty and simplicity, The Nowhere Man is totally absorbing. Certain scenes stay with you permanently. It’s not just a book about disillusionment, racism and individual tragedies, but one that touches upon the moral and political struggles that underpin everyday life in Britain. Behaviours and beliefs that start at home can spin out of control, snowball and become a conquering flood impacting the neighbourhood and ultimately the world in which we live.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 367 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.