Poverty fiction | Kamala Markandaya
Recently, I was having an online exchange with someone who was facing terrible problems in dropping off to sleep, despite being completely exhausted. You know the feeling, right?
Anyway, she was tossing and turning, and trying everything. One of the things I suggested to her was to do something incredibly boring.
While in college, I used to pick up a book called Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It was a text, and one third of the exam would come from that horrible piece of bloat. I knew I had to read it, but could never actually manage it. So, if I couldn't sleep, I could at least get 10-20 pages closer to the end, right? It was totally foolproof--I'd fall asleep with the book in my hands within two pages.
I managed to pass my exam, and here's how: one, I maxed the other sections. All I had to do was pass this one, and that would tide me over. But, how to do it? The night before the exam, I sat on the edge of the bed, leaning way forward, so that if I started to fall asleep, I would start falling, and startle myself awake. Then I opened the book, and resolutely turned to page 35 (having managed somehow to crawl through those pages during the course of the year). Half an hour later, I woke up, perfectly balanced on the edge of the bed, after a most refreshing nap. I knew then that I was probably not destined to finish the book, but I carried it with me to college, desperate to read it through in the half hour before the exam started.
On the way, I met a classmate. She was dragging her feet along, looking completely dazed, as if her doctor had told her she had mere days to live. One look, and I knew, but I sidled up to her and sympathetically asked, "Read it?" She nodded, the nod of someone faced with having sold her soul to the Devil, and realising the Devil was standing there to collect. Craven bounder that I am, I asked her what the names of her children were, and how they died.
OK, context. The story is about a woman who gets married to a poor villager, has six kids, and all of them die in some perfectly futile way. For some reason, Delhi University felt that this celebration of abject poverty, written by a woman who'd never stepped out of London, was something worthwhile enough to inflict on all the first-year students. I hope whoever decided that had all their papers rejected, that their students pulled faces at them behind their backs, and in their next lives, they are doomed to be slushpile writers at a hole-in-the-ground publisher who would publish anything that was typewritten horizontally.
Anyhow, she gamely told me all the names, and a couple of lines each about the miserable deaths of those sodden wretches. A load lifted from my mind! With a song in my heart, I went into the exam. Sure enough, there was one question which could be answered by making up stupid sentences exalting the putrid deaths of those half-baked 2D characters.
I never did read the whole of that thing, and so I'm still sane.
PS: I looked for a book cover image to add, but couldn't find one I recognised from all those years ago. Good enough. My memory has evidently cleansed itself thoroughly of that book. All it remembers so fondly is that it was a foolproof cure for insomnia.