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Fiction And Environmental movement

By K. Venugopal Reddy

19 October, 2006

India's environmental movement began indisputably in the early seventies. However, a critical understanding of the text 'Nectar in a Sieve' published in 1954 by Kamala Markandaya implies that it had its ideological moorings from the first decade of India's independence. Therefore the appearance and the reading of the text acquire crucial significance for understanding the ideological moorings of environmental movement in post-colonial India. If one may borrow the expression of Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, Kamala Markandaya's lament over destruction of landscape, her voice for preservation of nature may earn her the epithet 'Invisible environmentalist'.

Markandaya is skeptical of the advantages of the development of modern industry. The change it brings is rapid, violent and disorganizing. She believes that the change ushered in by the growth of industry marginalizes the subalterns by displacing them from their lands and ruining their very livelihoods. She is strongly convinced that growth of industry is not a signpost of everlasting happiness for majority of people eking out their livelihoods in the villages.

A critical interrogation of the fiction reveals the writer's implicit ideas on environmentalism. She expresses her views strongly against the industrialization and its harmful bearing on the
natural environment. She considers that the insensitive industrialization not only pollutes the natural landscape but also dislocates the lives of the people in the countryside. The novel is critically relevant and instructive in the context of the deliberate violence committed on the nature in the name of achieving rapid economic and social progress of human societies and the unremitting attempts to redesign the contours of natural environment displaying the insensitiveness of human nature. It is therefore a silent but sharp protest against the demoralizing impact of the industrialization and is quite edifying from the perspective of maintaining and preserving the harmony between the nature and human nature.

To Markandaya, nature is a vital sustaining force of human life. The survival of human life is considered unimaginable without it. It is perceived and constructed as being an integral part of the humans. It is depicted not only as a regenerative force but one with an infinite power of destruction. It is conceptualized as a trained 'wild animal', which, if not treated sensitively or disregarded, has the ability to be more destructive in its disposition. Untamed nature is represented to be treacherous and ruthless. 'Nature is like a wild animal that you have trained to work for you. So long as you are vigilant and walk with thought and care, so long will it give you its aid; but look away for an instant, be heedless or forgetful, and it has you by the throat.' She forcefully communicates her ideas on how man and the nature are interlocked in a symbiotic relationship. She demonstrates that the survival of humanity depends on the sensitive treatment of nature. Indeed, she expresses her concern for careful husbanding of resources. Any thoughtless approach or disregard to the dynamics of nature and its functioning, or any move to alter or redesign its contours would only lead to the consequences, which would be quite unimaginable to the human mind or which would put the survival of humanity in jeopardy. It is therefore important to preserve and protect it from rapacity of humans. So, the narrator forcefully articulates her concern for preservation of the nature's uniqueness and serenity.

The beginning of the industry meant invading the villages with clatter and din. She is sharply critical of the other consequences such as the industrial pollution and the disruption to the tranquility of the pastoral life and landscape. Markandaya exhibits intense awareness of the corrosive effects of the industrialization and urbanization on the natural environment and inestimable damage to the purity of nature. She conveys how the humans become insensitive to the aesthetics of nature. The adverse effects of the urbanization are seen in the growth of unhygienic conditions and the disoriented life of humans. The irrevocable outcome of this process in the towns is the loss of man's connection with the aesthetics of nature, the ultimate benefactor of humanity. This view is extraordinarily communicated by the novelist.

Markandaya voices her sharp protest against the demoralizing impact of the industrialization. Her representation of unhygienic conditions in the towns and her distaste for highly urbanized cities
conspicuously reflect her intense anguish at the catastrophic environmental impact of colonial and post-colonial industrialization. Her fictionalized narrative of the changing landscape on account of the growth of industry does indicate the emerging consciousness for the protection of the natural environment. Her narrative becomes particularly significant in the context of rising environmental awareness contemporaneously in different locations of the world.

The novel is therefore appealing to modern readers for its sensitive and moving portrayal of the human tragedy due to the obsession for human progress unmindful of the destruction of nature. Hence, what is striking is her respect for nature's inherent energy and a belief in pristine nature as a necessity for human life, a dismay at inroads (in the name of development) man has made against the land, a conviction that man must respect the nature's sacred energy and so must reverse the present trend toward progress at any cost, an unwavering passion for what is nature.

It may be apt to conclude here with an expression of the great leader of the Native American Suquamish Tribe, Chief Seattle who said to his white conquerors: "Teach your children what we have taught ours, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." Therefore, Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve can be considered a critical text in terms of present and future relations between human communities and the environment.


1. Kamala Markandaya, Nectar in Sieve, The John Day Company, New York, 1954.

2. Christopher Hitt, 'Toward an Ecological Sublime', New Literary History, 30.3 (1999)

3. James I. McClintock, 'Edward Abbey's "Antidotes to Despair",' Critique, Volume.31.1 (1989).

4. Valentine T. Bill, 'Nature in Chekhov's Fiction', Russian Review, Vol.33. No.2. (April, 1974).

5. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, The Use and Abuse of Nature: Incorporating This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, Ecology and Equity, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Oxford, 2000.

6. D. Balasubramanian, 'We borrow the earth from our children: Protection of the biosphere and biodiversity is relevant to all of humankind.' 7 September, 2006, The Hindu.


Dr. K. Venugopal Reddy
Reader, Department of History
Pondicherry University
Pondicherry - 605 014
Tel: 0413-2654538

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