Kamala Markandaya’s writings have always intrigued me largely because of the times she lived in and the socio-cultural themes they therefore brought out. In this book, for instance, there were at least two themes I could make out.
The first is obvious enough, and also stems from the title – a battle between the spiritual and the material. The story begins with Anasuya, a writer, becoming the inadvertent connector of two lives – Caroline Bell, a rich, divorced, beautiful English lady with an iron will, and Valmiki, a poor peasant boy who is also a gifted artist. Valmiki’s parents have a very dim view of him, and the only person who sees his talent is Swamy, an ascetic who lives a solitary life in the hills near Valmiki’s village. Valmiki is swept away by Caroline to London, where she introduces him to her society and culture and tries to help him develop his talent. But it isn’t all altruistic – even as Val’s talent ensures his popularity, Caroline extends their relationship and ensures that he feels beholden to her. She goes to every extent to destroy any competition that arises, and succeeds. In a sense, it is difficult to say who possesses and who is possessed. Swamy’s mostly invisible hand brings out the battle between spirituality and material success.
I also thought there was a subtle India – British theme at play, specially because the book is also set around the time of independence. Again, the possession thought can be applied to the relationship between the two nations as well.
I found it a reasonably good study of human motivations and relationships, and if one considers the era in which it was written, a book arguably ahead of its time.
(This story vaguely reminded me of Daniel Keyes’s science fiction short story “Flowers for Algernon”)