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Humanistic Concerns in Kamala Markandaya’s A Handful of Rice


Humanistic Concerns in Kamala Markandaya’s A Handful of Rice


Dr. Monika Malhotra

Associate Prof. in English

Govt. SPMR College of Commerce

Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir, India


This paper examines Kamala Markandaya’s perception that life is to be lived within the bounds of moral values and societal fabric. The paper is about the struggle to survive, a struggle that usually overpowers the poverty stricken masses of India. The protagonist Ravi, a rural peasant moves to the city to escape the vicious cycle of starvation in his village. His tryst with conscience echoes his roots still delved in Indian values and the final choice made by him to choose not to rob is the expression of humanism at his best. The main character walks a tightrope between individual rebellion and acceptance of social expectations .  In the modern era of individualism and rationality, one is always pitted against the traditional ethical ethos. There is always a struggle going on in the mind of the individual between just and unjust or between moral and immoral. The character in the novel struggles, suffers, grows and matures to own his responsibility and in the end chooses values affirming faith in life .The final triumph of moral and social responsibility over the selfish interests is the real focus of the paper.

Key words: Humanism, Rationalism, Responsibility, Morality, Values                                       

Kamala Markandaya’s novel A Handful of Rice (1966) explores the dilemma of common everyman. It is about the struggle to survive, a struggle that usually overpowers the poverty stricken masses of India .In the novel, the protagonist walks a tightrope between the sense of right and wrong and finally his tryst ending in choosing values is the real humanistic concern in this paper. Ravi Shanker, the protagonist’s dilemma is the dilemma of two values – the ethical ideals and new pragmatic rational approach .The novel is truly his journey from sub human world of crime to the world of conscience and ethical values as propounded by Herrick in his book Humanism, ‘it (humanism) brings values and meaning into life’ (1).

As the title indicates the novel is about want, hunger and poverty but this theme takes a different direction as it depicts the discontentment and frustration of the hero. The novel begins and ends with his struggle for food and represents the same themes as in the novels So Many Hungers and He Who Rides a Tiger by the novelist Bhabani Bhattacharaya. In 1950’s, the mass exodus from the villages to the cities and with that the need for handful of rice changed the face of villages. Ravi, son of poor farmer in the village leaves the life of penury in a hope of better living in Madras. As he has meager education he can neither pick up the work which he can do with his hands nor can become a clerk.  The transition coming in the country after independence and the problem of exodus in search of employment in the town by the youth from rural to urban are the humanistic concerns which are   described by the novelist as

And yet, somewhere a leaven must have been at work, a restlessness, a discontent in the towns whose spores had spread even as far as the villages so that suddenly it was not good enough and first one home and then another began to lose its sons, young men like him who felt obscurely than it was not right for them and this with conviction – that it would be utterly wrong for their children. (12)

In Humanist Manifesto 2000, Paul Kurtz too enumerates the problem of unemployment as “Many governments of the world are facing severe economic problems as cities overflow with immigrants from the countryside; vast numbers of them are unemployed and barely able to subsist.”(18)The villagers in the years after independence under the impact of industrialization took bold steps to migrate from their home lands for the fulfillment of their dreams as they found villages full of poverty.  The miserable condition of the villages is described in the novel as

had all lived between bouts of genteel and acute poverty … the kind in which the weakest went to the wall, the old ones and the babies, dying of tuberculosis, dysentery, the falling fever ‘recurrent fever’ and any other names for what was basically, simply, nothing but starvation. (12)

The youth who come for better living and  in search of identity feel that it is lost forever in the impersonal and cruel atmosphere of the cities. They realize that the life in the urban areas is very harsh, cruel, callous and unimaginative. Ravi too becomes some of the several thousands who throng to the cities for the foothold in a life but get disillusioned. The cities too like the villages have nothing to offer poor people like Ravi

He had left his family, a long time ago-three years was it ?-as his brothers had done, as all the young men he knew had done or wanted to do, joining the exodus to the cities because their village had nothing to offer them. The cities had nothing either, although they did not discover this until they arrived: but it held out before them like an incandescent carrot the hope that one day, some day, there would be something (25-26).

            The novelist’s humanistic concern is to bring fore that there are deaths in villages due to starvation, lack of medical facilities. In his endeavour to put an end to his hunger and to procure a handful of rice, he plunges deep into the tumultuous world of urban life but he soon gets trapped into the criminal world

            a world shot with glitter and excitement: a world that revived the incandescent glow the city had once kindled; and suddenly the terror and the loneliness were gone, lifted from the load whose other components were hunger, the lassitude of hunger, and the terror of losing his identity in an indifferent city which was akin to death. Of course much of this world, this dazzling world, lay in the future: but every kind of fear and privation became bearable in the light of its bright promise. (27)


He drowns his values and gets carried away by the world of smugglers, bootleggers and black marketeers. Though he joins the gang of hooligans and criminals yet on seeing Nalini he feels a desire to have his own house.

If I had a wife, he thought as he ate, she would cook for me, it would be like this every day….but what had he to offer to get himself a wife?.....I’ll buy her a little house, small but nice, he thought as he finished, and some nice new shiny aluminium cooking vessels, these brass things are too heavy, old-fashioned….and with a job one can save say a quarter of one’s wage (11)

His desire to live a respectable life and have family is a step towards leading a moral life. Commenting on morality, Jim Herrick in his book Humanism says, “morality arises because humans are essentially social animals… The social nature of humans creates the need for morality, not from a god but from the nature of human self-responsibility and social inter-relations.”(21) Ravi at this point chooses values and the life of domesticity to material affluence. Meera Panigrahi in Humanism and Culture observes that in humanism, “the emphasis is not upon the materials that bring order, comfort, freedom, wealth and general well-being, but upon human values that guide his course in life” (21).

Ravi’s coming to Apu’s home to steal but his staying there as assistant, marrying the daughter of the house and on the death of the householder to become indispensable master is similar to Malamud’s The Assistant. Every time he chooses to be honest, he is tempted towards his world of easy money. This way he clings not only to his ‘precious little’ but also to his moral commitment to his values though tempted time to time. First time when Jayamma gives him five rupees for the repair of window bars and when it costs nothing since Kannan his friend repaired them free. He resists and returns the money to Jayamma

By the time he reached the blacksmith the money had begun to burn a hole in his pocket. There was a lot he could buy for five rupees, the things that he needed over and above basic props like food which was all that his earnings ever ran to before his energies expired.(20)  

This turn in life proves that the rebel in him is not so much against the values. The sense of sacrifice for Nalini is reflected as, “She was worth it, worth anything, even worth giving up the sweet life for. He put it all on her, forgetting the trinity of hunger, drink and misery that had been intermittent companion to his sweet life”. (40) Once he enters the world of morality, he plunges deep and deep into it but he soon finds that the economics of urban life remains beyond his understanding. The increasing number of family members in a large family disturbs Apu’s economics. Moreover with the coming of new technology and the growth of the textile mills, the machine production starts posing threat to the tailoring business of the skilled workers like Apu. Ravi’s rationalism makes him agitated at this exploitation but Apu tells him the law of ‘the survival of the fittest’. Ravi as a young rebel finds it difficult to reconcile with this disproportion and injustice. He wishes to get all the comforts but is helpless because of limited earning

Ravi would have liked this steady wage to be higher. He wanted to buy a bed, a nice new sari for Nalini, material for some smart new shirts for himself, a safety razor, a mouth organ(all the old gang had had either mouth organs or flutes), and sundry other essentials and luxuries the list of which grew daily long. The longing for them grew too: and from constant denial affected him like a deficiency disease.(67)

 He develops an urge to fulfill his responsibilities towards wife and children he wants to rebel but cannot. Again he gets torn between freedom and social responsibilities. His respectability to hold on the values makes him a social victim

But what could he do within the narrow frame of respectability he had slung round his neck like a penance? Rebel and a contract might be lost, the steady wage would come to an end and then what of Nalini? He had to think of her, he had to think of himself for that matter. There seemed to be no answer. (70)

Torn between his commitment to his family as its financial provider and the corrupting socio-economic system, the city grins toothlessly on him and rebooks his conscience .Ravi’s rationalism makes him aware of the reality of the hardships of the jungle and to add to his miseries, Apu’s illness and sudden death puts entire burden of the family on him.. His sources dwindled and the graph of his good work which at one time held his esteem high starts falling.  He loses his job in the hospital and to add to this further hike in the prices of essential commodities makes the condition worse. The back-log of debts and arrears grow heavier day by day and now he wants to be a free man. His wobbling and wavering between right and wrong, between just and unjust is depicted in the novel as

If thinking of Damodar roused a sour and self-critical fretfulness, Nalini invariably restored his peace. She was so affectionate, so gay, with her soft tender ways that were like a caress, that when she was near he could even feel a little sorry for Damodar, who had no wife, who could not know what it was like to have someone like Nalini by his side. Sometimes it baffled him, this curious shift in the emphasis on what was and what was not important to him, making him wonder who and what he really was under all those feelings and counter feelings.(118)

Ravi with Damodar forgets all his miseries for shorter period, “the struggle was over”, he thought, “help was at hand, soon he too would be sipping the sweet carefree life” (216). He wants to join him but his dilemma to switch to immoral life as compared to moral one is portrayed by novelist as:

What held him back? Had respectability entered his soul, smirched it with the shoddy morality of a hypocritical society? Slough it off, join hands with Damodar. But they were dirty hands, hands that grew rich by squeezing, people’s throats. People like him. People like his wife. (217)

Prompted by his conscience, he again rejects Damodar’s proposition. Commenting on Ravi’s plight caught in old traditions and new glitter of the modern city, Srinivas Iyengar observes:

Caught between the pull of the old tradition that all but strangles him and the pull of the new immorality that attracts as well as frightens him, Ravi lurches now this side now the other side and has the worst of both. (446)

Tortured by his dilemma of conscience, he resorts to violence; he starts suspecting the chastity of Nalini and turns into a wife-beater. It is very pathetic when he loses his son Raju. Raju on the verge of the death asks him question, “Do you still like me? … why do you like me?” (229)He is thinking of providing comforts to his children and Nalini but in his endeavour to achieve this, his son in lack of proper treatment and proper food. His son’s death is pathetically described as

Terror was beating at Ravi, paralyzing wings, but he fought it off and gathered his child to him and held him tightly, feeling the kicking muscles and nerves as if they were joined to his own tortured body, not putting him down until that ceased.(229-30)

Ravi turns speechless when he dies as he feels that it is not he but the society in which he lives is responsible for the death of his beloved son. Tortured by abject penury, Nalini quietly leaves her husband after her son’s death and goes to her sister’s place. Ravi realizes that this society is so inconsiderate that honesty pays nothing. He develops hatred against society represented by the European memsahibs, the policemen and the rich. “Did I-? Was it my-? and her silence. And saying to her, with a queer obstinate clarity: I don’t blame myself for not getting the doctor. I blame them. Them. Society. Guilty of casual murder” (231).Though the death of his son completely shatters him but he does not lose hope and takes life as a challenge.  Ravi leaves no stone unturned to make his both ends meet but in this world of transition, he lags behind. All his efforts to make his life comfortable shatter  like the card’s house.

Betrayed by society, he again wants to go to Damodar to fulfill his unfulfilled desires. This time Damodar rejects him and mocks at him saying, “You’re empty. No heart, no spleen, no lights, no guts. Something’s been at them’. He began to laugh, a high sharp ugly laughter. ‘What was it, termites?’” (232). Poverty and frustration again make him rebel and he now joins a hunger march. The voices coming from the crowd “Rice today, rice. Rice today, rice!”(233) make him conscious of the purpose of the march. Now, rice is that all matters for him “a handful of rice becomes a minuscular concrete symbol of his dream that draws him with a surging crowd to the rice godown” (Dhawan106). He pulls out the gunny bags of rice from the store Eve where he and Apu once worked and were exploited. His conscience is once again jolted by Kannan, the blacksmith who reminds him of the crime he is going to commit, “Ravi, keep out!’ Kannan cried again, ‘The rice is for all, this way is wrong, this way the innocent suffer!’”(235) His existential urge makes him think that it is his right to get whatever he desires. He thinks of throwing a stone at the store “but suddenly he could not. The strength that had inflamed him, the strength of a suppressed, laminated anger, ebbed as quickly as it has risen. His hand dropped”(237).

Conscience again forbids him to do so. Ironically, his start turns out to be his end. Throughout the novel, he is moving between values or no values. Jim Herrick too believes that “Moral instinct and moral values in society are very important” (2).  Markandaya’s prime humanistic concern is to preserve the native good values. Though she is influenced by the western culture still she believes that one must preserve one’s values.. Thus, Markandaya in the climax of the novel proves that moral values finally call forth the best in Ravi’s mind though temporarily he turns towards other dehumanizing traits but he chooses the values he inherited. The crisis of conscience and values is related to the question of human survival but the novelist seems to be in favour of preserving one’s values and what is good for the whole community. Bhabani Bhattacharya in his novel So Many Hungers in fig gathering episode too shows reserve of compassion inherent in human soul when the character in the novel Onu shares half of his figs. Markandaya too proves that the poor people preserve the sense of moral values even in the face of hunger whereas hunger dehumanizes the rich who exploit the poor. That is why Ravi prefers to starve saying “I don’t feel in the mood today’ (237) rather than to submit to an ignoble ignominious way of life. The depiction of the crisis of values and conscience shows Markandaya’s sympathy for those who are poor and suffer but still who preserve moral decency and responsibility.

The novel is circular in structure. It begins with Ravi’s quest for food and shelter and ends with his struggle for a handful of rice. The novel starts and ends with violence but violence is defeated in both the cases initially by the world outside Ravi and later by his own moral sense. He could have joined Damodar to improve his economic conditions by going against his values but every time he is defeated by his conscience. A realistic picture of hundreds of hungry poor youth is portrayed by the novelist who faces such dilemmas in the post independent India struggling to get economic stability. The novel is the journey of the character Ravi towards understanding of his own self. In the beginning he was not sure where he stands but later he moves from irresponsibility to responsibility proving that each individual has a large capacity for personal growth.

In the climax of the novel, Markandaya takes her protagonist to the highest point. It is at this time he has to choose between his conscience or the immorality proving that the poor people can suffer but still at the moment of trial preserve their values. This proves novelist’s faith that the have nots are the real haves. The richness of their human spirit truly dazzles us and her real aim in the novel is to value morality more than money, values than individualism, society than self.

 Works Cited

Almeida, Rochelle.  Originality and Imitation: Indianess in the Novels of Markandaya. Rawat Pub., 2000.

Anand, T.S. Humanism in Indian English Fiction. Creative Books. Pub., 2005.

Bande, Usha. Kamala Markandaya: Sahitya Akademi, 2011.

Bhatnagar, Anil Kumar. Kamala Markandaya: A Thematic Study. Sarup & Sons, 2010.

Davies, Tony. Humanism. 2nd Ed. Routledge, 1997.

Herrick, Jim. Humanism:  An  Introduction. Prometheus  Books  Pub.,  2005.

Jain, Jasbir. The Novels of Kamala Markandaya: Indian Literature. 18, No.2, 1975.

Joseph, Margaret P. Kamala Markandaya. Published by Gulab Vazirani for Arnold Heinemann Pub., 1980.

Kurtz Paul, Humanist Manifesto 2000, Prometheus Books, 2000.

Markandaya, Kamala. A Handful of Rice. Orient Paper Backs, 1985.