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''She shaped Americans' perception of India''

By Mark Glassman

Kamala Markandaya, the novelist who helped forge the image of India for American readers in schools and book clubs from the 1950s through the 1970s, died on May 16 at her home in London. She was 79. The cause was kidney failure, said Kim Oliver, her daughter and only immediate survivor.

Markandaya is best known for her first book, Nectar in a Sieve, which introduced millions of readers to rural life in an industrialised India through the eyes of a peasant woman named Rukmani.

"Most Americans' perception of India came through Kamala Markandaya," said Charles Larson, chairman of the department of literature at American University in Washington.

Nectar in a Sieve was a best seller and the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in March 1955, earning Markandaya a $100,000 prize. She published nine other novels, including A Handful of Rice in 1966 and The Nowhere Man in 1972.

The dominant theme of Markandaya's work is the intersection of rural and urban life in India and the unrealised dreams of peasants seeking their fortunes in the factory.

Markandaya wrote under a pseudonym. She was born Kamala Purnaiya in 1924 in Mysore, in southern India. She studied history at the University of Madras and worked as a journalist. In 1948, she moved to London, where she met her husband, Bertrand Taylor, who died in 1986.

Markandaya wrote in London, but made frequent trips back to India.

Later in her career, she struggled to find a publisher as a cluster of new writers, including Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie, emerged in the 1980s and redefined Indian literature, pushing it toward a magical realism that captivated the American audience.

Referring to Mr. Rushdie's 1981 novel, Mr. Larson said, "Once Midnight's Children got out there, the more traditional realistic novel wasn't very popular anymore." — New York Times News Service

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