“A Strange Nature, Only Partly Within My Understanding”

International League for Peace and Freedom @ WILPF.org

One could probably argue that only during war does America experience “the other” in similar ways that third world countries experience the other as they are monopolized, corrupted, overtaken, and kneeling at the hands of their captors in order to face basic survival. Just after September 11th, America united over an idea that the Middle East was our fiercest “other” and all stops were taken to put an end to a distant fear, but a fear made of news stories that criminalized Islamic culture and taught the American people to have a hint of wonder (or something more powerful) if someone stepped on their plane in a hijab or a niqab.  In 1995, President Bill Clinton gave a speech about Racism in America. In it he discusses the rift between whites and blacks present well beyond the Civil Rights Movement, but in this case provoked by the wildly covered OJ Simpson trial.  He says that white people need to acknowledge and try to understand black pain and that black people need to be conscious of the roots of white fear.  In America, I have found that “the other” this person so unknown to us and we so ignorant of their ways is often our neighbor.  They may sit in the desk next to us at school.

A student told me just today that because her father was black that she was asked to move from a library table, the crowd of girls had just assumed from her skin tone that she was white and they could speak honestly about their built-up hatred.  This idea of “the other” never, and I say that word with all the force that could come behind it, creates unity, creates freedom, creates friendliness, or creates the power that comes from people understanding the diversity in the world’s backgrounds.  The only good “the other” creates is the acknowledgement that we are not all the same, but it lacks the depth enough to invoke a search for the stories behind these differences in order to find the truth – the similarities and an appreciation for a different side of humanity.

Books can change these engrained prejudices.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

One of these books is Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya.  Please, please, please trust me on this one and not the Goodreads reviews. Many people have said this is a story of “utter hopelessness” and another reviewer called it “grimsville.”  It is none of these things.  At the heart of the novel is a series of interwoven love stories; the love a mother has for a child, even a child marked with “the other,” the love a wife has for her husband (swoon) and the love a family of the land loves the land of rice patties and cow dung where they have built an honest home.  This is the story of colonization in India, but it isn’t a story of hatred towards “the other,” those whites building the tanneries, the hospitals, but instead a story of how welcoming the people of these villages are to the newness of industrialization and faces unlike their own.

Bad things do happen to this family and they are overcome with more than their fair share of suffering, but in this beautiful told tale, it’s almost more important that they suffer.  In the calm stillness I saw him open his eyes, his hand came to my face, tender and searching, wiping away the unruly tears (139).  The narrator of this novel is a woman who has left her family at a young age, a priced bride, and moved in with her husband Nathan, a home he has built by hand.  From that moment on, Nathan protects her from burden, rocks to sleep her worries, and stokes the deep threads of the rice field that he does not own like he is feeding a fire.  He is a man of his word, but that word doesn’t come often and their relationship is one of true compromise and compassion.  I am in love with their love.  During the in-between of night when it’s not yet morning, but too far from evening, I read some of the lines to my boyfriend because I couldn’t deal with that much beauty by myself.  It opens with this, sometimes at night I think that my husband is with me again, coming gently through the mists, and we are tranquil together.  Then morning comes, the wavering grey turns to gold, there is a stirring within me as the sleepers awake, and he softly departs (1).  The relationship is subtle as the flecks in a light beam.  One of my best friends talked about this kind of love when he was discussing his latest crush.

Rice Paddy, India @ Columbia.Edu

“They touched my face, with their palm. Touched my face.  Laid across from me and put that hand against my stubbled cheek and left it there.”  This small description of his experience is the thing I think of when I think of the relationship between Nathan and his wife.  They are the couple that lay on a mat and touch the burnt cheeks of one another without saying a word.  Rough hands, scarred hands, hands smelling of wet rice paddy, disturbed water, but hands gentle for the face, for the night.

The intruder in this novel is obviously “the other” of colonialism and industrialization which leads without a heart towards the people of this small country village.  They are not asked whether they can afford to buy the land, they are told to move from it for the new tannery.  They are not asked to fill jobs, as the brick layers have brought in their own men.  They are not told to fill positions at the hospital because at this time, the money is begged for.  This is a village that cannot compete with the prices of the newcomers and so they suffer through not paying their own because they can bargain better with the industry.

Indian labourers stitch buffalo leather at a tannery workshop in Kolkata. Piyal Adhikary / EPA @ TheNational.AE

It’s a sad revelation to know that you’re in a country that uses other countries for their goods and their people’s working spirits.  I actually avoid thinking about it because it upsets me so much to know that somewhere a woman is hammering stones in a rock quarry to feed her family dinner and I am sitting in my cozy bed typing a blog that will reach only those with internet connection.  I’m not sure how I can fix anything being capitalist and needy, and “the other,” that doesn’t understand, but has empathy that she can’t really use and so it’s stored up for the next heartbreak on the shoulders of someone she cares about.

Kenny is “the other” in this novel, but he blends beautifully with the people of the village. He tries so hard to help them in little ways and the wife of the novel is very dependent on his comings and goings as he helped her conceive early in her time in the village.  Kenny is light-hearted, but knows he will never be one of them as they know they could never let him mingle in their culture.  I nodded.  There was no sense in agreeing or disagreeing, the gulf between us was too wide; it was no use at all flinging our words at each other across that gaping chasm (68).  He is a likable character although he symbolizes so many terrifying things.  In America, I guess I can’t speak for all Americans, but for me, I’m not sure which is worse, the thought of people starving in villages owned by corrupt landowners, but this is the way they have lived for generations, or introducing a world of industrialization that doesn’t invite them in for generations, but possibly teaches them a new way of life.  It’s the first world, “civilization vs. savage,” as if if you don’t have a personal commode in your house than you aren’t a civilized people.  Not true, obviously, but are there first world dwellers who believe this is a savage way to live? Probably.

Human Rights @ Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

There are moments of ruthlessness in this novel that are hard to gulp down.  “Sometimes from sheer rebellion we ate grass, although it always resulted in stomach cramps and violent retching.  For hunger is a curious thing: at first it is with you all the time, waking and sleeping and in your dreams, and your belly cries out insistently, and there is a gnawing and a pain as if your very vitals were being devoured, and you must stop it at any cost…” (65).  I definitely had trouble reading moments of grief, starvation, and times they lacked basic necessities.  This is a book I needed to read though.  It taught me about my own bias.  It taught me how to teach my students about their own bias, unconscious or otherwise, and it introduced me to a new way of reading literature.  We always try to suspend our own judgmental natures when we read, but to really try to experience the world as someone not so ourselves,  if only to understand for a moment the life of someone who is not built on public school and colored eyeliner.

Catster_LetsTalk1_28Read any books that changed your perspective on the world lately? Teaching this to my 10th graders I’m going to also use excerpts from Teju Cole’s Everyday Is For The Thief as I think it represents the idea of “the other” in a new way.  Does anyone else have other recommendations that could go along with this book? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts. I also feel like this review might have offended some people, if you’re offended, I promise I didn’t mean to offend you.  I just speak how I feel and sometimes it doesn’t always come out with the right words.


10 thoughts on ““A Strange Nature, Only Partly Within My Understanding”

  1. Amy Sachs says:

    I think another really good glimpse of pre/post colonial life is The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. There are so many instances where the children from Kerala were taught things based on what their lighter skinned family members, or government did because they looked up to them as if they were better somehow. Also, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It paints the “other” incredibly well, and would relate really easily to 10th graders since Junior is about that age.

      • nmp3102 says:

        I read Absolutely True Diary for class for this same purpose and hated it. There seem to me to be so many better ways to approach it than through Junior. It seemed juvenile for me. I love several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, for example, instead, or even the religion but not racism bits in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Both of those were super impactful for me as a student reader, though Angela’s Ashes in particular.

        Hope this helps!

      • Cassie says:

        Did you hate it as a high school student or college? I’ve done excerpts from Absolutely True Diary for a different reasons and they went okay. I didn’t do enough of a true test though. I will definitely look into Angela’s Ashes. I think O’Connor is a little bit complicated for MY specific high school students, I might try it though, always worth trying! Thanks so much for recommendations.

      • nmp3102 says:

        I hated it as a high school student, as someone reading it for class this year in order to bring up race and class and problems that sometimes aren’t addressed. Maybe it’s the overall tone, or the cutesy pictures, or the font (and font size). Something about the book really bothered me. I can surely understand why O’Connor could be complicated – it was reading it in some ways this year too – I just think the themes are important overall.

      • Cassie says:

        I LOVE O’Connor, don’t get me wrong. She’s one of the best short story writers in my eyes. I love that you got such a varied reading experience though! I think Alexie is very much a young adult writer, very very, and he can make readers feel somehow … Younger… In a good and bad way. Younger isn’t the word I’m looking for, I like that you said cutesy. That’s very true I think. Thanks for the insight, dear. Awesome!!!!

  2. Brianna Soloski says:

    Have you read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe? I really need to re-read it, but it’s a beautiful story.


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