A Handful of Rice‘ is a Kamala Markandaya’s haunting novel about the plight of poor, wretched life. A novel about the struggle for survival, it was published in 1966.

The protagonist finds life a struggle everywhere. Everything he needs is a handful of rice, but the struggle to gain it is not less difficult for a poor. The protagonist was every poor in and around an Indian village at the time when the novel was written.

Kamala Markandaya was born Kamala Purnaiya Tailor in Mysore, India. Some of her other novels include Some Inner Fury, A Silence of Desire, Nectar in a Sieve,  The Nowhere Man, Two Virgins and The Golden Honeycomb.


The protagonist of the novel, Ravi, the son of a peasant, moves from a background plagued by poverty and hunger, to an urban materialistic milieu in the hope of a better survival.

In the city, he acquires the friendship of Kannan, a blacksmith. Though Ravi is a literate, he struggles very hard to find a job of his choice at all odd ends. His hopes of acquiring a decent job for his little education deteriorates. His struggle is to find a space where he can breathe freely and earn a livelihood. The pursuit of hunger and poverty continue even in the city.

Unable to bear dire poverty and when he is forced to search for a morsel of food at each and every step, he gets ready to acquire an unprotective life among criminals. Caught at the hands of destitution and mental instability, Ravi falls into a gang of hoodwinkers under Damodar, who live a life deceiving people. He involves in trades of underworld suchlike smuggling, gambling and deceiving. As an educated, Ravi degrades himself loosing his morale and conduct. Left with no food and boarding, he seeks for settlement in both of these. He strives but aimlessly in a dream that one day he would acquire the life he wants. None is to blame but the poverty and starvation makes him take part in all the evils of underworld.

A strong misdeed leads to an unanticipated acquaintance with Apu, a tailor, and joins as an apprentice under him. Eventhough the house is overcrowded, he finds boarding there somehow. A relationship develops between him and Nalini, Apu’s daughter, that cease to be a love between them. Ram, Ravi’s father, comes to his help to hold Nalini’s hand in marriage. At first Apu hesitates, but finally he agrees.

Ravi leads a satisfied life as the husband of Nalini. Thereby his conduct begins to refine little by little. The other members of the family are Jayamma – Apu’s wife, Thangam – Nalini’s sister, Puttana – Thangam’s husband. Puttana is a lazy who always wants to suck others’ perspiration. Nalini gives birth to a male baby and is named Raju. Burden increases on Ravi’s shoulder. He aspires to work hard more. Nalini again gives birth to twins, two females this time. Apu meets with an accident and passes away one day. The sudden demise of his father-in-law leads him to face the socio-economic pressure again as all the responsibilities come to weigh on his shoulders. One day Ravi beats up Nalini in a rage. When he comes back from work, Nalini is missing in the house. Jayamma doesn’t answer where Nalini is. He rapes her in anger and goes in search of Nalini.

Nalini is found at Puttana’s home. He brings her back home. To add to his pressure, his little son dies one day due to his negligence in calling the doctor on time. Owing to this, his wife begins to reject him silently. It is for his wife, Ravi has reformed his way of life. But her imminent rejection leads to frustration. This again makes Ravi revert into the evils of underworld. After more hesitations and dilemma, he reverts back to Damodar. But Damodar rejects him. Eventually he tries to loot a granary with the mob, but his conscience holds him back. The novel ends up here with Ravi still searching for a handful of rice which from the beginning remains unreachable.

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