The Golden Honeycomb

by Kamala Markandaya
Crowell, $10.00
In turn-of-the-century India, Bawajiraj III, Maharajah of Devapur, rules his domain with benign shortsightedness, unaware that the reverence of his people is flagging with their patience. He is assisted, if not eclipsed, by Sir Arthur Copeland, the British Resident, and Tirumal Rao, chief minister of the state. This doughty triumvirate views the coming of age of Rabindranath, the maharajah’s only son, with varying measures of love, respect, and suspicion. “Rabi” is symbolic of the new order; his elders of the old. By the time they are ready to entrust him with his inheritance, it has been reduced by his questioning, humanitarian conscience to “a fragile golden honeycomb.”
The author of Nectar in a Sieve has set her ninth novel in the declining years of the Raj, before Gandhi’s influence pushed India irretrievably toward independence. With language as ornate, detailed, and slow-moving as the court life she describes, Markandaya weaves a rich tapestry in which subtle shifts of power and the nurture of illusions are the primary pursuits. Her characters are essentially from stock; overt action is minimal; dialogue, when it comes, can be intrusive, teetering on the brink of modern idiom. The art of the book lies in the author’s command of the sometimes humorous, sometimes threatening nuances in formalized relationships, and in her considerable gift for irony, which is relentlessly plied.
Indian and Englishman both are treated with a compound of charity and scorn; they are rendered almost quaint by historical distance and by Markandaya’s aloof yet precise depiction of them. One can’t help wondering how much her barbs would sharpen if they were turned against the monumental irony of India’s present administration.