Academic | Essay Contest
Perhaps the most famous expression of the imperialist attitude was penned by Rudyard Kipling in 1899:
"Take up the White Man's burden Send forth the best ye breed Go send your sons to exile To serve your captives' need..."
Kipling's poem is emblematic of a certain civilized arrogance. According to this idea, civilized peoples are obligated to treat more primitive societies like children: to be educated, punished, reared, and guided as the situation demands. The character Kenny, from Kamala Markandaya's novel Nectar in a Sieve, exemplifies this attitude. Although his story takes place in India after the British have granted that country independence, Kenny regards much of Indian society as backward, something to be worked on and improved. At the same time, Kenny possesses a compassion and respect almost an envy for Indian life, and his work as a doctor is of great benefit to individual Indians. As a result, Kenny presents a complex problem for the reader: is he an arrogant imperialist, or a compassionate saver of lives?
Kenny is brusque and remote. In his first conversation with Rukmani, the Indian woman who narrates Nectar in a Sieve, he calls her an "ignorant fool." Throughout the story, Kenny remains aloof from Rukmani and her fellow Indians; he is isolated by education and cultural attitude, and he encourages his own isolation. At one point, he expresses contempt for the Indian worldview: "Acquiescent imbeciles...do you think spiritual grace comes from being in want, or from suffering?" (112) In another instance, Kenny criticizes Indian farming techniques: "I see you collect dung and take it with you. Is it not for the land?" (32) Kenny regards with a harsh eye all the superstitions and counterproductive customs of Indian culture. He is not cruel, however. He is merely arrogant; he believes that his notion of civilization is in many respects superior to that of India, and that India must be transformed to better fit the civilized mold. To that end, Kenny builds a Western-style hospital in the small town where Rukmani lives, and hires Rukmani's son, Selvam, as an assistant. These acts help make life easier and safer for Indians; at the same time, they represent a frontal assault on the traditional Indian way of life.
However, Kenny recognizes what he is doing to Indian society and even regrets it. "I have taken the last of [your sons]," he says to Rukmani with "pain on his face." (128) He is referring to Selvam. By taking on Selvam as an assistant, Kenny knows he has torn the boy from his family and his heritage. He sees the pathos in Selvam's extrication. By extension, he believes that there is something worthwhile in Indian culture if not poverty and submission, then at least a respect for the land and a philosophical national attitude. So Kenny is not a through-and-through imperialist. Indeed, he has spent so many years working in India that he wants to think of himself as a de facto Indian: "Sometimes I do not know which is my countryÉI had thought perhaps it was this." (107) Paradoxically, then, Kenny holds a quiet, and often concealed, love and respect for India at the same time as he works to irrevocably transform the place.
Kenny's personality is difficult to interpret, but his actions are not. His deeds stack up almost solely to the benefit of Indians. Kenny's list of deeds includes giving Rukmani and Ira their fertility, curing Puli's slow gangrene, tending to Nathan when the latter is old and weak, and building and funding a modern hospital in an Indian village. He does all this to his own detriment; Kenny's wife leaves him because he is always abroad. The magnitude of Kenny's self-sacrifice is staggering: he is willing to sacrifice his marriage and his home country for a wandering life in a country supine with poverty and tradition. Whether or not Kenny is imperialistic in his attitude towards India, his deeds outweigh his opinions.
The India of Nectar in a Sieve is a country in flux. Old ways are waning and a regional Industrial Revolution is swelling to take their place; factories are rising, and poor people are getting poorer. It is sad to see the old India on its deathbed. Kenny feels this, but he believes that the promise of development exceeds the nostalgia of tradition. He is a cultural imperialist, if a sorrowful one. Yet perhaps there is merit in imperialism, so far as Kenny is concerned. The age of industry has infected India like a disease, and India has a choice: to waste away in denial of that fact, or to work towards strengthening itself. Like the doctor he is, Kenny offers a cure for the first fevers of industrialization. He gives medicine, advice, employment, and guidance. His attitude may be condescending, and he may represent the "White Man's Burden," but India has no time to complain. Whatever Kenny's beliefs, his willingness to heal an ailing India justifies his contribution to the death of its traditions.