The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya

My thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in this blog tour. The decision to take part was my own, and my review is my honest opinion.


Clinton, founder and head of a firm of international engineers, arrives in India to build a dam, bringing with him his young wife, Helen, and a strong team of aides and skilled men. They are faced
with a formidable challenge, which involves working in daunting mountain and jungle terrain, within a time schedule dictated by the extreme tropical weather. Setbacks occur which bring into focus fundamental differences in the attitudes to life and death of the British bosses and the Indian workers. A timely reminder of the British contempt for Indian lives and for nature.


The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya sent me back in time, reminiscing to a time when I was working through a long reading list of colonial texts for my English Literature degree. This, by rights should have been one of those texts, particularly as it comes from a different viewpoint – that of a female, Indian author.

Set in India on the construction site of a new dam, headed up by Clinton. Accompanied by his younger wife, Helen the plot follows the couple and those working on the site, and living in the surrounding areas as they struggle to battle nature and stringent deadlines.

One of the things that I noticed the most about this novel was the incredibly strong sense of place. It’s all encompassing. The sights and smells of India in it’s natural state vs. the ever more chaotic construction site is incredibly well written. There’s a sense of pride which emanates through the authors words, as well as a sense of sadness for all that has been, and will be lost.

The treatment of the Indian workers is an uncomfortable read. Most of the British consider them unskilled and dispensable and their general air of superiority, their outright arrogance and their absolute belief in them being right in every aspect – even when it boils down to the natural forces of a country that is not their own, they still prefer their staid statistics to the voices of experience they are living amongst. I found myself considering why it is that I found it so uncomfortable to read – and found myself returning to the recent past, when it became clear that racism is still prevalent. It’s incredibly sad to think that even today, at a time when we as country claim to be so modern and diverse, there is a lurking undercurrent of exactly the same attitude wrote about a lifetime ago.

Displacement is a key theme throughout. The tribal people who are forced from their homes, the natural state of things being forced to change by the hand of man, but also there is a sense that that British rule is no longer as absolute, and there is a sense of shame and regret beginning to form in some characters. The bridge between the British and the Indian people is Helen, Clinton’s wife. The state of their marriage mirrors events in the novel, and it is clear that she, a woman who is judged for not much more than her physical appearance, has far more to offer the new, developing world that the novel promises, than her controlling, deadline and fact oriented husband.

It’s an interesting read, but not an easy one. I wasn’t a huge fan of the narrative style which was told in the third person – not normally an issue – but it jumps to so many different points of view that at times I was forced to retrace my reading to figure out whose eyes I was looking through. The sheer number of characters is quite overwhelming, despite the short length of the novel. That being said, it was a compelling read, and one which I absolutely think should be included on reading lists, for as well as speaking of the past, the themes are still so relevant today, and the author wrote with such authority that it really deserves attention.

Image of the front cover of The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya. The image shows the title in white text at the top half of the cover, with the bottom half against at orange background, featuring an imposing black shape, behind a white figure of a man with white palm trees to the right and left-centre, with two black figures stood aside to the far left.

About the Author

Kamala Markandaya (1924 – 2004) was born in Mysore, India. She studied history at Madras University and later worked for a small progressive magazine before moving to London in 1948 in pursuit of a career in journalism. There she began writing her novels; Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel published in 1954, was an international bestseller. Reviewing the republication of The Nowhere Man in 2019, Booker prize-winner Bernadine Evaristo wrote; ‘For the last 20 years
of her life, Kamala Markandaya couldn’t get published and went out of print. Generations of readers lost out in reading this gem. Now I hope it will find its place in literary history.’

Image of the author of The Coffer Dams, Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004)

2 thoughts on “The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya

  1. Racism is still prevalent everywhere. I have seen it recently on Facebook had to shut down my account. No idea why color of skin and different culture matters so much to different people. I had a publisher tell me they rejected me as I come from a country whose national language is not English and apparently, I would be pathetic in English in my reviews. That’s the honest truth. I was disgusted by their ways but preserved the email. Maybe I should just post it on social media..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s terrible! I will never understand how a person can ever think that another person is less than them, simply because of where they come from/the colour of their skin. I’ve been disgusted by the attitudes I’ve witnessed, and I agree, FB has revealed the ugly nature of an awful lot of people. This novel perfectly encapsulated an attitude that should have died a long time ago, that it hasn’t is the real tragedy of our time x


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