The Toss of a Lemon - Padma Viswanathan
To begin with, it was the bright yellow lemon on the cover that drew me to the book. At the start of the new year (2017) I thought I would begin my reading journey with a book I had never heard of, by an author never read earlier. It turned out to be an interesting find.
Admittedly the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t drawn into the story, but it gradually drew me in. This hefty epic novel (over 600 pages) is about a Brahmin Indian family, spanning three generations -beginning in 1896. The author's idea for the book was based on stories told to her by her grandmother over the years, but it is fictional and only loosely based on the stories of her ancestors.
It was fascinating to read about a world very different and unfamiliar to me. The rituals, routines and puritanical customs of a Brahmin family are handled with a well-crafted elegance. Enveloping three generations, the author handles the complexities that arises from social, cultural, religious and personal politics that engulf their individual lives.
This novel begins when the family of a ten year old girl journeys to consult a renowned Brahmin who is a healer and astrologer about finding a good husband for their daughter. The handsome, young sage falls in love with her instantly and offers to marry her himself. Though there is a possibility that he may die in the ninth year of their marriage, the family is pleased with such an auspicious match and gets their daughter married to him. Ten-year old Sivakami, is married off, she becomes a widow at age eighteen, and is left alone with two young children.Thus begins Sivakami's fate as a woman, mother, widow, auntie, grandmother and so on.
As a Brahmin widow there are many traditional rituals and customs that had to be strictly adhered to. For instance, a Brahmin widow has to shave her head, wear no jewellery, wears only white, doesn’t eat with others, shouldn’t “contaminate” others by touching them and so on. Despite all these restrictions, Sivakami defies tradition and very determinedly brings up her two children – Thangam and Vairum (their names literally means ‘gold’ and ‘silver’) by continuing to live in her husband’s house and overseeing the property left behind by him. She is helped in all her work by Muchami (he is a closeted gay), who was chosen with a certain foresight by her deceased husband to be a loyal and faithful aide in everything she would have to do in his absence.
This book does a wonderful job in bringing a clear historical sense of India's caste system and its slow, partial demise with the growth of Sivakami’s family. Both her children get married later on. Thangam, delivers a brood of children while Vairum remains childless. The inefficiency of Thangam’s husband to cater to the needs of his ever growing family causes Sivakami to look after some the kids herself. (P.S. I had to keep noting down the family tree in order to keep track of all the names.)
Different roles, both traditional and modern are represented, yet they never seem to stagnate and instead are brought to life through unexpected relationships and intriguing character depth. The slow and lingering depiction of change within Indian tradition is a delight to witness, as it unfolds in what seemed to me a very natural and gradual way.
A lot of care has gone into writing this novel and would be a good recommendation for a patient reader, and one who would like to be immersed in the life of a Brahmin family as it passes through a turbulent history – both within walls of the community and in a nation that would soon become independent.