Lakshmi, the fierce matriarch. Ayah, her good-for-nothing husband who worships his wife. A brood of six. The beautiful twins, Lakshmanan and Mohini. The spiritual Sevenese, the caring Anna, the ugly Jeyan, and the dark and quiet Lalita. These are some of the myriad characters whose stories make for the immensely complex and epic novel that is The Rice Mother.
The story begins with Lakshmi, a young Tamil girl in her teens born and raised in Ceylon, who is cajoled into marrying a man twice her age. Soon enough, Lakshmi realizes that her husband, Ayah, an expatriate Tamil living in Malaya, can hardly make ends meet. Homesick for her village and folks in Ceylon and unhappy with her situation, Lakshmi resolves to improve her lot. With sheer grit and hard work, she raises a family of six children, weaves dreams around them and puts in love’s labor to ensure a better life for her family. The narrative told from the point of view of the different characters - Lakshmi, Ayah, the children, their partners, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren - makes for a wonderful tapestry that looks at land and culture, tradition and modernity, and all the joys and sorrows and the tenderness that are ultimately universal in family stories spanning generations.
Lakshmi, of course never realizes her dreams of her children’s success. The capture and killing of the exquisitely beautiful Mohini by the occupying Japanese during the Second World War affects the whole family in a way from which they can never recover. Lakshmanan, trapped in terrible guilt, becomes a strange person. His mother, on the other hand, changes into an unrecognizable person: hardened, stronger, and very cruel. It is only after Dimple, a mirror image of the beautiful Mohini, is born to Lakshmanan and his wife Rani, that Lakshmi and Ayah’s world changes. Dimple, a girl with breathtaking beauty, takes an extraordinary interest in the family history and goes around recording the stories as told by each member of the extended family. She meets her tragic end, but these stories are eventually discovered by her daughter Nisha, who finally comes to term with the sorrowful legacy of her ancestors, a legacy of the tough life in a new land, of war and death, of unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams. Yet it is this legacy that enables Nisha to come to terms with her own depression and amnesia and understand her world.
As Dimple writes in her last letter to her husband Luke, imploring him to hand over her family’s story to Nisha when she reaches adulthood:
“Love comes and goes like the dye that colors a garment. I mistook love for the garment. Family is the garment. Let her wear her family with pride.”
The Rice Mother is a strong and powerful work that takes readers into the lives of people of diaspora in Malaya, their cultures, customs, religion, culinary delights, all interwoven with their lives and fate during the course of the last century. Filled with characters and events, Rani Manicka’s debut novel is indicative of the start of a successful writing career.