Tamarind Woman
Anita Rau Badami
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Tamarind Woman

Anita Rau Badami
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
272 pages
March 2002
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Anita Rau Badami’s Tamarind Woman, there are two autobiographical elements the author has borrowed from her own life – like the protagonist, she grew up in the railway colonies of India, and her father was a mechanical engineer. Using her memories as a base, Badami weaves an intricate, complex tale of a family.

Curled Up With a Good BookThere’s the father Vishwa, an old and tired man who is so attached to his job and away from home that he has been unable to forge a connection with his family. He is, Badami says,

a man who has no feelings to spare his wife. A dried out lemon peel whose energies have already been squeezed out caring for a sick mother, worrying about his sisters, inheriting his dead father’s unfinished duties. It ate up his youth.

His wife Saroja is nicknamed ‘Tamarind Woman’ (after a sour fruit which is used to make sour chutneys in India) because she has a sharp caustic tongue - which she constantly uses to lash out at everyone. That includes especially her husband, who deals with her loud, verbal rages by locking himself up in another room, while she continues to rant and rave until finally breaking down in loud sobs that often wake the two daughters up.

Through the eyes of innocent childhood, the older daughter and narrator, Kamini, blames her mother for being angry all the time and sympathizes with her father, who always gently loved his daughters and told them many, many stories. The younger daughter, a colorless, nondescript personality, simply accepts things for the way they are.

As an adult, Kamini understands that it must not have been an easy marriage or a happy life for her mother, because her father "left again and again and every time he came back, he needed to be readmitted into lives altered daily during his absence." And she realizes that because of the continuous relocating, Saroja could never having "lasting friendships" or be admitted into her husband’s "private world of journeys."

At the heart of the story is the relationship between Kamini and Saroja, daughter and mother, two strong women who love each deeply but always remain in conflict. Only when Kamini goes away to pursue a higher education in Calgary does she begin to comprehend why her mother had so relentlessly and mercilessly forced her to do well in academics – so that she could have the kind of choices that were denied to Saroja a generation ago.

Saroja’s dreams of becoming a doctor remain unfulfilled because of her orthodox and conservative family’s expectation that daughters must be married young. She comes across as completely frustrated at being cast in the traditional role as an Indian wife and mother who must always be the epitome of an ideal conservative wife: being at home, cooking, keeping house and raising children.

Badami also plays around with the generation gap that occurs when two conflicting cultures collide and traditional values clash with modernity. Saroja is certainly unique and she rebels plenty – she manages to persuade her parents to let her finish high school and has a brief flirtation with Anglo Indian car mechanic Paul da Costa while her husband is away.

Finally, she shocks her daughters by refusing to move in with them and opting for an unheard of and extremely unconventional choice of traveling all over India through train. She has nothing to stop her. Her husband dies and her daughters leave home: one marries and other pursues higher studies - choices they independently made. Saroja decides she wants to see the country on her terms, on her schedule, and through her conversations with the women traveling with her, we get a glimpse of who she really is.

Tamarind Woman was first published in 1996 worldwide (except in the US) as Tamarind Mem (as in memsahib, an Anglo-Indian word for "Mam"). Published in the US in the spring of 2002, it followed by a year the US publication of Badami's second novel, The Hero's Walk. Badami is a major voice in Indian literacy’s chorus and a force in Canadian literacy circles. With this book, she establishes herself as a distinctly original authoritative voice internationally.

Click here to read the curledup.com interview with Tamarind Woman author Anita Rau Badami

© 2002 by Sonia Chopra for Curled Up With a Good Book

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