Now Kamini is grown, living in Canada in a sort of self-imposed exile from her eccentric family and all the turmoil they represent. After her father’s death, her mother embarks upon a solo journey across India by train— because what is the use of a lifetime railway pass if she doesn’t use it? The trip brings the past rushing back for Saroja and Kamini—as both are forced to confront their dreams, disappointments, and long-guarded secrets.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.66(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I called my mother every Sunday from the silence of my basement apartment, reluctant to tell her how I yearned to get away from this freezing cold city where even the traffic sounds were muffled by the snow.
"Well, who asked you to go?" Ma would have demanded. "Did somebody tie your hands behind your back and say 'Go-go to that Calgary North Pole place'?"
So instead I said, "Ma, there are mountains in the distance, all covered with snow. I can see them gleaming like silver cones in the sunlight when I go outside my apartment."
"You sound like a travel brochure," said Ma. "I hope you wear that sweater your Aunty Lalli knit for you, you catch cold so easily."
"These mountains are almost as tall as the Eastern Ghats. Do you remember that trip with Dadda in his inspection saloon?"
"The Western Ghats."
"We never went up the Western Ghats, Ma. You are talking about the Eastern Ghats."
"Don't tell me what I am talking about," snapped Ma. "We went up Bhore Ghat and you started crying when the engine had to reverse downhill because you thought we were going to crash off the cliffs. Roopa had an asthmatic attack--your father left us nothing but a legacy of sickness--and that foolish office peon we had then, what was his name?"
"Bhurey Lal," I said. "But Ma, that was not on Bhore Ghat. You are inventing your memories."
"Yes, Bhurey Lal, he was loyal though, do you remember, he stayed up all night leaning against the fridge door because every time the train jerked the door flew open and all the food fell out? Do you remember now?"
"Ma, I remember perfectly, but it was on the Araku Valley section. Where we stopped in the middle of the Dandakaranya forest and Dadda told us that this was the same forest in the Ramayana where Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. And we got fresh honey from the tribals in the forest."
"Kamini, what tribals? You are making up stories."
"Why do you always believe that I am making up stories? I don't, I never have."
"There you go again," said Ma, triumphant. "What did I tell you? Hanh?"
I sighed and changed the subject. Ma still wanted to win every argument, she would never-ever change.
The year that I turned six, I began to sense a strange movement deep inside Ma's body, a pulsing beneath the skin. Yes, certainly there was a difference. I, who was so sensitive to every nuance in my mother, could feel it every time I climbed into her lap. Ma sat motionless in the verandah, and her hands, normally busy with knitting or hemming, darning or cutting, lay quiet on the folds of her sari. She barely spoke, and I felt that if I had missed my mother before, when she disappeared into one of her moody silences, now I had lost her completely.
She wouldn't allow me on her lap, pushed me gently away, pleading in a distant voice,
"Baby, I am tired, go and play."
I was suffused with a helpless jealousy against this thing that had stolen Ma. Not even my father's hug, his stories about the man-eater of Kantabhanji, the elephant who fell in love with a steam engine, the beehives hanging like upside-down palaces beneath a forest bridge, none of these stories diminished my hurt.
"Noni," said Dadda, "come, I will tell you about the Lakshman-jhoola bridge. That bridge is hundreds of years old, it is said, made of rope and wood and prayers. It swings thin as a dream over the River Ganga thundering down a rocky gorge, and on the underside of the bridge is a city of bees. You can hear their buzzing over the sound of rushing water, and you have to walk across the Lakshman-jhoola without shaking it even a bit, for then the queen bee wakes up from her sleep and sends her armies after you. Noni, are you listening?"
I closed my ears to my father's tale and asked instead, "Dadda, why is Ma so quiet?"
Perhaps I would run away, then Ma would rise from her silence and wail after me, "My darling, come back." I packed my Meenu doll, a toothbrush and the chocolate bar Dadda had bought from Billimoria Uncle's petrol bunk.
"Where are you going, my kishmish?" asked Linda Ayah absently.
Even Linda had no time for me, so busy was she fussing over Ma, who was now beginning to look like a taut and lustrous mango.
"Nowhere," I said, shifting my bag to the other hand.
Linda Ayah looked up sharply. "Uh-huh, what mischief are you up to, monkey-child?" she asked.
I burst into tears and immediately Linda Ayah became all attentive and sweet. "My kanmani, my baby, Linda will hoof-hoof everything away," she said, wiping my face with the end of her sari, stroking my hair. "Now what is happening, tell me?"
It all tumbled out. Ma had gone away somewhere, only a ghost lived in her body. When Dadda went out of town on line duty I was allowed to sleep in Ma's room, and when I woke in the night for water or pee-pee, she was not there. The verandah door was open, and when I thought I was going to dry up from thirst, the ghost wandered in pretending to be my mother.
"You dream too much," said Linda Ayah, her veined arms tight about my body. "Your Ma is not a ghost. She loves you still but you are too heavy for her. She has a baby inside her tummy now, my sugar bit."
I had three months to get used to the idea of having another child in the house.
When it came time for the baby to be born, Ma went back to her mother's home in Mandya. My grandmother's house was full of people, some of whom lived there and others who visited for a couple of days, caught up on all the family gossip and left. I liked the house, for unlike the Railway colony house we lived in, there seemed to be no secrets lurking in the corners of rooms, and best of all, none of the ghosts and goblins about which Linda Ayah told me. Ma was a different person here, giggling with her sisters, allowing her aunts and cousins to pamper her. I wished we could live in that house forever.
When my sister was born, all the relatives were surprised at how dark she was.
"Where did this one come from?" remarked Chinna, Ma's widowed aunt, who was a permanent member of my grandmother's household. She cupped the baby's head with one gnarled hand and cradled its tiny bottom with the other.
"No one in our family is as black as this child. Must be from your husband's side," said Ajji, my grandmother. "She looks like a sweeper-caste child."
How cruel Ajji was, I thought. I glanced at Ma, lying in bed refusing to comment, watching dreamily as the baby was oiled and massaged, bathed and rocked to sleep by Chinna or Ajji. She took my sister from them only to feed her, allowing me to watch the infant suck and snort at the plump nipple. She let me touch the baby's cheek, smiling as the creature left the breast to suck blindly in the direction of my wondering finger.
"Seesee, she likes you already," she laughed. "She knows that her big sister is going to look after her."
"Meghna, that's what we will name her," suggested Ajji. "She is like a dark, rain-filled cloud."
Ma did not agree. "No," she said, "her name is Roopa."
Afterwards, people looked at the two of us and said that we looked like the sun and its shadow. Ma held Roopa against her breast and said, "No, not the sun and its shadow. You have it all wrong. Kamini and Roopa--wealth and beauty--that is what my two daughters are."
And some people raised their eyebrows as if to say, "That darkblack thing, a beauty? Only a fond mother's eyes can see beauty where it does not lie. After all, if you ask a crow who sings the best in the world, won't she point to her own chick?"
Ma and Roopa and I stayed for three months at Ajji's house. That was the amount of time a daughter stayed with her parents after the birth of a child.
"Time enough to be pampered and washed, to rest from the pain of bearing life," said Ajji firmly, making sure that Ma heard, because she wasn't willing to keep a married daughter in the house for longer than that. "After that you return to your husband."
For three months Ma went back to being a girl, sleeping when Roopa did, playing cowrie with me. She sat in the back verandah allowing her oiled limbs to soak up the sun, waited for Chinna to summon her for a bath, moaning with pleasure as steamy-hot water was poured over her puffy body. Later on, she stood pliant and drowsy in her blouse and petticoat while Chinna wound a soft, old sari about her belly.
"To bring your mother's waist back," she explained to me, and pulled the cloth so tight that Ma said she couldn't breathe.
Of all the people in Ajji's house, Chinna was the most interesting. She was small and quick, with the look of a darting brown bird about her. Her head was shaved clean as she was a widow and was not allowed any vanities such as long hair or pretty clothes. Fate had deprived Chinna of the joys of normal life, yet she enjoyed herself more fully than anybody else I knew. Chinna loved the latest films, clapping enthusiastically with the rowdy theatre crowds when the hero appeared on screen. She smacked her lips over the chocolates that relatives brought for her from England.
"Ah, I can taste a different land, I can taste the sweetness of the people there," she sighed, delicately unwrapping the silver paper and taking a lick at the little chocolate before popping it into her mouth and sucking noisily. Ajji watched sourly. "Who would think she is a grown woman? Look at how silly she behaves!"
I was frightened of my grandmother, a slow, silent woman who regarded me with what seemed like a complete lack of interest. She never told me stories, like Chinna, nor did she pamper me with sweets and toys. Oh yes, Ajji bought me a new silk lehenga and matching bangles every time we visited, but the gold on the cloth was thinner than it was on Gopal Uncle's daughter's.
"Ajji, why is mine less shiny than Aparna's?" I demanded, piqued by the unfairness.
"What a girl!" exclaimed my grandmother, her mouth stained with red paan juice as if she had drunk blood. "You are lucky that I even got you a nice skirt. Aparna is my son's child, remember?"
Nono, I did not like Ajji very much at all. Thatha, my grandfather, was all right, but he insisted on reading to me from huge philosophy books, his voice putting me to sleep. "Thus did Krishna explain the nature of the world to Arjuna," he droned, his hands waving, emphasizing every word that Lord Krishna uttered, while I looked longingly out the window or watched a large black ant march purposefully towards his twitching foot. Thatha had started twitching when he turned sixty, a couple of years before, tiny shudders that travelled in waves all over his liver-spotted body, as if a creature inside was struggling to get out. My cousins and I had made a game out of guessing when the next twitch would attack Thatha, and when the old man found out about it, he would shiver extravagantly to make us laugh. Thatha died three years after Roopa was born, a heart attack seizing his body as he energetically chopped the green shell off a coconut. He had performed this task for as long as I could remember, his left hand cradling the coconut, his right clenched on a cleaver slicing the thin morning air and thuck! The pale, silver water lay revealed like a secret lake, sweet and ready to drink. Ajji grumbled at this ritual, complaining that Thatha was being silly, performing young tricks with an old body. "To show off to you little ones," she said. "He is fond of children."
Ajji did not think there was any point in becoming fond of people, especially children, for they grew up and changed, disappointed their parents, filled them with sorrow, got married and left the house, or died before you really knew them. Chinna said that at Ma's birth the only thing Ajji asked was whether the child was a boy. When the dai said no, Ajji sighed, for now she would have to have another one.
That year the sugar cane yield was so good that everybody who came to see the baby said that she was Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, incarnate. Putti, Ma's grandmother, wanted to name her after the goddess, but the family priest said that Ma's name should begin with a different letter, one that was more auspicious, more in harmony with Ma's birth stars.
"When Saroja, your Ma, was born," said Chinna, her old eyes squinting as if searching the past, "you could get a whole garden of beans for a rupee. Why, you could get three bushels of sugar cane fresh from the fields for that princely sum of money. These days a bit of cane is a luxury, even here in this place where the fields are full. What is the world coming to?"
I didn't want to know about the prices of things, I wanted Chinna to tell me about my mother's childhood. Did she cry till she had a choking fit, as Ma had told me I used to do? Did she like boiled peanuts better than roasted ones? Did she cry when she fell or strut around showing off her wounds, like my cousin Indu? I believed that if I knew every little thing about Ma, I would be able to understand why she was happier here in this old building with high, thin windows that let in hardly any light than in the grand Railway colony houses where my Dadda waited for us to return with the new baby.
Reading Group Guide
1. Before commencing the story itself, Badami provides this definition of the tamarind tree: “Folklore has it that the tamarind tree is the home of spirits that do not let anything under the tree survive.Accordingly, travelers are advised not to sleep in its shade. The tamarind tree is never used for auspicious ceremonies, as its fruit is sour. It is believed that the ceremony will turn sour and thus become fruitless and lose all meaning.”How did this definition color your reading of the story? Is Saroja the only
“Tamarind Woman” in the story? What about Kamini?
2. In their first exchange of the novel, Kamini complains to her mother that “you are inventing memories.”Were there points of disconnect between Kamini’s remembrance of the past and Saroja’s? If so, whose tale do you believe? Why?
3. What did you think about the structure of the novel?
Did you find it enhanced the story to have two separate voices, each located in the present and narrating a version of the past? Why do you think Kamini’s voice begins the story, even though her remembrances occur after Saroja’s?
Why might Badami write the novel this way?
4. Badami engages with India’s notorious caste system throughout the novel, though specifically in the characters of Dadda and Paul de Costa. Do you think these characters acted caste-appropriately? Discuss the interplay between caste and Saroja’s rather unfeminine personality.
What is Badami trying to say about various forms of social strictures?
5. What did you think of Chinna, the woman who is defeminized and ostracized because her mate died too soon? How does her character compare to that of Linda
6. Historically, Badami writes during the years just following
India’s independence from British rule.What sort of residual influence does the colonial rule of Britain still have upon the story’s characters, if any? Does this context help to explain the dynamic between Saroja, Dadda,
Kamini, and Roopa?
7. Did you find the family life presented in the book typical?
In what ways did you relate to this family? What did you not relate to? How much do you think culture informs the differences between family relationships?
8. Did Saroja have a full-blown affair with Paul de Costa?
Or was it more like an unrequited crush? Is this the reason he hangs himself in the game room at the club? If not, then why else do you think he would commit such an outlandish final act? How important is his suicide to the novel as a whole?
9. Kamini and Roopa live polarized adult lives: Kamini as the reclusive, neurotic academic, Roopa as the practical mother. Their commonality lies in their distance from both India and Saroja. Given Kamini’s remembrances,
does it make sense to you that she and Roopa would, in effect, run away from home? Why do you think they have such different adult desires and interests?
10. Ever since she was a child, Kamini has been obsessed with discerning the difference between fact and fiction,
though she has always been unable to do so.Through her conversations with her mother, we see that this pattern still holds.What affect has this unsatisfiable obsession had upon Kamini? Does it explain her choice to study engineering and move to Calgary in pursuit of a Ph.D.?
11. Saroja and Dadda have a rather loveless marriage.
Linda Ayah’s husband cheated on her, Chinna is marked for life as a childless widow. Badami presents many different types of marriage throughout the novel; what do you think she’s trying to say about the institution as a whole?
12. As a railway engineer, Dadda travels constantly, sometimes taking his family along with him. Initially Saroja hates to travel, finding it profoundly disorienting.Yet, at the end of her life, traveling becomes a type of liberation for her.What do you think makes the difference for her?
13. Of the male characters in the novel, most seem either indifferent to women or dominant over them. What do you think of the men? Do you feel sympathetic to any of them? Who is the novel’s most influential male?
14. While sitting on the hot train, telling her stories, one of Saroja’s fellow travelers comments, “Going away is the easiest thing in the world. It is like dying. So simple it is to die. Living is hard, to make this small amount of time loaned to you by the gods worthwhile is hard.The real test is life itself, whether you are strong enough to stay and fight.” What do you think of this statement? Furthermore,
reflecting on the context of our two narrators
—Kamini in a cold room, all alone, and Saroja in a hot train, surrounded by women—who do you think is “traveling”
or “going away” and who is “living”?