‘Tamarind Woman’ is a compelling story of a mother-daughter relationship in post-colonial India.
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Today’s guest post is a review of Tamarind Woman* by Anita Rau Badami. This post was written by
Vanessa Chiasson, who blogs about culinary and cultural adventures and affordable travel at TurnipseedTravel.com
Tamarind Womanis a story told in two voices. Daughter Kamini, now a doctoral student in Calgary, Canada, grew up in post-colonial India. Thanks to her railway officer father, the family moved frequently and young Kamini’s life was clouded by her mother, nicknamed “Tamarind Mem” because of her tart and sour disposition.
Under constant pressure to perform at the strict convent schools her mother forced her to attend, Kamini receives constant mixed messages from a very young age about needing to excel and yet not focusing on academics at the expense of finding a husband.
Her restricted social sphere is limited to her younger sister, who can do no wrong, as well as concocting imaginative narratives about her intriguing neighbours and sporadic socializing with the children at the officers’ club.
Her kindly father is often on the road and, confined with her harsh and contradictory mother, it is easy to envision a childhood that is lonely, frustrating, and restrictive.
As an adult living in Calgary and dealing with her now-elderly mother living in India, we see little has progressed for her – her mother is as tart and contrary as ever, sending mixed messages and making Kamini feel inadequate.
It is against this background that her mother announces that she is going to travel. Having spent her life being forced to move around the country as a rail officer’s wife, she’s decided that she is going to finally travel India on her own terms – a decision that causes her daughters no small amount of grief.
Midway through, the story switches to Saroja’s voice – she of the tamarind tongue. She is someone who is dripping in disappointment. An ordinary childhood and an interest in medicine cut short with an arranged marriage to a stranger she has absolutely no chemistry with.
Being moved around the country constantly by her rail officer husband, she has no established friends and only condescending, well-meaning servants to keep her company. Her husband is pleasant enough and yet they have nothing in common. She has no idea how to build a relationship, build a friendship, and so silence becomes a frost, which eventually turns volcanic.
Burdened by family responsibilities – including summer-long visits with her childless, irritating sisters in law, she cannot or will not take the time to know her daughters, seeing them as obligations instead of people. It isn’t until she finally starts leading her own, independent life as an adult that she thaws out in the face of freedom.
Many reviews of Tamarind Woman often state that the writing is a testimonial to the ups and downs of a mother-daughter relationship. But it reads more like the intersecting lives of two strangers who have an obligation to each other, yet don’t even know each other.
Every event in their shared lives is told through such a different lens that it is like reading two different books. Only one story – the mysterious death of the charismatic, beguiling, Anglo mechanic is told with any shared perspective.
As a book, it stands out because both voices are equally compelling and you gain a real sense of each person’s character.
Does the book make you want to travel to India? Absolutely.
Its depictions of post-colonial India and a middle-upper-class Indian family are fascinating. The descriptions are so rich – from the savoury foods, to the lush gardens, to the train carriages, to the material of the wedding saris. You get a vivid depiction of everyday life and it is enthralling.
It’s a pleasure to watch the author weave a picture India from one corner of the country to the next and the drama of the central characters simply adds to the enjoyment.
Kamini has recently moved from India to Canada. Plunged into the past by acrimonious telephone calls and odd postcards from her mother, she tries to make sense of the eccentric family she has left behind.
Why was her Mother as bitter as a tamarind with her lot in life? Why did she seem to love Roopa best, rubbing almond oil on her skin at bath-time and never scolding her for getting her sums wrong? And where did she disappear to while Dadda was away on business, leaving her daughters in the care of a superstitious old ayah?
A wise and affectionate portrait of two generations of women in an Indian family, Tamarind Woman is a beautifully evocative novel that explores the mutability of memory and unravels the deep ties of love and resentment that bind mothers and daughters everywhere.