Review: “The Toss of a Lemon” by Padma Viswanathan

Read my Q&A with Padma Viswanathan here.

No, it’s not a book of recipes and she’s not the sister of the much-maligned Kaavya. “The Toss of a Lemon” (Harcourt, Sept. 2008) is Arkansas-based and Canada-born writer’s first novel. And what a beautifully-wrought, political, social, and at times heart-wrenching work it is—ten years in the making. toss-cover-us.jpg

The Toss of a Lemon begins in 1896 in the caste-organized village of Cholapatti in Tamil Nadu and carries us to 1958 where the strictures of caste have broken apart amidst the new economic and political framework of post-colonial India, specifically South India.

In the opening scene, ten year old Sivakami (a character based on Viswanathan’s great-great grandmother)and her parents are on a pilgrimage to “her mother’s place” and decide to pay a visit to a young healer and astrologer Hanumarathnam. While making Sivakami’s astrological chart, the healer announces that their stars happen to be in alignment – “He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father. ‘I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please … consider me.’” There’s only one small glitch. Hanumarathnam’s horoscope predicts that he will die in the ninth year of marriage–unless his first-born son’s horoscope matches his.

Sivakami’s parents are optimists and the two are subsequently married “like everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month.”

At the heart of The Toss of a Lemon is a horoscope. It dictates the destiny of Sivakami, who is widowed at age 19, the mother of one girl and one boy and the inheritor of her husband’s family home and properties. It also dictates the destinies of Sivakami’s children: Thangam, a quiet beauty whose skin gives off gold vibuthi, or dust, with healing properties—a result of her father’s alchemist experiments—and Vairum, a math genius with “irises nearly black yet strangely brilliant, diamond sharp” and a skin condition (vitiligo) which makes him an anomaly in the Brahmin quarter early on in his life.

There’s a memorable description of Sivakami early in this book: she “carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.” Indeed, though strict Brahmannical traditions call for Sivakami to shave her head, wear white, and to not contaminate herself with human touch between dawn and dusk, she is also a rebel who chooses to raise her children in her husband’s ancestral home (instead of returning to her natal village and living with her brothers). Helping her in this herculean task is Machumi, a non-Brahmin villager and closeted gay man, who manages Hanumaranthnam’s land properties and business. Continue reading

Questions for Padma Viswanathan

Read a review of Arkansas-based, Canada-born Padma Viswanathan’s debut novel “The Toss of a Lemon” here.

Q. When and how did you first start collecting these stories?
A. I interviewed my grandmother over the course of a year or so, in the mid-nineties. She would talk for a few hours, either in English or in Tamil (with my mother translating, to ensure I got the padma200.jpgnuances), and then I would transcribe the tape. She told me a story that fascinated and bewildered me: of her grandmother, who was married as a child and widowed at eighteen with two small children. It then took me over ten years of writing to imagine myself into this world and to transform the story I had been given into a novel of my own making. The book that resulted has many emotional and narrative ties to the story my grandma told, but also departs from it in numerous significant ways.

Q. How did you research the historical and social context of this book?
A. I went to India after interviewing my grandmother. I had been many times before, but now saw the old places in a new way, populated by the ghosts of these stories she had told me. I interviewed other relatives and did a lot of reading on the particular social and political upheavals that were happening in this corner of India at that time, in contrast to the larger narrative of Independence. Six years later, with much of a draft written, I made a return trip, visiting some incredible resource centers in south India, where I did more detailed research on themes and characters that had emerged in the writing. This involved a lot of reading, as well as interviews with scholars and historians. I also revisited the places where the novel takes place, to refresh my sense memories and ask more specific questions of my relatives. Although the world I have described exists now only in a fragmentary and vestigial way, I actually saw it crumble in my lifetime. So some of the research was reconstruction of my own memories.

Q. It’s not easy to take one’s family history and put it out there, whether it’s in fiction or non-fiction form. What did you turn to for inspiration and motivation during your writing process?
A.The story exerted a strong hold on me for the ten years it took me to write this book. In the early stages, I consulted the interview transcripts frequently, looking for stories that intrigued me and writing them into chapters. As the novel began to take shape, though, I looked less and less to our family history: the book I was writing had its own logic and momentum, and that became paramount. When I had a full draft, I asked my mother to read it for me as a fact-checker, and we had wonderful discussions about it, but I was pretty clear with my family that this was, ultimately, an artistic product of which I was the author and that I would take full responsibility—including blame!—for its contents. Still, I was very relieved, when various family members—including my grandma—finally read it, that they gave it their stamp of approval, saying that in spite or because of all the liberties I had taken, I had created an authentic portrait of that time and place. Continue reading

A Virtual Visit to a Detention Center

I’m playing a new online video game today. It’s called “Homeland Guantanamos” and it has transformed me into an undercover journalist whose task is to unearth clues about the mysterious 2007 death of Boubacar Bah, a Guinean tailor who was held at a detention center in Elizabeth, NJ for overstaying his visa.detain.jpg

“Homeland Guantanamos” is the latest multi-media offering from Breakthrough, the human rights organization which uses media and popular culture to raise awareness here and in India. [Abhi covered their video game “I Can End Deportation” or I.C.E.D. earlier this year. ]

We’ve all heard stories about immigrants (illegal and residents) being detained without explanation or for prolonged periods of time. At the website, I got to see what life might be like on the other side of the fence. I took a tour of a simulated immigration detention center and collected clues to help solve the mystery of Bah’s death (he died of a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages). Along the way, I saw other detainees (eg: a pregnant woman kept in shackles during labor) and witnessed conditions of the facilities, including the solitary confinement room, the bathrooms, and the dining hall. Though this is a simulated experience, the content is based on factual sources such as news articles, court documents, and interviews.

Why call the site “Homeland Guantanamos”? According to Malikka Dutt, executive director of Breakthrough, “the Department of Homeland Security is violating the human rights of legal and undocumented immigrants” and some of the inhumane conditions of detention centers where these immigrants are being held are not all that different from the facility at Guantanamo Bay. Continue reading

A Teacher’s Exposé

I used to work at a tutoring center on a small private college campus in Westchester, NY several years ago. Our offices were a safe space that students visited for help with writing papers, coursework, math, ESL. We hired several peer and professional tutors every semester to provide such services to our student body, and very often, I also took on a small student load. It was tremendously fulfilling work, helping students navigate challenging course material or a tricky writing assignment, watchingschooledcov.jpg them come into their own, grasp the content, and produce assignments that met curriculum standards.

That’s my experience with tutoring. Then, there’s the experience of Anisha Lakhani, a former teacher whose novel “Schooled” was just published by Hyperion this summer. She taught (and was even the Middle School English Chair) at the high-profile NYC private school Dalton for a decade, but quit last year following her disillusionment with the culture of cheating in which she found herself.

Lakhani was raking in the dough (over 200 bucks an hour) for private tutoring sessions with the children of wealthy clients on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Her closet was filled with the latest designer fashions and she was hanging with all the right folks. As the Jersey-born Columbia graduate sank deeper and deeper into this world, she discovered a vicious inner circle in which educators, parents, and students were enmeshed: Parents, eager to see their kids excel, hired tutors like Lakhani to help student swith school assignments. Students, accustomed to being treated with kid gloves and occupied with AIM, Juicy Couture, and their active social lives, expected Lakhani to essentially do their homework for them. And, teachers, intimidated by parents, knew not to give in-class writing assignments or to even raise the question of whether a paper was written by the student or a tutor, kept silent.

Based on her experiences as a tutor as well as those of her colleagues and parents, Anisha Lakhani’s “Schooled” takes us into the crazy world of Anna Taggert, a recent Columbia graduate who goes against the wishes of her parents (they could have been desi!) and takes up a job at a private school. Despite her initial idealism and desire to imbue her students with the spirit of literary greats, she is very quickly beset with a host of problems: pushy moms, low pay, a rundown apartment, and a school administration which warns her not to make her lesson plans too complicated (she’ll make the other teachers look bad). As the months pass, Anna decides to take up a tutoring gig on the side to supplement her measly income. That’s when things spiral out of control. Her values go whoosh and she falls head over heels with the all things Juicy and Chanel; with shopping sprees; with blonde highlights; and with the experience of being the “cool teacher” who gets invited to Kanye West bar mitzvahs. (Sidenote: The novel also features a desi character – a fellow math teacher – who also gets equally corrupted by the lure of tutoring.)

Eventually, things settle down and Anna looks in the mirror and realizes who and what she has become — and unlike Lakhani, who has quit teaching and turned into a full-time novelist and socialite — returns to the classroom ready to reform her students and herself. But until that happens, readers will get an unnerving look at the Upper East Side annals of overambitious, competitive, and heartbreaking private education. The novel follows in the footsteps of books like “The Nanny Diaries” which provide the insider/outsider point of view. In fact, by the end of this week, movie rights will be sold. And though it’s not literary fiction by any means, it is an intriguing sociological study into a culture of cheating with a dash of pedagogy and activism thrown in.

“I thought it was time someone spoke out. Yes, certainly there were many hardworking students and decent families, but so, so much cheating is occurring and it needed to be exposed.” Lakhani told me in our e-mail Q&A which follows below the fold. Maybe parents and teachers alike will cull some advice from this morality tale from someone who knows what it’s like to walk in their shoes. I certainly hope some conversations about reform emerge from this book, or else it will be just a fictionalized navel-gazing venture. Continue reading

Marrying Anita: Review + Q&A with Anita Jain

When I posted about the new book “Marrying Anita” (Bloomsbury, July 2008) a few weeks ago, I was cynical about the arrival of yet another published work exploring the institution of arranged marriage. (So were many of you. Questions rolled in about author Anita Jain’s desire to find a “broadminded” husband in India and her impetus for writing the book. These were coupled with a heated conversation about dating in the desi community. You can see her answers to your questions and mine below the fold.)

Despite my pessimism at the time, I promised to give the book a chance. And, I’m glad I did. I expected “Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India” to be a straightforward chick lit read about a 33 year old woman who moves to India from the US in order to find a husband. “Oh great, she wrote a well-received New York magazine article and then decided to conduct one of those how-I-did-xyz-in-a-year experiments.” What I found instead was a candid, straightforward, and intelligent memoir that combines the author’s search for a kindred spirit with her experiences adjusting to life in contemporary (and middle class) India.

Jain’s move occurs during the summer of 2005, coincidentally perhaps, at the same point in her life when her father had moved to the US – at age 33. “I moved to India, reversing the migration pattern of my father,” she writes …

Historians will tell you Delhi has been home to nine distinct cities through the ages, the remnants of which are scattered everywhere, like seeds from a flower; a poet’s tom fifty paces from my front door, an old fort not far past the Sundar Nagar market. But I will tell you that there are ten cities of Delhi and I live in the last, one with restaurants where one can order mushroom-and-goat-cheese farfalle, use wireless broadband, and go to nightclubs where girls in spaghetti-strap tank tops gyrate to the latest hip-hop influenced Bollwood hit.

Comparing Anita Jain to Jane Austen might be too much of a stretch, but there is something of Austen’s spirit in Jain’s work which paints a vivid portrait of a particular generation of Indian middle class society. Her narrative is full of acute observations about economic and social changes, class relations, and the dating scene in India’s capital.

Jain does not “consider [herself] some kind of arbiter of dating.” In our email interview, she said, “I was simply one person who took a journey and wanted to write about it.” Indeed, while she is trying to figure out how to go about meeting the right person, she is also engaged in an equally (if not more fascinating) struggle to find an apartment (it’s tough to rent an apartment as a single woman in Delhi; not Mumbai or Bangalore, we learn) and to make new friends (one of her good friends ends up being the sister of a guy she met through back here in the US). Continue reading

Salsa Raja

Meet Giju John, 33. Born: Thiruvananthapuram, India. Lives: Silicon Valley. Employer: Intel. He’s an electical engineer who’s got his groove on.

Fascinated by the salsa dancers at night clubs in downtown San Jose, he started taking classes several nights a week. He was so good that his instructors, members of SalsaMania, a Bay Area dance group, invited him to join their professional team and compete in the US, Europe, and Mexico. This was back in 2001. giju.jpg

Today, John has a successful solo Hindi/salsa career. By way of the San Jose Mercury News:

John loved making microchips tick, but he loved his dancing, too. He remembered the Indian dance steps he learned as a boy. He noodled around, adding them to salsa steps and coming up with his own Hindi/salsa genre. He’s left Salsamania for a solo career. Yes, a Hindi/salsa solo career. Why not? John was in Silicon Valley – a place with a prominent Latino population and tens of thousands of Indians and Indo-Americans. He produced a CD, “Rang Rangeeli Yeh Duniya,” … It is a CD of Hindi language songs set to the pulse of salsa, cha-cha and rap. He shot a music video. He launched a start-up, Beyond Dreamz, to produce his music. And he continued to focus on the reliability of the next generation of Intel chips.

Continue reading

Desi Spotting in Brazil

When I travel to a new country, my eyes are always peeled for a desi sighting. My recent trip to Brazil was no different. This is the second BRIC nation I’ve visited (with Russia and China left to go) and having heard about Indian Oil Corp., Hindustan Petroleum, and Bharat Petroleum joint venture earlier this year to start ethanol production in Brazil, I thought I might spot other signs of investment. At the very least, I figured I would come across a Sindhi shopowner (the joke goes that even if you travel to the moon, you will meet a member of the diasporadic community of Indian traders, of which my family is a part).

But, there weren’t any Sindhis or Indians to speak of in Brazil. At least, we didn’t see any. (Well, there was one uncle type we ran into near the Ipanema farmer’s market, but he turned out to be a Mallu from New York, visiting his Brazilian wife’s family!) IMG_4556.JPG

We’d heard about Nataraj, the only Indian-run restaurant in Rio. It’s in Leblon, Rio’s most trendy residential neighborhood, and I figured we’d find a desi there. “It’s no good,” our New York uncle friend told us while he helped us shop for figs and sitaphal. “Don’t bother going.”

So we didn’t. (Now that I’m home, however, some scoping did yield a little write-up about Indian restaurants in South America here which pointed out that the restaurant is run by a family whose matriarch used to work for the British High Commission in Rio. “She had been doing special event catering for the embassy as a side interest and then one fine day she decided to open a restaurant – I’m glad she did. It takes courage to make a caipirinha with an indian twist.”

Dang. Missed opportunity for a good Sepia post. Next time I go to Rio, I’ll have to make it a point to go here.

So, Brazil is home to a multitude of skin colors, so it’s easy to mistake Brazilians for Indians and Indians for Brazilians, so much so that many times, people mistook me and my husband for Brazilians and spoke to us in Portugese. There were, however, a few exceptions.

In Salvador de Bahia, the northern city which was the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, a photojournalist came up to us during the 2nd of July Independence Day celebrations. “Are you Indian?” he asked. “Yes,” we answered. “Can I take a picture of you? First time I’m seeing Indians in Salvador,” he said.

Wow. I felt like an intrepid explorer, though I was quite certain I couldn’t be the first Indian in Salvador.

I was proven right. Later that day, in Salvador, we were at Rafael Cine Foto in Pelhorino, trying to get our camera repaired–and ahem, negotiating for a better price–when the shopkeeper (whose English was limited) asked us, laughing, “Are you Indian?” (I guess we carry our reputation as bargain makers around with us, wherever we go!) Later, my mother mentioned that her once-in-a-while Brazilian cleaning lady told her that there are lots of Indians who own shops at the malls in Salvador. I guess I should have gone to the mall!

Despite my lack of desi human spottings, there was no dearth of Indian influence–mostly of the exotic India variety–to be found in Brazil. [A brief photo essay follows below the fold.] Continue reading

Leaving Uganda

We’ve talked about it here before: In 1972, Idi Amin gave all 80,000 Asian Indians living in the Uganda 90 days to pack up and leave. As the BBC reported on August 7, 1972, “Asians, who are the backbone of the Ugandan economy, have been living in the country for more than a century. But resentment against them has been building up within Uganda’s black majority. General Amin has called the Asians “bloodsuckers” and accused them of milking the economy of its wealth.”

A new young adult novel Child of Dandelions by Canadian author Shenaaz Nanji sheds much needed light on the upheaval of Asian Indians in Uganda. It’s worth checking out, even if you don’t have a young adult in your household, or don’t normally pick up books for younger readers. dandelions.jpg

The protagonist of Child of Dandelions is fifteen year old Sabine, a girl whose comfortable life is torn asunder on August 6, 1972, the day that Idi Amin issues his expulsion order for all Indians in Uganda. Shaken by the protests she walks into while window shopping in Little India, Sabine turns to her parents for protection.

Sabine’s mother is afraid and eager to leave Uganda, but her father, a wealthy Ismaeli businessman and landowner, is determined to ignore Dada Amin’s orders:

“Nonsense!” Papa laughed his conch-shell laugh, and her little brother echoed it. … “We are even more Ugandan than the ethnic Africans. Not only were we born here, but we chose to be Ugandan citizens when other Indians remained British…

Sabine agrees with her father. She is different after all. Her best friend Zena is African. They’ve grown up together like “twin beans of one coffee flower” and Zena is just like her sister, even if others (like her Indian friends) don’t see it that way.

Narmin …Nasrin … Sabine’s hands clenched at the names of her classmates. They were prissy prunes. She’d had a big fight with them after they called Zena goli. Mixing her African and Indian friends was like mixing oil with water.

As the 90 day countdown continues, Sabine’s optimism is drowned out by the growing chants of “Muhindi, nenda nyumbani! Indian, go home.” Amidst reports of violent attacks against Indian families, the mysterious disappearance of her favorite uncle, and strained relations between her and Zena (whose uncle is a general and crony of Idi Amin), she is forced to reexamine her understandings of race and class.

The novel is what Nanji calls Faction, a mix of facts and fiction. Continue reading

The Arranged Marriage World … is Flat

For those of us who are so wishing that the public’s fascination with arranged marriages was over, well … it’s not. Back in 2005, there was a lot of buzz [including here] around financial writer Anita Jain’s New York magazine article “Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?” So much so that she got a book deal out of it.

Next month, her memoir Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India will be published in the UK, US, and India by Bloomsbury. The book is being pitched as a “witty, confessional memoir” that simultaneously records Jain’s romantic quest and the story of “a country modernizing at breakneck speed.” The big question it asks: Is the new urban Indian culture in which she’s searching for a husband really all that different from America? Has globalization changed the face of arranged marriage

I want to groan, but I’m trying to be openminded and wait till I’ve actually read the book. I can’t help it though. The red flags go up in my mind when I hear about another arranged marriage book. And, now, this one combines that with another buzz word “globalization.” Is this the chick lit version of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”?

[Below the fold, glimpses of an excerpt which appeared at the Guardian last weekend.] Continue reading

Fasting for Bhopal

A few months ago I wrote about Indra Sinha’s Booker-nominated novel Animal’s People, a fictionalized take on the 1984 Bhopal Union Carbide gas disaster.

In Animal’s People, several of the main characters embark on a hunger strike, including Zafar, the leading activist in the fictional town of Khaufpur. Now, a new development in Indra Sinha’s story, where his fiction is meeting his life: On June 10, Sinha began an indefinite hunger strikehunger strike.jpg (from his home in France) in solidarity with 9 other Bhopal activists in New Delhi, many of whom are victims of gas or water contamination. His action is part of a global fast to finally force the Indian government into action to bring US giant Dow Chemical to justice in India.

Two days after the Worldwide Hunger Strike Relay has begun, 60 people in India, the US, Europe and South America have already signed up online to participate. Of this number, nine have committed to indefinite fasts, including Indra Sinha.

In his piece “Why I’m Going on Hunger Strike for Bhopal” in The Guardian today, Sinha writes:

I have spent much of the last five years writing a novel in which victims of a chemical disaster caused by a rogue corporation are sold out by their own politicians, triggering a desperate hunger strike. Animal’s People is set in the fictional city of Khaufpur, but whatever success it has had, it owes to the inspiring courage and spirit of the Bhopalis, and the descriptions of the hunger strike were drawn directly from the experiences of my friends. … On their small stretch of pavement in Delhi, now battered by monsoon rain, nine [people] have sat down to begin an indefinite fast for justice. Among them are my old friend Sathyu and, grown up into a fine young man … How can I not join them? How can we all not support them?

More on the strike and how to get involved, below the fold, as well as a look at Dow Chemical’s ironic “Human Element” ad campaign. Continue reading