Read my Q&A with Padma Viswanathan here.
No, itâ€™s not a book of recipes and sheâ€™s not the sister of the much-maligned Kaavya. â€œThe Toss of a Lemonâ€ (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 isâ€”ten years in the making.
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 Viswanathanâ€™s great-great grandmother)and her parents are on a pilgrimage to â€œher motherâ€™s placeâ€ and decide to pay a visit to a young healer and astrologer Hanumarathnam. While making Sivakamiâ€™s astrological chart, the healer announces that their stars happen to be in alignment â€“ â€œHe blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakamiâ€™s father. â€˜I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please â€¦ consider me.â€™â€ Thereâ€™s only one small glitch. Hanumarathnamâ€™s horoscope predicts that he will die in the ninth year of marriage–unless his first-born sonâ€™s horoscope matches his.
Sivakamiâ€™s parents are optimists and the two are subsequently married â€œlike everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month.â€
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 husbandâ€™s family home and properties. It also dictates the destinies of Sivakamiâ€™s children: Thangam, a quiet beauty whose skin gives off gold vibuthi, or dust, with healing propertiesâ€”a result of her fatherâ€™s alchemist experimentsâ€”and Vairum, a math genius with â€œirises nearly black yet strangely brilliant, diamond sharpâ€ and a skin condition (vitiligo) which makes him an anomaly in the Brahmin quarter early on in his life.
Thereâ€™s a memorable description of Sivakami early in this book: she â€œcarries 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.â€ 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 husbandâ€™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 Hanumaranthnamâ€™s land properties and business. Continue reading