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Fiction Literary

Tamarind Mem

by (author) Anita Rau Badami

Publisher
Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2004
Category
Literary, Family Life, Cultural Heritage
  • Audio cassette

    ISBN
    9780864922663
    Publish Date
    Nov 1998
    List Price
    $21.95
  • Paperback / softback

    ISBN
    9780676976366
    Publish Date
    Mar 2004
    List Price
    $21.00

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Description

A beautiful and brilliant portrait of two generations of women. Set in India’s railway colonies, this is the story of Kamini and her mother Saroja, nicknamed Tamarind Mem due to her sour tongue. While in Canada beginning her graduate studies, Kamini receives a postcard from her mother saying she has sold their home and is travelling through India. Both are forced into the past to confront their dreams and losses and to explore the love that binds mothers and daughters everywhere.

About the author

Anita Rau Badami's short fiction has been published in The Malahat Review, Event, The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing, and the anthology Boundless Alberta. She lives in Vancouver.

Anita Rau Badami's profile page

Excerpt: Tamarind Mem (by (author) Anita Rau Badami)

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.”

Editorial Reviews

“A tremendous achievement -- a skillful and compassionate family saga that is personal, intimate, tender and revealing.” -- The Globe and Mail

“Intoxicating … an ambitious sweep of storytelling about family, about memory, about myth and history and the infinite interpretability of relationships.” -- Ottawa Citizen

“An engaging depiction of a daughter’s longing to know her mother and of our tendency to see things the way we want rather than the way they are.” -- Calgary Herald

Tamarind Mem’s strength is in its depiction of family tensions, the elusiveness of memories and how dreams and disappointments are passed from one generation to the next as if they were family heirlooms.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)

"An exciting addition to the burgeoning tradition of Indo-Canadian writing that includes Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji and Shyam Selvadurai." -- Maclean's

"Badami weaves a tale of bittersweet nostalgia in her first novel, imbuing her descriptions of Indian domestic life with achingly palpable details as she explores all the small ceremonies that make family life so simultaneously rich and infuriating... A delectable book." -- Quill & Quire (starred review)

"This novel is a beauty... An absolute delight to read." -- Indian Review of Books

"A powerful story... it allows daughter and mother to each speak for herself, and the resulting ironies and differing perspectives make for a richly textured work." -- Books in Canada

"It is a book brimming over with smells, sounds and colours, putting the reader so firmly in place and time that you feel you are there. All in all, a lovely piece of work." -- The Washington Post

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