In south India in 1896, ten-year old Sivakami is about to embark on a new life. Hanumarathnam, a village healer with some renown as an astrologer, has approached her parents with a marriage proposal. In keeping with custom, he provides his prospective in-laws with his horoscope. The problem is that his includes a prediction, albeit a weak one, that he will die in his tenth year of marriage.
Despite the ominous horoscope, Sivakami’s parents hesitate only briefly, won over by the young man and his family’s reputation as good, upstanding Brahmins. Once married, Sivikami and Hanumarathnam grow to love one another and the bride, now in her teens, settles into a happy life. But the predictions of Hanumarathnam’s horoscope are never far from her new husband’s mind. When their first child is born, as a strategy for accurately determining his child’s astrological charts, Hanumarathnam insists the midwife toss a lemon from the window of the birthing room the moment his child appears. All is well with their first child, a daughter, Thangam, whose birth has a positive influence on her father’s astrological future. But this influence is fleeting: when a son, Vairum, is born, his horoscope confirms that his father will die within three years.
Resigned to his fate, Hanumarathnam sets himself to the unpleasant task of readying his household for his imminent death. Knowing the hardships and social restrictions Sivakami will face as a Brahmin widow, he hires and trains a servant boy called Muchami to help Sivakami manage the household and properties until Vairum is of age.
When Sivakami is eighteen, Hanumarathnam dies as predicted. Relentless in her adherence to the traditions that define her Brahmin caste, she shaves her head and dons the white sari of the widow. With some reluctance, she moves to her family home to raise her children under the protection of her brothers, but then realizes that they are not acting in the best interests of her children. With her daughter already married to an unreliable husband of her brothers’ choosing, and Vairum’s future also at risk, Sivakami leaves her brothers and returns to her marital home to raise her family.
With the freedom to make decisions for her son’s future, Sivakami defies tradition and chooses to give him a secular education. While her choice ensures that Vairum fulfills his promise, it also sets Sivakami on a collision course with him. Vairum, fatherless in childhood, childless as an adult, rejects the caste identity that is his mother’s mainstay, twisting their fates in fascinating and unbearable ways.
Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta. Her writing awards include residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Banff Playwrights’ Colony, and first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She received her Creative Writing MA from Johns Hopkins and her MFA from the University of Arizona, and lives with her family in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“Her narrative, refreshingly, is free of anachronism, and she has a pleasing way of engaging the reader’s senses….Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez–altogether a pleasure.”
–Kirkus (starred review)
“What Viswanathan does remarkably well is give the reader a closeup of India’s history, culture, politics and landscape through the domestic lens of one family. This is a rich, sensual book that uses life itself as its plot....Reading it is an experience of immersion. You feel as though you are right there in all the teeming detail of life as Sivakami and her family know it. There is a whole world here between two covers.”
"With its rich and complex background and often sharp insights, The Toss of a Lemon is a valuable and evocative work.”
–Elaine Kalman Nave, author of Robert Weaver: Godfather of Canadian Literature (Ottawa Citizen)
“Astonishing. Brilliant. Beautiful….Like the very best novels, at its core, The Toss of A Lemon teaches us about ourselves.”
“Lovers of Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth will want to get a hold of this Brahmin family saga involving early marriage, early widowhood and clashing values.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“The Toss of a Lemon is a captivating novel that in relating the story of one Indian woman and her family tells the story of a changing society. Precisely and deftly written, constantly interesting, morally serious yet sympathetic–I challenge any reader to start reading this book and give up on it. The Toss of a Lemon joins the company of great novels on India.”
“The Toss of a Lemon is a glorious feat, as boisterously written as it is wholly engrossing. It’s about love - and cruelty - and how each reverberate across the generations in one family. And it is that rare thing, a novel that manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time.”
–Peter Orner, author of The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
"In this, her debut novel, Padma Viswanathan performs a wondrous balancing act of words. She sustains a vivid sense of the moment while spanning decades, brings unforgettable individual characters to life while recounting a saga of generations, and lays bare the inner worlds of those characters while evoking an entire nation in turmoil. Rich with sensual detail, The Toss of a Lemon is the story of a community centred on tradition during an era of upheaval and change. Above all, it is a moving and deftly drawn portrait of a family."
–Alissa York, Giller-nominated author of Effigy
“The Toss of a Lemon gives readers the rare opportunity to enter the life of a Brahmin widow, to live her norms and routines and rituals as they have been lived by countless women over thousands of years. Padma Viswanathan’s remarkable achievement is to capture the slow, stately pace of an 8,000-year-old culture and yet keep her story moving briskly. I closed the book indebted for this immersion in a world I could not have otherwise entered.”
–Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy