BOOKS

A sweet and sour life

The saga of an Indian woman is a vivid delight

DONNA NURSE September 9 1996
BOOKS

A sweet and sour life

The saga of an Indian woman is a vivid delight

DONNA NURSE September 9 1996

A sweet and sour life

BOOKS

The saga of an Indian woman is a vivid delight

TAMARIND MEM

By Anita Rau Badami (Viking, 266 pages, $19.99)

Anita Badami spent her childhood roaming through her native India as her railway-engineer father travelled from job to job. For her impressive first novel, Badami—a 34-yearold former journalist who arrived in Canada in 1991—draws on those memories for this vivid, almost cinematic tale about a frustrated woman trapped within the cultural expectations of her time. Saroja’s happiness ends the day she discards her dream of becoming a doctor and marries an ambitious railway official at her parents’ insistence. Fifteen years her senior, Vishwa turns out to be an uncommunicative, unaffectionate man, and there is little Saroja can do to alleviate her loneliness. As the railway transfers her husband from town to town, Saroja finds it difficult to form any lasting attachments of her

own. Her increasingly hostile attitude earns her the nickname Tamarind Mem, after the sour fruit (“Mem” is short for “memsahib,” or madam).

Part 1 of the novel presents Saroja’s life through the eyes of the grown Kamini, a graduate student living in contemporary Calgary who revisits the past for clues to her mother’s bitterness. In part 2, Saroja, now widowed and on a train tour of India, shares her memories with strangers. Inevitably, many of Kamini’s and Saroja’s recollections conflict.

Sight, sound and, especially, smell inhabit the narrative with the force of character. Kamini unwraps each memory as reverently as her mother opens “the delicate silver

tins still stained with turmeric and vermilion, akshathey and sandal paste from her wedding.” Saroja describes a pungent train ride: “The platform first, with its odors of cigarettes, beedis, overripe fruit, urine and frying fish. Then the drains sluggish with feces and engine oil.”

While issues of caste, class and color figure in the narrative, the novel concerns itself most with indicting a society that favors boys over girls, who are expected only to acquire a husband. One of the novel’s most disturbing moments comes as the young Saroja prepares to embark upon life with her new husband. “I don’t know this man,” she g silently laments. “How can I you send me away with a S stranger?” Ultimately, how§ ever, Saroja becomes some| what reconciled with her

1 past. That strikes a false

2 note. Still, overall the novel is a solid accomplishment—an

exciting addition to the burgeoning tradition of Indo-Canadian writing that includes Rohinton Mistry, M. G. Vassanji and Shyam Selvadurai. And by telling the story of a bitter woman so eloquently, Badami offers a measure of sweet redemption.

DONNA NURSE