Padma Viswanathan’s debut novel is an ambitious saga of a Tamil Brahmin family through the passage of over 60 years and across four generations. It is comprehensive in recording the changing fortunes and the moral, social, cultural and political transformations of the community. It covers a vast territory spanning decades and centuries.
Sivakami, the protagonist, lands a lemon early on in life. Okay, bad line for an odd title. She is a child bride in the year 1896, a mother at 14 and widowed at 18. She is cloaked in the spartan lifestyle of a Brahmin widow, following the custom of her time. To boot, she makes herself unattractive and submits to a lifelong ordeal of keeping away from the physical company of all, even her kids, and works ceaselessly for the welfare of her family, upholding its customs, defending its oppressive traditions and ties as a way to preserve a community’s exclusivity in rural Tamil Nadu.
The story is hers and that of her family of children and grandchildren, and her mute but dogged presence is palpable but for the times when the novel chases the fortunes and foibles of other characters. She and her faithful lower-caste family retainer remain outsiders—both are outcastes, she by gender and widowhood, and he by his unspoken sexual orientation and caste. But they are two sides of a coin, bound to old ties and laws and yet ingenious and intrepid enough to circumvent it to suit their needs.
Viswanathan’s novel must be acknowledged as a comprehensive story in English that records the community during the testing period prior to India’s independence and its aftermath in contemporary times. The novel faithfully records the deliberate changes, breaking of traditions, melting of taboos, challenges Brahmins faced with their diminishing authority in the vortex of progressive politics in Tamil Nadu that overthrew caste orthodoxies and discrimination. There are references to the pillars of the then society, including a coquettish cameo of Rukmini Devi Arundale; a prickly sketch of Balasaraswathi, the devadasi dancer; novelist and nationalist Kalki Krishnamurti; and emerging actors and performers like Sivaji Ganesan and perhaps even MS Subbulakshmi. These add colour and realism to keep the story alive in parts and to suggest how the towering personalities help shape the community’s cultural predominance in post-Independence Tamil Nadu.
The novel is heavily peopled, many who add to the crowd flit past the reader as just names in passing; some walk to play a part to further the story’s passage through time. Others, like the valiant and rebellious Vairum, the mute victim Thangam, the feisty Bharthi, the incorrigible Goli and the confused Janaki, make for realistic portraits. Plots, and sub-plots and little stories often connected tangentially from the main narrative add to make the book an exhaustive and weighty read. Ceremonies, rituals, habits, superstitions, customs of a people come in for detailed description, perhaps as a nod to readers unfamiliar with the people and their customs.
Early on, Viswanathan acknowledges Salman Rushdie as a muse and there are touches of magic realism in the novel of the silent daughter who sheds gold dust. It is also felt in the awesome influence of astrology and horoscopes and predictions; the doom and foreboding that mysterious forces hold sway over people and their lives and how characters submit to the larger forces or fight them.
The Toss of a Lemon is a novel that has been waiting to serve as a record of other lives in other times. Viswanathan’s eye is unsparing and unflinching and yet not devoid of empathy as it records the changing mores of a proud people and their bygone past. A worthy beginning.