Tamarind Mem, 1996

Due to her first novel Anita Rau Badami was considered one of the newest writers in the vibrant field of Indian subcontinental literature.  Ms. Badami was born in 1961 in Rourkela, Orissa, India (Nurse 53).  Her debut novel, Tamarind Mem, received critical acclaim. Her father worked as a mechanical engineer on the railroads.  Because of her father’s job, Ms. Badami’s family moved every two to three years.  She grew up nurtured by stories told by her extended family (“South”) and has always been an avid reader, writes Roshni Rustonji-kerns (117). She attended Catholic schools in India, because, Ms. Badami explains, until around twenty years ago, the only good schools in India were these (Kozminuk) (see Colonial Education). English was the primary language in her home (“South”). Ms. Badami always enjoyed writing, and she sold her first story for a mere seventy-five rupees at the young age of eighteen (“South”).

Badami earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of Madras. She then studied journalism in Sophia College in Bombay (“South”). After her schooling, the author had various jobs before she became a full-fledged writer.  She worked as a copywriter for advertising agencies in Bombay, Bangalore, and Madras, and she wrote for newspapers and magazines for seventeen years (Kozminuk).  Badami also wrote many stories for children’s magazines.  In 1984 the author married. She bore a son three years later, and her family moved to Calgary in 1991. Today Ms. Badami and her family live in Vancouver. Her most recent novel is Tell it to the Trees, published in 2011.

Tamarind Mem

Tamarind Mem contains many aspects similar to the author’s own life.  As the author’s life revolved around the railway colonies of India, so does this book (“South”). The father in the book is also a mechanical engineer for the railroads, and as a result, the family moves frequently.  Just as Badami grew up surrounded by the stories her family told, the book is constructed around numerous tales (Rustonji-Kerns 117).  One of the book’s attractions is how it catches the spell of so much storytelling (Curtis 23).

However, Badami claims that this story is not an autobiography; she simply began writing this novel through memories of her past and moved into a fictional story (Kozminuk). The novel is written in playful and poetic prose depicting the relationship between a mother and a daughter.  The mother, Saroja, and the daughter, Kamini, have vastly differing views about their past.  Tamarind Mem shows how two people may have conflicting recollections about the same past.  In order to look at these themes, Anita Rau Badami divides the book into two parts, one focused on the daughter and the other on the mother. One context in which this theme gets played out in the book is the changing possibilities for women in India (See Gender and Nation). In the novel Saroja, the mother, is forced to marry instead of pursuing a medical degree because of women’s subordination to men in her society, while her daughter travels overseas to pursue higher education (see Arranged Marriages, Matchmakers and Dowries in India).  As the vehicle for explaining the two women’s different perceptions of the same past, Badami reflects on the shakiness of memory and the elusive nature of mind.  She connects this theme with the mother and daughter’s relationship and their contrary recollections of the past (Kozminuk).

The book also unpacks the misunderstandings between two generations that result because of a modernizing culture.  Memories collide with a changing culture and cause confusion in social institutions. Anita Rau Badami explores the conflict between modernization and traditional values. The mother Saroja has the nickname “Tamarind Mem” because of her increasingly hostile attitude (Nurse 53), like that of the sour fruit of the tamarind tree.  The tamarind tree can be found in Indian folklore – travelers avoid this tree when they are seeking shelter, because this tree supposedly is the home of spirits which do not allow anything under it to survive (Curtis 23). The father, Vishwa, is described as an old and tired man: “… a man who has no feelings to spare his wife.  A dried out lemon peel whose energies have already been squeezed out caring fora sick mother, worrying about his sisters, inheriting his dead father’s unfinished duties. It ate up his youth.” (216) In Part One Kamini, a graduate student in present day Calgary, reflects on her childhood with her parents.  She tries to understand her mother’s unhappiness — why she was sour like tamarind — when Kamini was a child (Nurse 53).  Kamini vividly remembers her mother’s anger throughout her childhood.  Conversely, Kamini’s Dadda appears gentle and loving to her.  He always tells his daughters many stories and acts affectionately towards them.  Kamini can never comprehend her mother’s anger towards her father, because she only sees one side of Dadda. Kamini always blames her parents’ arguments on her mother, since her Dadda consistently remains silent (Badami 39).  However, Badami artfully shows how Kamini as an adult begins to understand her mother’s past unhappiness, because Kamini acknowledges that her father was not as innocent as her child’s adoration saw him:

… perhaps Dadda was to blame for the person Ma had become. He shut her into rooms from which there was not even a chink of an escape. He himself had left again and again, and every time he came back, he needed to be readmitted into lives altered daily during his absence.  (147)

Kamini finally sees the social constrictions her mother faced.  She also realizes that her mother pushes her, in order that she may realize her own dreams and make her own choices freely.

In Part II the mother Saroja tells her distinctly different view of the past as a mother and wife, while she is a widow on a train tour through India.  Saroja expresses how Indian culture was vastly different in past years.  When Saroja was a young girl, marriage was stressed over education for females; Saroja was unable to reach her dream of becoming a doctor (156, 158, 205). As a wife Saroja cannot form any lasting friendships because of the family’s frequent traveling (Nurse 53), nor will her husband Vishwa allow her to enter his “private world of journeys” (Badami 225). Just like her parents, Saroja’s husband lives by the conventional cultural norms where his wife is restricted to the home, while he works in the public sphere. Saroja’s marriage life is unaffectionate and uncommunicative, and she feels as if she lives in an “immense silence” (Badami 204). Badami shows how past cultural restrictions of that time in India affect women in their personal lives and aspirations. Anita Rau Badami portrays Saroja as a frustrated woman trapped in the cultural expectations of the time period. Only after her husband’s death and her daughters’ maturity may Saroja leave her traditional role and travel as she pleases (Rustonji-Kerns 120).

Many vivid, sensual descriptions — sights, sounds and smells — fill the novel and lead the work into descriptions of culture. One example is the ceremony given at the birth of one’s first grandchild:  “[Kamini’s grandmother] had every doorway decorated with mango-leaf garlands of beaten silver, and she even bought a cradle carved by the cradle-makers of Ranganathpuram.  She gave silk saris to all the female relatives who came”  (13). Another aspect of culture Badami raises is the relation between caste, class, and color (Nurse 53).  Her book stresses the Indian inclination to hold on to the colonial legacy.  The railways were once a British institution, so when the British left, the Indians took over the institution. The Indians retained their Anglicized ways and manners taught to them by British colonialists and these manners became mixed up with the Indian ways. Badami depicts this colonial legacy through the characters’ language, schooling and other institutions of the railroad. She also shows men’s reputation as chauvinistic in India, expecting their wives to behave a certain way — being at home, having several children, looking after the house, cooking proper meals, and being a “good wife”– yet the women must also try to be the epitome of everything Western. Thus, Indian women must try to fulfill two conflicting roles, one as a traditional wife and mother and the other as a modern woman.

What Ms. Badami Teaches the Reader

Badami shows how many differences exist between the mother and daughter as a result of a changing culture in a modernizing world.  Kamini inhabits a different time period from her mother, a fact which makes it difficult for her to fully comprehend her mother’s problems at Kamini’s present age.  Kamini has the independence to finish her schooling and not marry unless she wants to.  Anita Rau Badami portrays two strong women at odds with each other.  Both women face difficult decisions that modernizing females must face in all generations (Curtis 2).

Works by Anita Badami

  • Badami, Anita. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007.
  • —. The Hero’s Walk. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2001.
  • —. Tamarind Mem.  New York: Viking,1996.
  • —. Tell it to the Trees.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Works Cited

  • Curtis, Sarah.  “Tamarind Mem.” Times Literary Supplement. 3 Oct. 1997:  23.
  • Nurse, Donna.  “A Sweet and Sour Life.”  Maclean’s 109.37 (1996):  53.
  • Rustonji-kerns, Roshni.  “Traveling Mems.”  Toronto Review. Winter 1997:  117-120.

Author: Lisa Mickley, Spring 1998 Last edited: May 2017

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