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Tamarind Mem

by Anita Rau Badami

Vancouver writer Anita Rau 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.

Set in India over the past 40 years, the novel tells the story of one family, essentially a family of females marooned in a household through wet seasons and dry while “Dadda,” the husband and father, is away three weeks out of four, doing his job as an engineer with the Indian railways.

Left at home with one manservant and the maid-nanny Linda, sisters Kamini and Roopa are at the mercy of their mother Saroja’s frustrations and discontents. Fifteen years her husband’s junior, Saroja wanted to be a doctor and chafes against the restrictions of the “Railway Colony” with its rituals of housekeeping, tea, and gossip.

In a very real sense, the novel describes both an absence and a presence. Saroja pines to go on rail inspection trips with her husband, but he insists it is against the rules. Her job is to send him off and to welcome him back again, to provide the centre of stability for his peripatetic life.

Tamarind Mem’s female characters all seem locked into interiors, circumscribed by rules and expectations. Even when they escape, by moving from Ratnapur, Bhusaval, Lucknow, and Calcutta, they go to yet another railway colony, with the same set of costive values. No wonder Kamini and Roopa emigrate to North America; no surprise that in her widowhood Saroja uses her railway pass to travel alone to all the places her husband never took her.

Part of the goal of Badami’s narrative appears to be to reclaim Dadda himself, a remote, pipe-smoking man who is mostly absent even when at home.

Alienated from his wife, the butt of her yearning and her complaints, only for Kamini does he come alive, telling an endless stream of stories about the mythic characters inhabiting the gorges and forests of his travels.

Alas, when Kamini becomes a teenager, she has no time for his stories, no patience with his mythology. Like her mother, she dismisses her father, making his presence even more ghostlike. Only later, as a dislocated graduate student in Calgary, staring at the snowbanks piled in blue drifts against the windows of her basement suite, does she regret her indifference. And from that regret springs Kamini’s need to recount her own tales, as an attempt to understand her parents’ relationship and her unresolved conflict with her mother, whose own footloose travels now exasperate her.

Tamarind Mem is a delectable book, filled with pungent sights and sounds and poignant memories. It proves, yet again, that each person in a family experiences that microcosm differently. Only by synthesizing these disparate views do we grasp the full flavour of events.


Reviewer: Lynne Van Luven

Publisher: Viking/Penguin


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 272 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-670-86916-3

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 1996-6

Categories: Fiction: Novels