Anita Rau Badami

"Tamarind Woman"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka JUL 21 2002)

Tamarind Woman by Anita Rau Badami
Kamini Moorthy dozes in her basement apartment in Calgary where she is working on a doctorate in chemical engineering. Dreaming of a blizzard in this foreign, snowy, icy landscape, she awakes to hear the rustling of paper in her mail slot, including "another of Ma's weekly postcards, bringing with it the warmth, the smells, the sounds of another country oceans away from Canada." A nostalgic mother-daughter story told by two women from the Moorthy family, Tamarind Woman is a novel about the power of memory and storytelling.

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Kamini tells the first half of the story, remembering her childhood and adolescence as the eldest daughter of an Indian Railway engineer and his acid-tongued wife. The family had to move every few years when Dadda was transferred by the Railway, but Kamini is able to detail everything she remembers from their Ratnapura colony house the year she was nine years old. Dadda was usually out "on the line" three weeks out of four. When Dadda came home, the girls seemed more comforted in spite of the arguing - and impending silence - that invariably developed between their parents. When he was gone, Kamini remembers her mother's moodiness and being left with her little sister in the care of her nanny, Linda Ayah, while her mother came and went on vague errands. The reader gets a sense that Saroja may have been sneaking out to see someone, but, just like her daughter, we are left with few details. There's something odd about the Anglo-Indian auto mechanic, Paul da Costa, who came every Sunday to tinker with Dadda's car, and the silence his suicide brought to her mother, but young Kamini couldn't quite put her finger on what was going on.

"I didn't want to know about the prices of things, I wanted Chinna to tell me about my mother's childhood. Did she cry till she had a choking fit, as Ma had told me I used to do? Did she like boiled peanuts better than roasted ones? Did she cry when she fell or strut around showing off her wounds, like my cousin Indu? I believed that if I knew every little thing about Ma, I would be able to understand why she was happier here in this old building with high, thin windows that let in hardly any light than in the grand Railway colony houses where my Dadda waited for us to return with the new baby."

Only later, in the second half of the book, do we hear Saroja's story. It was Paul da Costa who was the first in the story to call Saroja "tamarind mem," for the sour fruit of the tamarind tree. The vagueness of Kamini's childhood memories make much more sense as described from her mother's point of view. Kamini had no idea what a passionless, lonely marriage her mother was part of. The two Moorthy women, once seeming so different from one another, are suddenly so much more alike when both of their stories are shared. Both are the oldest siblings in their families. Both women wish for higher educations - Saroja pleaded to be allowed to continue studying in medical school when her family insisted upon an arranged marriage so that the rest of her siblings could also be paired. Both receive silence instead of support from their mothers at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, Saroja tells her stories not to her own daughters, but to the unfamiliar women with whom she shares a railway berth when she finally travels India herself after her Railway husband is dead and her daughters are both grown and gone. Saroja did not grow up sharing affections in her family, so it's unlikely that Kamini will ever have the chance to understand her mother's experiences.

Lovingly described details - Sunday baths when mothers rub oil into their daughters' skins and have the time for more intimate chats, the varying odors as one departs the train station, the ceremony and loneliness of an arranged wedding night - lend authenticity to the story as the greater themes of mother-daughter relationships and women's issues are woven together.

Originally published abroad as Tamarind Mem in 1996, this novel will not satisfy the craving for a plot-driven story, but will be instantly recognizable by any woman whose mother or daughter has different memories than she does, or who senses that a connection can only be made by divulging the most private of secrets and longings to another generation who just might not understand.

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About the Author:

Anita Rau BadamiAnita Rau Badami was born in 1964 in the town of Rourkela in the eastern state of Orisson in India. 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. She attended Catholic schools in India, because, Ms. Badami explains, until around twenty years ago, the only good schools in India were these. English was the primary language in her home. Ms. Badami always enjoyed writing, and she sold her first story for a mere seventy-five rupees at the young age of eighteen.

Badami earned a Bachelor's Degree in English at the University of Madras. She then studied journalism in Sophia College in Bombay. 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. 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.

Several of her short stories appeared in Canadian literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Event, Toronto Review of Contemporary Fiction among others. The Hero’s Walk was the winner of the Marian Engel Award for excellence in fiction for a body of work; a Finalist in the 2000 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize for fiction; and on the longlist for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014