Of Mothers and Daughters (Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami

“I called my mother every Sunday from the silence of my basement apartment, reluctant to tell her how I yearned to get away from this freezing cold city where even the traffic sounds were muffled by the snow.”

The novel opens with this bit of narrative. Kamini is studying in Calgary (what her mother, still in India, calls “that Calgary North Pole place”), but most of the story unfolds in India, beginning when Kamini is only six years old.

Tamarind Mem (published in the U.S. as Tamarind Woman) is the first of four novels by Anita Rau Badami. The novel languished on my bedside table for a very long time, always being resorted to the bottom of an ever-changing pile of books. Then, I picked it up and didn’t put it down until immersion into a life I can barely imagine was sated. It is the story of women, of mothers and daughters and all the complexities those relationships hold (and bury). It’s a story of horoscopes (iffy ones) and memories (steeped like tea). Our protagonist Kamini says,

I was never sure about Ma’s feelings for me. Her love, I felt sometimes, was like the waves in the sea, the ebb and flow left me reaching out hungrily. A love as uncertain as the year that I was born, when the Chinese had marched across the border into India making a mockery of the slogan “Hindu-Chinee brothers-brothers.” That year the price of rice shot up, a grim famine swept across the north, and nothing was the same again.

Not a great beginning for a girl-child.

Like The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge and Birds of Passage by Robert Solé (both previously reviewed), Tamarind Mem is a family saga, although somewhat smaller in its reach. These three novels explore place (Portugal, Egypt, and India) and movement away (migration). They are also stories that seek understanding about a character’s place in the family.

Badami probes memory and cultural heritage – and the experiences and values conflict from time-to-time in the mother-daughter narrative. The women, often at odds, are joined by love, stubbornness, and folly too. Men are scarce: Kamini’s father is a “railroad man” who travels all over India and who is seldom home and there’s also the auto mechanic. The men come and go, leaving bits behind. The father leaves a railroad pass after his death. On it, Kamini’s mother, Saroja, travels across India, retracing her husband’s path. Kamini travels to Calgary to study, her sister, Roopa, marries and moves to Toronto; an old nursemaid Linda Ayah and extended family of aunties are left behind.

This is a book blessed with many reviews. What new can I offer? Little…except to pose the question: what is the value in reading any novel? For me, magic lies in the flow of words, of how each story unfolds. I want my curiosity satisfied, to learn a fact and to gain an insight. The story need not to be “hot off the press,” to borrow a cliché, or on any “10 best” list. It needs to show me something I didn’t know I needed to see, needed to understand. Tamarind Mem provides a glimpse into a distant world, migration, the conflict of generations and of cultures, the universally felt experience of mother-daughter impatience, misunderstandings, and love. This story is sensitively and beautifully told, a first novel worthy of a read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: Tamarind Mem

18 Tamarind Mem

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