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

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Review: Lighten Up…& Not Just Your Suitcase (Here & There by A. A. Gill)

Many travel writing collections are “precious,” but not Here & There by A. A. Gill.  He writes with acerbic wit and irreverence. At the same time, he manages to share his fascination with people and places.

Gill, writing in “Spice of life” for example, acknowledges the poverty of Calcutta (he doesn’t use the city’s newer name, Mumbai) but raves about India’s post-Mogul culture and “an embarrassment of world-class universities.” Then, he goes on to note that “Calcutta was invented by the English on the banks of the Hooghly, the last stretch of the Ganges. It was a stupid place to build a city, but that never stopped the English.” After a number of suggestions to experience during your visit, he turns the tables: “I loved Calcutta because it’s a city on the way down…Cities that have been something and seen stuff have stories to tell. Places can be trippers or tourists or, like Calcutta, they can be travellers.” What a recommendation!

In an article called “Dawn of a new era,” Gill twigged memories from my Kenya-Tanzania trip, and he made me want to visit South Africa. He puzzles out how and why South Africa managed truth and reconciliation and elections, while avoiding civil war. Quirky, as always, Gill begins with a tokoloshe, which is a “Zulu demon, a nightstalker, a sprite goblin…a real five-star terror. He describes Jo’burg before and after apartheid. Gill also highlights a few things not to be missed: “Not just the apartheid museum,” (which he claims to be “the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I’ve spent in a museum for years”) but “the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent.” After musing about the cause of such luck, Gill concludes:

Personally, I think it was the tokoloshe that made South Africa hold back, divert the consequences of the past. South Africans lay awake in the hot night and heard the panting and the muffled sharpening of little goblin pangas and knew what the fears made flesh would bring. The tokoloshe still lurks under the bed, but the longer this normalcy goes on, the smaller the fears that feed him.

From Iceland to Vietnam, from the U.S. to Europe (East and West), Gill covers the map offering surprise discoveries and often wonky bits of information gleaned from the streets.

Here & There is a collection of 58 brief articles from all over the map, plus two introductory pieces. Without exception, the travel writing is sharp and insightful, written with empathy and humour, and it is thought-provoking. Gill also raises questions about traveling and travellers, and about travel writing. He also affirms something I believe (don’t we love when that happens?):

One of the things that fascinates me about travelling is how places make people. The received travel writing wisdom is always the other way round: it’s people who make places….But over and over I’m aware that the characteristics and beliefs of nations seem to flow from the land, seep up from the earth.

 Gill explains a bit about the norms of the travel industry, suggesting how and why the PR people are able to pique our interest and loosen the savings nested away during our work-a-day lives. About “Why go?” he shares a few ideas while debunking the notion that travels “broadens the mind” and emphatically that “the dumbest reasons for travel, the most thoughtless expectation of a holiday is to relax.”  He claims, “Travelling to do nothing is the great holiday oxymoron….” He’s less clear about the positive outcome, except it isn’t to know thyself (to borrow the cliché). It is about the people you meet and experiencing the places out of which they’ve grown. I think he’s urging us to travel curiously. About travel writing, Gill says, “The pleasure of the craft of journalism is that you start to work for money, but end up working with friends, and collaborating….” It is about the people and about experience (again).

My bookshelf should be drooping, given the weight of the travel books stacked on it. Here & There differs from all of them.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Here & There