||First Novels - This Month, a Brood of Ten
by Eva Tihanyi
"Everything is true, and everything is false," observes a character in Anita Rau Badami's Tamarind Mem (Viking/Penguin, 266 pages, $19.99 paper), the paradox forming the central motif in a novel whose main concerns are the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of story-telling. Especially when it comes to family history, what is remembered as fact is frequently fiction.
The book opens with Kamini, who has left India for Calgary in pursuit of a chemical engineering doctorate. Her younger sister, Roopa, married, has also left and is living in the U.S., but their widowed mother, Saroja, is still in India-travelling alone around the country by train, telling her life story to travellers she meets along the way, and sending her daughters postcards that exacerbate rather than relieve their worry.
The book is told from two viewpoints (the first half from Kamini's, the second from Saroja's), a technique that serves the author well. It allows daughter and mother to each speak for herself, and the resulting ironies and differing perspectives make for a richly textured work. It eventually becomes apparent that Kamini is much more like her mother than she thinks-intelligent, ambitious, irascible, and sharp-tongued-and that both are far more interested in life's vagaries than is the unimaginative Roopa, who is content to live in the present, ignore "the hidden worlds that seethed beneath the ordinary." Badami evokes Indian life convincingly, both the sensory and the cultural experiences. It's a society of arranged marriages, where caste is everything, where sons count and daughters don't. It's a society (of the sixties and seventies) still pandering to British ways years after Independence. As Saroja reminds her husband, the two girls must go to convent schools because without English "they will be like the servants' children." How the women in one particular family react to this environment forms the core of a powerful story.