Cover image for Tamarind woman
Tamarind woman
Badami, Anita Rau.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Tamarind mem
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, [2002]

Physical Description:
266 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
Previously published as: Tamarind mem. Toronto : Viking, 1996.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Set in the railway colonies of India, Tamarind Woman tells a sweeping story of two generations of women. Kamini, an overachiever, lives in a self-imposed exile in Canada. Her mother, Saroja, nicknamed Tamarind Woman due to her sour tongue, is trapped by the customs of traditional Indian life. When Saroja informs her daughter that she has sold their house and is going on a journey across India alone by train, both women are plunged into the past, confronting their dreams and disappointments as well as their long-held secrets.

At the center of both their lives is Kamini's elusive father, an officer for the India Railway System. Often away from home working on the railroads, he is unaware of the secrets of his own household. He doesn't know that his wife disappears for days at a time, leaving Kamini and her favored younger sister in the care of their superstitious servant. Nor does he know the gossip surrounding his wife and the local mechanic. Nothing, however, escapes Kamini's notice. Only now, living in Canada, is she able to make sense of the eccentric family she's left behind. Only now, with her children grown and her husband long deceased, is Saroja able to make peace with her past.

Lyrical, compassionate, and wise, Tamarind Woman is a powerful novel about family, memory, and the traditions that tear us apart and bring us together.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Badami's second novel explores the relationship of a mother and daughter, Saroja and Kamini. In the first half, Kamini comes of age among postcolonial India's railway colonies. Her father is often away, charting new frontiers for railway expansion, and she is left home with her mother and sister. She eventually leaves for Canada, where she remains wistful for the smells and sounds of India. Kamini worries when her mother suddenly departs for a trip across India, with only postcards marking her whereabouts. Saroja then speaks, telling her story of longing for a life independent of the demands of a husband and family. She recounts her loveless marriage and thwarted attempts to become a doctor, her often vicious commentaries earning her the nickname Tamarind Mem, after the sour fruit that grows in her backyard. Badami's brilliant and beautiful novel captures life in India--the musicality of the English spoken, the interactions with servants, the smells of rotting fruit in the market, the sweltering sun, and the constant moving about of a railway family. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

Though it's being published in the U.S. after Badami's well-received second novel, The Hero's Walk, this is actually her first, covering terrain common to many first novels: the relationship between a mother and a daughter. The story of the Moorthy family is first told by Kamini, the elder of two daughters. Enrolled in graduate school in Calgary, Kamini sits homesick in her basement apartment, recalling her childhood from the birth of her sister when Kamini is six to the day she leaves for Canada. She describes a complex family and a conflict between parents that she barely understands a bitter mother and a father who's always away. Then her mother, Saroja, weighs in, broadening and deepening Kamini's story. Saroja is also the eldest daughter, a smart girl whose ambitions to become a doctor are subverted when her family pushes her into an arranged marriage to a man 15 years older than herself. Her marriage remains as stunted as her ambitions, and Saroja welcomes the attentions of a half-caste auto mechanic. She narrates all this to the women who share her train compartment as she tours places in India she could not visit while raising her daughters. Badami writes graceful, evocative prose and plays complex variations on her themes. All her characters are vibrant and deftly drawn, and her narrators' opposing points of view create a poignant irony. She might have trimmed away some of the many smaller stories to make room for the central drama, but that is a small complaint for a first novel that reveals so much talent. (Mar. 29) Forecast: Badami got lots of exposure with the publication of The Hero's Walk, and readers on the lookout for her next book will not be disappointed by this earlier effort. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Originally published in India in 1996, this first novel is Badami's second to appear in the United States, after The Hero's Walk (LJ 3/15/01). Here she relates the story of Saroja, as told by her daughter Kamini and by Saroja herself. Kamini's memories are triggered when she learns of her mother's plan to journey across India without itinerary. Kamini's inability to contact her mother while she travels mirrors her childhood feelings of neglect and abandonment. In embarking on her travels, Saroja not only defies the narrow expectations of her parents, who pushed her into a loveless marriage and ended her ambitions, but she also breaks away from the expectations of her daughter. Although set primarily in India, this portrait of a mother and daughter transcends geographical limitations. And though the book bears some similarities to Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter (LJ 1/01), Badami provides no tidy resolutions to intergenerational and intercultural conflicts. Mother and daughter begin and end their stories alone. This thoughtful work is recommended for all public and academic fiction collections. Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. "Well, who asked you to go?" Ma would have demanded. "Did somebody tie your hands behind your back and say 'Go-go to that Calgary North Pole place'?" So instead I said, "Ma, there are mountains in the distance, all covered with snow. I can see them gleaming like silver cones in the sunlight when I go outside my apartment." "You sound like a travel brochure," said Ma. "I hope you wear that sweater your Aunty Lalli knit for you, you catch cold so easily." "These mountains are almost as tall as the Eastern Ghats. Do you remember that trip with Dadda in his inspection saloon?" "The Western Ghats." "We never went up the Western Ghats, Ma. You are talking about the Eastern Ghats." "Don't tell me what I am talking about," snapped Ma. "We went up Bhore Ghat and you started crying when the engine had to reverse downhill because you thought we were going to crash off the cliffs. Roopa had an asthmatic attack--your father left us nothing but a legacy of sickness--and that foolish office peon we had then, what was his name?" "Bhurey Lal," I said. "But Ma, that was not on Bhore Ghat. You are inventing your memories." "Yes, Bhurey Lal, he was loyal though, do you remember, he stayed up all night leaning against the fridge door because every time the train jerked the door flew open and all the food fell out? Do you remember now?" "Ma, I remember perfectly, but it was on the Araku Valley section. Where we stopped in the middle of the Dandakaranya forest and Dadda told us that this was the same forest in the Ramayana where Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. And we got fresh honey from the tribals in the forest." "Kamini, what tribals? You are making up stories." "Why do you always believe that I am making up stories? I don't, I never have." "There you go again," said Ma, triumphant. "What did I tell you? Hanh?" I sighed and changed the subject. Ma still wanted to win every argument, she would never-ever change. The year that I turned six, I began to sense a strange movement deep inside Ma's body, a pulsing beneath the skin. Yes, certainly there was a difference. I, who was so sensitive to every nuance in my mother, could feel it every time I climbed into her lap. Ma sat motionless in the verandah, and her hands, normally busy with knitting or hemming, darning or cutting, lay quiet on the folds of her sari. She barely spoke, and I felt that if I had missed my mother before, when she disappeared into one of her moody silences, now I had lost her completely. She wouldn't allow me on her lap, pushed me gently away, pleading in a distant voice, "Baby, I am tired, go and play." I was suffused with a helpless jealousy against this thing that had stolen Ma. Not even my father's hug, his stories about the man-eater of Kantabhanji, the elephant who fell in love with a steam engine, the beehives hanging like upside-down palaces beneath a forest bridge, none of these stories diminished my hurt. "Noni," said Dadda, "come, I will tell you about the Lakshman-jhoola bridge. That bridge is hundreds of years old, it is said, made of rope and wood and prayers. It swings thin as a dream over the River Ganga thundering down a rocky gorge, and on the underside of the bridge is a city of bees. You can hear their buzzing over the sound of rushing water, and you have to walk across the Lakshman-jhoola without shaking it even a bit, for then the queen bee wakes up from her sleep and sends her armies after you. Noni, are you listening?" I closed my ears to my father's tale and asked instead, "Dadda, why is Ma so quiet?" Perhaps I would run away, then Ma would rise from her silence and wail after me, "My darling, come back." I packed my Meenu doll, a toothbrush and the chocolate bar Dadda had bought from Billimoria Uncle's petrol bunk. "Where are you going, my kishmish?" asked Linda Ayah absently. Even Linda had no time for me, so busy was she fussing over Ma, who was now beginning to look like a taut and lustrous mango. "Nowhere," I said, shifting my bag to the other hand. Linda Ayah looked up sharply. "Uh-huh, what mischief are you up to, monkey-child?" she asked. I burst into tears and immediately Linda Ayah became all attentive and sweet. "My kanmani, my baby, Linda will hoof-hoof everything away," she said, wiping my face with the end of her sari, stroking my hair. "Now what is happening, tell me?" It all tumbled out. Ma had gone away somewhere, only a ghost lived in her body. When Dadda went out of town on line duty I was allowed to sleep in Ma's room, and when I woke in the night for water or pee-pee, she was not there. The verandah door was open, and when I thought I was going to dry up from thirst, the ghost wandered in pretending to be my mother. "You dream too much," said Linda Ayah, her veined arms tight about my body. "Your Ma is not a ghost. She loves you still but you are too heavy for her. She has a baby inside her tummy now, my sugar bit." I had three months to get used to the idea of having another child in the house. When it came time for the baby to be born, Ma went back to her mother's home in Mandya. My grandmother's house was full of people, some of whom lived there and others who visited for a couple of days, caught up on all the family gossip and left. I liked the house, for unlike the Railway colony house we lived in, there seemed to be no secrets lurking in the corners of rooms, and best of all, none of the ghosts and goblins about which Linda Ayah told me. Ma was a different person here, giggling with her sisters, allowing her aunts and cousins to pamper her. I wished we could live in that house forever. When my sister was born, all the relatives were surprised at how dark she was. "Where did this one come from?" remarked Chinna, Ma's widowed aunt, who was a permanent member of my grandmother's household. She cupped the baby's head with one gnarled hand and cradled its tiny bottom with the other. "No one in our family is as black as this child. Must be from your husband's side," said Ajji, my grandmother. "She looks like a sweeper-caste child." How cruel Ajji was, I thought. I glanced at Ma, lying in bed refusing to comment, watching dreamily as the baby was oiled and massaged, bathed and rocked to sleep by Chinna or Ajji. She took my sister from them only to feed her, allowing me to watch the infant suck and snort at the plump nipple. She let me touch the baby's cheek, smiling as the creature left the breast to suck blindly in the direction of my wondering finger. "Seesee, she likes you already," she laughed. "She knows that her big sister is going to look after her." "Meghna, that's what we will name her," suggested Ajji. "She is like a dark, rain-filled cloud." Ma did not agree. "No," she said, "her name is Roopa." Afterwards, people looked at the two of us and said that we looked like the sun and its shadow. Ma held Roopa against her breast and said, "No, not the sun and its shadow. You have it all wrong. Kamini and Roopa--wealth and beauty--that is what my two daughters are." And some people raised their eyebrows as if to say, "That darkblack thing, a beauty? Only a fond mother's eyes can see beauty where it does not lie. After all, if you ask a crow who sings the best in the world, won't she point to her own chick?" Ma and Roopa and I stayed for three months at Ajji's house. That was the amount of time a daughter stayed with her parents after the birth of a child. "Time enough to be pampered and washed, to rest from the pain of bearing life," said Ajji firmly, making sure that Ma heard, because she wasn't willing to keep a married daughter in the house for longer than that. "After that you return to your husband." For three months Ma went back to being a girl, sleeping when Roopa did, playing cowrie with me. She sat in the back verandah allowing her oiled limbs to soak up the sun, waited for Chinna to summon her for a bath, moaning with pleasure as steamy-hot water was poured over her puffy body. Later on, she stood pliant and drowsy in her blouse and petticoat while Chinna wound a soft, old sari about her belly. "To bring your mother's waist back," she explained to me, and pulled the cloth so tight that Ma said she couldn't breathe. Of all the people in Ajji's house, Chinna was the most interesting. She was small and quick, with the look of a darting brown bird about her. Her head was shaved clean as she was a widow and was not allowed any vanities such as long hair or pretty clothes. Fate had deprived Chinna of the joys of normal life, yet she enjoyed herself more fully than anybody else I knew. Chinna loved the latest films, clapping enthusiastically with the rowdy theatre crowds when the hero appeared on screen. She smacked her lips over the chocolates that relatives brought for her from England. "Ah, I can taste a different land, I can taste the sweetness of the people there," she sighed, delicately unwrapping the silver paper and taking a lick at the little chocolate before popping it into her mouth and sucking noisily. Ajji watched sourly. "Who would think she is a grown woman? Look at how silly she behaves!" I was frightened of my grandmother, a slow, silent woman who regarded me with what seemed like a complete lack of interest. She never told me stories, like Chinna, nor did she pamper me with sweets and toys. Oh yes, Ajji bought me a new silk lehenga and matching bangles every time we visited, but the gold on the cloth was thinner than it was on Gopal Uncle's daughter's. "Ajji, why is mine less shiny than Aparna's?" I demanded, piqued by the unfairness. "What a girl!" exclaimed my grandmother, her mouth stained with red paan juice as if she had drunk blood. "You are lucky that I even got you a nice skirt. Aparna is my son's child, remember?" Nono, I did not like Ajji very much at all. Thatha, my grandfather, was all right, but he insisted on reading to me from huge philosophy books, his voice putting me to sleep. "Thus did Krishna explain the nature of the world to Arjuna," he droned, his hands waving, emphasizing every word that Lord Krishna uttered, while I looked longingly out the window or watched a large black ant march purposefully towards his twitching foot. Thatha had started twitching when he turned sixty, a couple of years before, tiny shudders that travelled in waves all over his liver-spotted body, as if a creature inside was struggling to get out. My cousins and I had made a game out of guessing when the next twitch would attack Thatha, and when the old man found out about it, he would shiver extravagantly to make us laugh. Thatha died three years after Roopa was born, a heart attack seizing his body as he energetically chopped the green shell off a coconut. He had performed this task for as long as I could remember, his left hand cradling the coconut, his right clenched on a cleaver slicing the thin morning air and thuck! The pale, silver water lay revealed like a secret lake, sweet and ready to drink. Ajji grumbled at this ritual, complaining that Thatha was being silly, performing young tricks with an old body. "To show off to you little ones," she said. "He is fond of children." Ajji did not think there was any point in becoming fond of people, especially children, for they grew up and changed, disappointed their parents, filled them with sorrow, got married and left the house, or died before you really knew them. Chinna said that at Ma's birth the only thing Ajji asked was whether the child was a boy. When the dai said no, Ajji sighed, for now she would have to have another one. That year the sugar cane yield was so good that everybody who came to see the baby said that she was Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, incarnate. Putti, Ma's grandmother, wanted to name her after the goddess, but the family priest said that Ma's name should begin with a different letter, one that was more auspicious, more in harmony with Ma's birth stars. "When Saroja, your Ma, was born," said Chinna, her old eyes squinting as if searching the past, "you could get a whole garden of beans for a rupee. Why, you could get three bushels of sugar cane fresh from the fields for that princely sum of money. These days a bit of cane is a luxury, even here in this place where the fields are full. What is the world coming to?" 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. Excerpted from Tamarind Woman by Anita Rau Badami All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.