Anita Rau Badami’s Tamarind Mem
March 13, 2002
Badamis first novel, Tamarind Mem, is a short but sweet read. It is separated into two parts: one narrated by Kamini; the other by her mother. As the story unfolds, Kamini, who has just recently moved to Canada from India, calls her mother from the silence of her basement apartment. The words of the mother, Saroja, reach across the oceans and stir up memories in the daughters mind.
Kamini is of an indefinable age when her sister, Roopa is born. She looks like a sweeper-caste child, the grandmother proclaims, laying down the childs destiny in a society where black is not beautiful. Kaminis Ma pushes her to studystudystudy even though all she wants to do is to read Mills and Boon romances. Her Ma wants her to be a doctor or an engineer like she herself was not able to. Constantly trying to divert Mas attention from Roopa, Kamini gets very adept at playing Dadda against Ma knowing that a chasm gaped between my parents, a hole so deep that even Dadda with his engineers hands could not build a bridge to span it. At first Ma talks while Dadda locks himself into a tight box of silence. This changes over the years. Ma in turn builds her own abyss of silence that grows around her with each year of marriage. With her childish intuition, Kamini is aware of the threat hovering over her: Ma might leave her marriage and with it, Kamini, behind.
Roopa, the sister with no imagination, has made her destiny happen. We see little of Roopa who does the unspeakable and marries a meat-eater and runs away to the USA. Kamini herself wishes to go to a university as far away from Madras as possible for Mas constant unhappiness runs like a dark thread through our lives.
In the second part of Tamarind Mem, Saroja brings into her marriage her tamarind sharp tongue. Theres something wrong with the women in this family, she tells her grandfather. When called upon to explain, she says, all they did was to have children and gossip. They are like cows. Saroja narrates her life to her travelling companions, weaving in and out of the present.
That first night with a husband who is only 6 years younger than her father, Saroja wonders if he notices how soft her skin is. She holds her breath while he fumbles with the hooks on her blouse. Once, his voice cracks open a command and then it is silence. And even though Saroja is brought up in a society where you never tell your child how clever or pretty she is because such a blatant admission would surely summon up the worst of imps and goblins, she waits for her husband to stroke her face, to tell her how beautiful she is. She believes it is his duty towards her, his wife, for hadnt she kept her skin soft and hair fragrant for him, this faceless man in her dreams? He calls her Ay and before the birth of the children, she never uses his either. After the birth of Kamini, Saroja calls him Dadda, a word she can utter without feeling discomfort. Now marriage is not escaping from one locked room into another, wandering in a maze forever and hitting my nose against closed doors. Now marriage is a silent war, for Saroja holds her tamarind tongue. And the silence fills the empty house.
With the death of Dadda, Saroja escapes her prison. With her daughters gone, she doesnt belong to anyone, for she too has reached that stage in her life where she can only turn the pages of a book already written, she does not write. Paul da Costa plays a brief role although he does a terriblehorrible thing from Kaminis point of view. From Saroja we learn that she wants him. But she remains the perfect memsahib. And the few paltry sentences that tantalize the reader do little to quench the thirst.