Anita Rau Badami’s Tamarind Mem (1996)
Penguin Books, 1998

Tamarind Mem opens with a telephone call, from Kamini (who is studying in Calgary) to her mother (in India).

Tension mingles with fondness: it’s an introduction in broad strokes.

The conversation is relayed from Kamini’s perspective and then the narrative slips back in time, to Kamini at six-years-old, staying at her grandmother’s while her mother, Saroja, recovers from the birth of a second child (Kamini’s younger sister, Roopa).

Half-way through the novel, the narrative then slips back even further in time and into another perspective; the second half of the novel is told as Saroja, Kamini’s mother, remembers back to years in the past in which she was younger than her own daughter in the novel’s opening scene, years characterized by conflict with her own mother and sister.

Neither girl fully understands their mother, their struggles to push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour for women, to find happiness despite cultural limitations.

One mother neither supports nor encourages her daughter to study rather than marry, though she does not forbid it as another, more traditional mother might have done.

Another mother, a generation later, affords her daughter the opportunity, but seems to be dissatisfied with her daughter’s choice all the same.

Amongst women, it’s debated: the way to exercise one’s oft-limited power, even when they choose to maintain traditional roles, simply in the way they negotiate their daily lives.

“‘Why do you fight with him?’ she asks. ‘Cry a little, beg, wheedle. How does it hurt you? Appa feels that he has the power to refuse and you get what you want. All men are like that. Why you have to say this and that and make everybody angry?’”

The power that other women seem to possess is fascinating, even viewed through the eyes of a young girl. Samina is thrilled by the appearance of her girlfriend Shabnam’s mother, who “ripened within the dark heat of her burkha” and believes her to be a queen.

Samina follows that other mother around her home, out from beneath Linda Ayah’s watchful eye, trying to sneak a peek beneath the veil. And, around her own home, Samina tries to decipher the truth about what’s happening in her family.

“There were times when I felt that every single person in the house was talking about something different. Hidden rivers of meaning flowed across the room, sliding beneath and above each other, intersecting to create a savage whirlpool.”

It’s mysterious to her as a young girl and many of those questions remain for her, even as she grows up. The reader gains a greater understanding; some of that river’s depths are revealed in the later segment of Tamarind Mem though others are left to the reader’s imagination.

Strong women’s voices: Samina and Saroja are credible characters, who remind the reader that what has come before is largely unknown and, often, misunderstood. It’s worth a second look.

This is my first of her works, though I’ve collected them for years. Have you read her fiction before? Or thought about it?

Companion Reads:

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstones
Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms