TAMARIND WOMAN by Anita Rau Badami. $23.95. 266 pp. 2002 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NC.

Anita Rau Badami’s novel, Tamarind Woman, is a short but sweet read. It is separated into two parts: one narrated by Kamini; and the other by the mother, Saroja. As the story unfolds, Kamini, who has just recently moved to Canada from India, calls Saroja from the silence of her basement apartment and reaches across the oceans to stir up memories.

“She looks like a sweeper-caste child,” the grandmother proclaims on the birth of Kamini’s sister, laying down the child’s destiny in a society where black is not beautiful. Ma pushes Kamini to “studystudystudy” even though all she wants to do is to read Mills and Boon romances.

In the second part of Tamarind Woman, the story unfolds in the Ladies compartment of a train to Nagpur. Saroja narrates her life to her travelling companions, weaving in and out of the present. With the death of Dadda, Saroja has escaped her prison and with her daughters gone, she doesn’t belong to anyone, for she has reached that stage in her life where she can only turn the pages of a book already written, she does not write. Saroja brings into her marriage her tamarind sharp tongue.

“There’s something wrong with the women in this family,” she tells her grandfather. “They are like cows.” The Ladies compartment was a cherished tradition that allowed women to travel alone without being subject to advances by men. Given the fact that India is so vast and so diverse, some thought that women travelling alone were asking for trouble.

Kamini’s voice does not always ring true. At times, Badami is unable to portray the voice of a nine-year old convincingly. Constantly trying to divert Ma’s 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 engineer’s hands could not build a bridge to span it.” Saroja spends hours chatting with her friends on the telephone or disappearing for a matinee show. But “later, later when Dadda came home Ma went thin-lipped and mean.” Saroja is resentful towards her husband, but she plays the dutiful wife. 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 a threat hovering over her: Ma might leave her marriage and with it, Kamini, behind. We are left to wonder why.

Early on Kamini sees the mechanic, Paul da Costa’s body hanging from the ceiling. Then she remembers that, “Ma refused to speak a word for a longlong time.” We do not know the significance of this event as Badami waits another hundred pages or so before we hear of da Costa who does a “terriblehorrible” thing.

Like a growing number of writers with roots in the Indian subcontinent, Badami uses repeated words like “longlong” and “terrible-terrible” to illustrate the melodious quality of Indian languages. Sometimes, however, she loses this harmony when Saroja says: “How much I argue with Appa to study there!” Or “While I, his wife, other half of his body.”

More convincing is Saroja’s voice as a wife and mother. And here, too, the transitions between the past and the present littered with flashbacks do not explain certain events. The readers want to know what actually happened with da Costa when we learn that Saroja “wants him.” A pretty strong statement that screams for more. But Badami allows Saroja to remain the perfect memsahib and zigzags through Saroja’s present and into her past with brief anecdotes about her childhood.

The title of the novel is the nickname by which Saroja is known for her sharp tongue and wit. Like the fruit of the tamarind tree, Saroja’s has a bitter tongue and she lives the protected life of a Memsahib.
Tamarind Woman provides an excellent read and manages to keep the reader’s curiosity alive. It’s strength lies in the author’s ability to portray women who have the courage to go through life without breaking social and religious barriers.

Nalini Warriar’s first book of short stories “Blues from the Malabar Coast” was published by TSAR Publications.