The Washington Post
The Toss of a Lemonby Padma Viswanathan
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Sivakami was married at ten, widowed at eighteen, and left with two children. According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she puts on widow's whites. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. Sivakami dutifully follows custom, except for one defiant act: She moves back to her dead husband's house to raise her children. There, her servant Muchami, a closeted gay man who is bound by a different caste's rules, becomes her public face. Their singular relationship holds three generations of the family together through the turbulent first half of the twentieth century, as India endures great social and political change. But as time passes, the family changes, too; Sivakami's son will question the strictures of the very beliefs that his mother has scrupulously upheld. The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family.
The Washington Post
Journalist, playwright and short-story writer Viswanathan's absorbing first novel, based on her grandmother's life, goes deep into the world of southern India village life. Starting in 1896, the story follows Sivakami, a Tamil Brahmin girl, from her marriage at the age of 10 through her long widowhood, while Indian political and social life lumbers through immense changes. Before he dies, Sivakami's astrologer husband, Hanumarathnam, foresees his death in the malignant interactions between his stars and his son Vairum's. Though he trains a trustworthy servant to assist Sivakami until their son comes of age, the world that Hanumarathnam leaves behind is rapidly changing, and the family is not entirely fit to survive it; Vairum, especially, suffers the pain of a father's disaffection and, later, a widowed mother forbidden to touch any human being during daylight hours. Irreconcilable conflicts between tradition-especially the strict caste rules of Brahmin life-and the modernizing world lead predictably to alienation and tragedy, but on an epic scale. Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and worldviews to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Viswanathan's enormous first novel spans 66 years-from 1896 to 1962-in the life of one Tamil family. The matriarch of the clan, Sivakami, a Brahmin, was married at ten and widowed at 18. Already a mother of two, Sivakami was determined to set a pious example. This meant that she shaved her head, wore only white, and touched no one, not even her children or grandchildren, between dusk and dawn. What's more, she obeyed the custom of staying inside her home, venturing outdoors only three times in the many decades before her death. Sivakami's proscribed world is portrayed in amazing detail, and the life of the Brahmin elite is vividly captured. Unaccountably, the book fails to mention Gandhi-a prominent figure in this era-making the political landscape somewhat incomplete. This is especially odd since social change forms the backdrop of Viswanathan's sweeping narrative. Still, the portrait she paints is dazzling. Gender rules, class relations, and the political castes of late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century India are well presented, making this an important work of historical fiction. Highly recommended for all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
Eleanor J. Bader
Praise for THE TOSS OF A LEMON:
"Padma Viswanathan has real talent." -- The New York Times Book Review
"A brilliant tour de force." - India Today
"Viswanathan's book, like Rushdie's work, aims for epic status. But it actually achieves something that is in many way more nuanced than the broad brushstrokes of an epic: a meditation on fate's workings in a family dominted by the quiet rule of one woman- and the struggle of her son against the strictures of her belief." -- The Washington Post Book World
"We are left wondering what will happen as all cultures in the world continue to converge -- will a collective future become more important than singular, personal pasts? -- a mystery that the book earns, and one that haunts us well after closing the back cover." - Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Viswanathan immerses readers in the realities of the caste system from both sides; in telling a universal story of generational differences on a personal level, she makes a vanished world feel completely authentic. Superbly done." - Booklist
"the portrait [Viswanathan] paints is dazzling. Gender rules, class relations, and the political castes of late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century India are well presented, making this an important work of historical fiction." - Library Journal, starred review
"Viswanathan's absorbing first novel, based on her grandmother's life, goes deep into the world of sourthern India village life...Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and worldviews to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners." - Publishers Weekly
"[Viswanathan's] narrative, refreshingly, is free of anachronism, and she has a pleasing way of engaging the reader’s senses—not least with some mouth-watering descriptions of 'dry and wet curries, pacchadis of yogurt and cucumber…deep-fried patties of lentil and chili,' and other such delicacies....Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez—altogether a pleasure." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic and yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family’s doorstep. It is also the debut of a major new voice in world fiction." - Booklounge.ca
"This is a rich, sensual book that uses life itself as its plot…reading it is an experience of immersion.... There is a whole world here between two covers." - The National Post (Canada)
"It [The Toss of a Lemon] pads in on little cat feet and rips you along. You don’t realize you’re on an epic journey in the midst of a generational saga until you’re well along and it’s far, far too late to turn back. Not that you’d want to. Not that you even could…. What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity…The Toss of A Lemon is astonishing. Brilliant. Beautiful." - January Magazine (Canada)
"With its rich and complex background and often sharp insights The Toss of a Lemon is a valuable and evocative work…" - The Montreal Gazette
"[I]n The Toss of a Lemon we see exactly how magnetic, how sinkingly seductive that [Brahmin] life was, and how difficult it must have been when the habits and customs of millennia were overturned by the shock of the new…Leaving the book feels like getting out of a warm bath on a cold day. Viswanathan is a charming writer…one’s senses are overwhelmed by a rich density…Viswanathan makes clear the fear and ferocious love motivating ancient tribes, clans and classes that cling to the old ways." - The Globe and Mail
"The brilliance of The Toss of a Lemon rests not so much in its intricate plotting as in the compressed, poetic precision with which Viswanathan depicts a lost world." - Walrus
"This soaring new novel, inspired by the Edmonton author’s family history, will draw comparisons to The God of Small Things, but Viswanathan has a voice and a vision all her own." - Chatelaine
"The Toss of a Lemon is an ambitious work that delivers through its careful examination of class hierarchies, gender divisions, and complex familial relationships…the prose is crisp enough to create a concrete sense of the places that the characters inhabit. The language captures unspoken melancholy through the rhythm of strummed drone strings, or the wonder of childhood curiousity through the taste of soil that ‘is crunchy and damply acrid and contains a couple of jasmine petals'.….Ultimately the family at the centre of the novel serves as a fascinating microcosm of a a nation that is freeing itself of vestiges of colonialism and class divisions." - - Quill and Quire
"The story is heartbreaking and exhilarating, exotic yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family." – The Asian Star
"In this, her debut novel, Padma Viswanathan performs a wondrous balancing act of words. She sustains a vivid sense of the moment while spanning decades, brings unforgettable individual characters to life while recounting a saga of generations, and lays bare the inner worlds of those characters while evoking an entire nation in turmoil. Rich with sensual detail, The Toss of a Lemon is the story of a community centred on tradition during an era of upheaval and change. Above all, it is a moving and deftly-drawn portrait of a family." - Alissa York
"It’s a remarkable achievement for a book to capture the slow, stately pace of an 8,000 year old culture and yet keep a story moving at a brisk pace. The Toss of a Lemon gives readers the rare opportunity to enter the life of a Brahmin widow, to live her norms and routines and rituals as they have been lived by countless women over thousands of years. I closed it indebted for this immersion in a world I could not have otherwise entered." - Shyam Selvadurai
"The Toss of a Lemon is a glorious feat, as boisterously written as it is wholly engrossing. It’s about love – and cruelty – and how each reverberate across the generations in one family. And it is that rare thing, a novel that manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time." - Peter Orner
"What pleasure it was to read this rich and fascinating saga. It had me keeping the light on into the night, mad to find out what happened next." -- Lynn Freed, author of Reading, Writing, Leaving Home, Curse of the Appropriate Man, and the The Servants' Quarters
"The Toss of a Lemon is a captivating novel that in relating the story of one Indian woman and her family tells the story of a changing society. Precisely and deftly written, constantly interesting, morally serious yet sympathetic -- I challenge any reader to start reading this book and give up on it. It joins the company of the great novels on India" -- Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
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1.Thangam 1896 THE YEAR OF THE MARRIAGE PROPOSAL, Sivakami is ten. She is neither tall nor short for her age, but she will not grow much more. Her shoulders are narrow but appear solid, as though the blades are fused to protect her heart from the back. She carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her. She and her family live in Samanthibakkam, some hours away by bullock cart from Cholapatti, which had been her mother’s place before marriage. Every year, they return to Cholapatti for a pilgrimage. They fill a pot at the Kaveri River and trudge it up to the hilltop temple to offer for the abhishekham. These are pleasant, responsible, God-fearing folk who seek the blessings of their gods on any undertaking and any lack thereof. They maintain awe toward those potentially wiser or richer than they—like the young man of Cholapatti, who is blessed with the ability to heal. No one in their family is sick, but still they go to the healer. They may be less than totally healthy and simply not know. One can always use a preventative, and it never hurts to receive the blessings of a blessed person. This has always been the stated purpose of the trip, and Sivakami has no reason to think this one is any different. Hanumarathnam, the healer, puts his palms together in a friendly namaskaram, asks how they have been and whether they need anything specific. They shyly shake their heads, and he queries, with a penetrating squint, "Nothing?" Sivakami is embarrassed by her parents, who are acting like impoverished peasants. They owe this man their respect, but they are Brahmins too, and literate, like him. They can hold up their heads. She’s smiling to herself at his strange name: a hybrid of "Hanuman," the monkey god, and rathnam, gem. The suffix she understands; it’s attached to the name of every man in the region. But no one is named for the monkey! Her mother and father cast glances at each other; then her father clears his throat. "Ah, our daughter here has just entered gurubalam. We are about to start searching for a groom." "Oh, well," Hanumarathnam responds with a wink, "I deal in medicine, not charms." Sivakami’s parents giggle immoderately. Their daughter stares at the packed dust of the Brahmin-quarter street. Her three older brothers fidget. "But you have my blessings," Hanumarathnam continues, making a small package of some powder. "And this, dissolved in milk and drunk each day, this will give you strength. Just generally. It will help." Then he looks at Sivakami. She doesn’t look up. When he asks her parents, "Have you done the star chart yet?" his voice sounds different. They haven’t. "Come at dusk. I’ll do it for you." What could be better? The humble folk trip back to their relatives’, four doors down the street, for snacks and happy anticipation of their consultation with the auspicious young man, who also has some fame as an astrologer. At that strange hour that gives the impression of light even though each figure is masked by darkness, Sivakami’s father, with two of the male relatives, finds Hanumarathnam on his veranda. He cannot make out the young man’s features, but the slant of his chest and head suggests wisdom and peace. So young and a widower, by a freak accident: his wife drowned in the Kaveri River before she ever came to live with him. His parents were already dead. He lives with relatives while his own house—his parents’ home, the second to last on the Brahmin-quarter—stays locked, dark and still. Hanumarathnam stands to greet them; they take their seats; they make brief small talk as his aunt brings tumblers of yogourt churned with lemon water and salt. He examines the chart by a kerosene lamp while the men finger their shoulder towels. He makes some calculations. He purses his lips and takes in a sharp breath before speaking. "I, well, I must say it. I have just entered gurubalam myself." Sivakami’s father hesitates. "Oh?" "I will make more detailed calculations, but this is my reasoned guess . . . Your daughter’s horoscope is compatible with mine." The young man licks his lips, no longer the astrological authority but instead the nervous suitor. He speaks too quickly. "I am obliged to mention, of course, or perhaps you have already heard: the weakest quadrant of my horoscope has a small shadow . . . It . . . it faintly suggests I will die in my ninth year of marriage. But, as that prediction is contained in the weakest quadrant, it holds no weight, as you know, though ignorant people let it scare them." The men do not know but are not ignorant enough to say so, and anyway, Hanumarathnam has not paused in his speech. "And most often, the birth of a son changes the configuration, as you know. I understand it must be difficult for you to consider giving your daughter as a second wife. My first wife, she drowned to death in her tenth year. Only three years after our marriage, you see, and it was not I who died, you see? It was her. Quite contrary to the negative quadrant of the horoscope. An, an unfortunate, accident. So I have no children, and I am still young. I have money and manage well. I am speaking on my own behalf only because I have no father and I know the horoscopes better than anyone." He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father. "I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please . . . consider me." That night, Sivakami’s father relates his impressions to her mother. They are positively disposed toward the young man and feel they trust his astrology and his good intentions. They ask their relatives in the morning: have they heard anything against Hanumarathnam or his kin? The relatives assure them that they have heard only good things: fine, upstanding Brahmins all. The young man not only has special talents but has just come into his inheritance, some very good parcels of land. They think it could be a good match, more: a shame to waste the opportunity. In the morning, Sivakami’s father bathes and prays. Then he picks up quill and ink and writes a gracious note, pretending they, the girl’s family, are taking the initiative, as is right and conventional, and inviting Hanumarathnam for a girl-seeing as if his already having seen the girl had nothing to do with any of this. Most Esteemed Sir, Village Healer and Knowing One, The humble man who Writes this Missive to your Gracious Self invokes the Blessings of the Gods and Stars on his intentions. The writer would be Honoured above Reasonable Expectation, if he were to have the Pleasure of Welcoming Your Good Self to the Samanthibakkam home of his family, where his Revered Ancestors have Bestowed their Blessings Through the Ages. With the Wisdom and Learning You have acquired through Great Sacrifice and Effort, please Choose an Auspicious Time, and send word that Your good Relatives will Accompany you to Grace the Threshold of our Poor but Pious Dwelling. We will be Eagerly awaiting your Word. And the Opportunity to shower our Hospitality on Your Presence. I remain, Yours humbly, The note is in Tamil, a script without capital letters, but this is the idea—inconsistently the most flowery and archaic Sivakami’s father can muster. The note is delivered by Sivakami’s brothers after they also have bathed and prayed. With a great sense of accomplishment puffing his modest chest and head, Sivakami’s father leads his wife and children on the trek back home. Word from Hanumarathnam follows. He comes to Samanthibakkam accompanied by a distant uncle and a male cousin. Sivakami’s family offers the stiffest, most formal reception they are able to raise above the brim of their excitement and happiness. Sivakami is ushered in. She keeps her head bowed and her eyes down, since, by unspoken convention, this is behaviour appropriate to prospective brides. She serves sweets she has made herself, the solidity of her upper back giving her movements a linear grace. Asked to sing a couple of devotional songs, she does so with gusto, closing her eyes. By the time he leaves, the observant young man is even more smitten than that day, short weeks before, when he had seen the pride flash in Sivakami’s eyes. They are married, like everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month. After her marriage, she continues to live with her parents, like everyone else who has parents, though she is escorted to her husband’s village several times a year for festivals, at which times she is feted, and brings gifts for her new relatives. In Cholapatti, she stays with her parents, at their relatives’ house up the street from where her husband lives with his relatives. They are present at the same functions, where she participates in the ceremonies, but her husband remains for her a person known only in public and in glimpses. After three years, she comes of age, like everyone else lucky enough to survive childhood, and finally the great change is upon them. Her family readies her to join her husband for good. Copyright © 2008 Padma Viswanathan All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Meet the Author
PADMA VISWANATHAN is a fiction writer, playwright, and journalist. She was awarded first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She lives with the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock and their children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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The Toss of a Lemon is a very unique book. Told in the present tense, the reader feels as if they are experiencing the sorrows and joys, the adventures and everyday life right along with the Brahmin family the story is about. The saga starts out with Sivakami, a ten year old girl in southern India, who essentially holds the threads of this ambitious novel together. When we first meet Sivakami, she is getting engaged to an astrologer who forsees his death in the next few years. The two are married and have two children together. But when Sivakami is eighteen she is widowed when her husband's horoscope comes true and he dies. As her caste dictates, Sivakami's head is shaved and she wears widows whites. She is not permitted to touch anyone from dawn till dusk and can only eat food she herself has prepared. Sivakami is an orthodox Brahmin widow, but she defies tradition in one way: by staying in her husband's home to raise her children. This novel-spanning from the late 1800s to the 1960s-follows Sivakami and her children. There is her quiet daughter Thangam, a baby so heavy Sivakami couldn't lift her, who grows up to be a girl loved by everyone who sheds gold dust. Sivakami's son Vairum is a boy with black diamond eyes and mathematical genius, who grows up to resent the caste system and the Brahmins who never accepted him. There is Sivakami's servant Muchami, a man of a lower caste who becomes her confidant and her eyes and in ears in the outside world, for as a widow she can't leave the house. Muchami expresses the emotions Sivakami feels, and she sees her feelings in his face. Together they hold together three generations through a tumultous time of political and cultural change. This is a rich, descriptive saga that shows us a world miles and decades apart from our own. The story is fascinating and the characters very real. The Toss of a Lemon takes us from the small village of Cholapatti to the seaside city Madras. It takes us from generation to generation, but always manages to come back to Sivakami, who holds her family and the story together. I would definitely reccomend Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon, which is remarkable in and of itself, but even more remarkable because it is her debut novel.
Most of the plot of this book was focused on the interplay between the family members, which was primarily about getting married, having children and living happily; there was also an undercurrent of discord beyond the normal family disagreements over the country's political shift. The vertex of this conflict is between Sivakami, the conservative matriarch of the family and her vindictive son Varium. All of this drama, as it were, was understated and subtle, as family foulness usually is. My response to this was that I wanted to slowly trudge through family heartbreak, like most human beings I don't have to read about it. More than that, the book's plot was just too close to boring to appeal to me.
lovely book by a writer that beautifully describes the culture of India and the significance of relationships.