Sunday, September 29, 2013

7th Challenge - 3rd review - Tamarind Mem

This book (Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami) fell into my hands fairly randomly.  It was a somewhat water-damaged book that was in the Burnaby Library book sale.  The summary on the back cover made it seem like there would be a lot of back and forth, shifting perspectives from the daughter (now in grad school in Calgary) and the mother, still in India.  That sort of happens, but in fact the book is broken in two parts.  The first half, the daughter reaches back into her memory and recalls a lot of things that happened to her growing up, i.e. long before Calgary.  Her life was a bit unsettled because her father was a big-shot engineer for the railways and they kept having to move every two or three years.  The second half is her mother's recollection of those times (and sometimes the same events).  Thus, there is probably less than 10 pages of content about the daughter's life in Canada (just flashes as she waits for another postcard from her mother, who is now travelling through India on the railroads her husband helped build).  While it qualifies for the challenge (Anita Badami did move to Calgary in 1991 for grad school,* later lived in Vancouver and has apparently settled in Montreal), the amount of Canadian content is very, very low.  Her later novels, Can You Hear The Nightbird Call, and Tell it to the Trees, have more in the way of looking at Indian migrants to Canada, including how they adapt and to a lesser extent how they change the communities they move to.  From the very brief blurbs I have read, it sounds like I might enjoy Nightbird, but I probably should give Trees a pass.

Anyway, I read this book on the plane back from Chicago.  I thought the sections from the daughter's perspective were pretty good, but it just never was satisfactorily explained why the mother had such a difficult ("tart") disposition.  Some people are just born that way I guess,** though her frustration at not being able to develop a career certainly contributed. Also, she {the mother of the novel} had a grandmother who was also fairly strong and/or difficult and bucked convention, and she was apparently the only female in her family who looked up to this grandmother!  There is one sad moment where the mother is still a recent bride, just trying to understand her much older and fairly distant husband.  He makes one attempt at bridging the gap, and she totally shuts him down, even realizing at the time that she shouldn't be doing this, but not being able to stop herself.  No question, she didn't seem like somebody I would want to be around...  Curiously, the father is portrayed (even by the mother) as a good, even doting father, but an indifferent husband.  This is perhaps more surprising given that he and the mother only had two daughters and no sons.

Not really sure what else to say about the book.  Not all that much happens in it really (well, aside from two deaths).  It kind of revolves around how stunted women's choices were in India in the 1940s and 50s (and beyond), along with a fairly detailed portrait of their superstitious nanny (mostly from the daughter's remembrances).  The daughter barely grasps how different things are for her (and her sister -- though her sister seems to have no ambition at all beyond being a wife).  I didn't like it as much as Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, which has a more epic scope (apparently Can You Hear The Nightbird Call does have this broader scope).  Tonally, this novel has some things in common with Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, and if you liked one, you would probably like the other, though for me personally I thought Lahiri's The Namesake was head and shoulders above either (and haven't gotten around to her Unaccustomed Earth).  This review is a bit more positive and may help guide you if you are considering picking Tamarind Mem up.

* It does seem large sections of the book are autobiographical, though perhaps Badami split herself into both sisters.  She did move to Calgary for grad. school but had already married, while the older daughter was single.

** I certainly go out of my way to see the downside of most situations (a deep pessimist), even though I had a relatively happy and certainly secure childhood. 

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