Book: The Toss of a Lemon
Author: Padma Viswanathan
Challenge: Orbis Terrarum 2009
My Review: A detailed look into the lives of a Brahmin family in rural Tamil Nadu (India) in the mid 1900s. A saga of sorts.
My Rating: 4 Stars
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan first caught my eye when I saw a blurb in Dar’s blog. The book is set in the early 1900s in a small rural village in Tamil Nadu (a state in Southern India). It focuses primarily on a Brahmin family over a period of about 50 years. Being a Tamil Brahmin myself, I was curious about the book and the descriptions of customs and traditions; Customs and Traditions that my ancestors might have followed but not be followed anymore in this modern world.
In the very first chapter, however, I saw references to “Kulithalai” a really small locality in rural Tamil Nadu which is my mother’s hometown. This came as quite a pleasant surprise to me. If the descriptions in the book were accurate and valid, I had just found the key to the lives of my maternal great grand parents and my grandparents. I have visited Kulithalai about 20 years ago. I was about 5 years old and didn’t really notice much except for the cousins around me that I could run around and play with. As I read the book, faint memories of my ancestral home flashed across my brain. Hence, as you can see, this book had much more than just literary value to me.
The Toss of a Lemon describes the life of Sivagami from when she was about 10 until her death 50 to 60 years later. And through Sivagami’s life, we are given a peep into the lives of a small Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu in the early 1900s; A community filled with cultures and traditions passed down over generations along with a strong sense of caste distinction and deep belief in astrology and male dominance. In fact, the name of the title stems from an ingenious method developed to record the exact time of birth of Sivagami’s children so that their astrological horoscopes could be charted effectively. Astrology still plays a major role in many Brahmin households in India.
A short note from the history books: Dravidians are thought to be the original inhabitants of India. History books mention that Aryans invaded India and pushed the Dravidians to the south. This explains the difference in the physical attributes of north and south Indians. Aryans brought with them a distinction of the masses based on occupation – the scholarly folks, the warriors, the traders and the servants. Brahmins are traditionally the scholarly people. They were well educated and performed the Hindu rites and rituals and took care of the temples. Soon, they started considering themselves superior to the other castes and formed strict traditions of not letting non-Brahmins enter Brahmin households, eat Brahmin food, etc. In the present day, these caste distinctions still do exist in India. They no longer define occupations and are not as rigid as they were 50 to 60 years ago. People typically tend to marry within their own castes and inter-caste marriages (Though slowly becoming more popular) are still frowned upon.
The Toss of a Lemon brings out this aspect of Tamil Nadu beautifully through the actions and behavior of Sivagami and her family members. By the end of the book we can slowly see the shift from rigid Brahminical traditions.
The Aryan Society was also completely male dominated and Padma Viswanathan brings out the male domination in the Brahmin Society beautifully.
Though meek and subdued, Sivagami is actually quite a rebel. When she is widowed, she does something that was unthinkable by widows in that period. Instead of staying with her brothers in her childhood home, she moves back into the house she had occupied with her husband and manages the farms and her grandchildren there. Her strength of character is seen in little acts like these that are taken for granted today.
To me, a lot of the descriptions and many of the terms used in the book were familiar. I am really not sure how someone who is not familiar with Tamilian traditions would read and enjoy the book. And I must mention the fact that the book is a chunkster. It has more than 600 pages and it definitely took me a while to get through it. But in 600 pages, Padma Viswanathan weaves a complete tale. She transports you to rural Tamil Nadu in the mid 1900s and makes you a part of the Sivagami household.
I must mention here that the book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking for action and interesting twists and turns throughout the book, I can assure you that you’ll be bored with this book soon. But if all that you are looking for is to learn about a new culture and get transported into a completely different world, this is a really good book for you! The book is very descriptive and the images are vivid. I definitely enjoyed reading this book! Why I make it a point to mention this is because I have read a wide variety of reviews for this book. Some absolutely love it and others don’t seem to like it at all! I was a little unsure in the beginning of the book. I finished about 100 pages and the book really didn’t seem to be heading in any particular direction… and then I was slowly sucked into the atmosphere of the book and by the end, I didn’t want it to finish!
If you do plan to read this book and if you have questions about certain terms used in the book or even traditions, I’d be glad to chat with you about it.
I read this book as part of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I wanted to definitely visit India in this year’s challenge as well and what better place than my mother’s home town?? Thanks to Padma Viswanathan for sending me a review copy of this wonderful book!