Tamarind Mem, a Canadian bestseller novel from 1997, written by Indian-born Anita Rau Badami is an infectious and unforgettable story of an extensively engaged childhood, family, identity, culture and its inherent oppression of women, narrated through genius storytelling. Meshed deep inside the heart of this story is an exceptionally precise narration of Indian culture in a way that is shameless yet proud and at times humorous, just like the story's characters.
Having recently moved to Calgary, where thick snow brings all noise to a hush, Kamini reflects on her entire life in India until now, away from a mother whose constant bitter-sweet presence is being increasingly remembered. She has grown out of a childhood filled with servants who knew the ways of the world and of the household, a big house provided by the government, an absent father who was married to the Indian Railways and its constantly expanding trails, a mother who was also married for a lifetime, but out of any choice to a man about five years younger than her father, and finally a sister who was candidly ignorant to all the norms that existed and all the peculiarities that occurred.
"He [father] shut her into rooms from which there was not even a chink of an escape. He himself had left again and again, and every time he came back, he needed to be readmitted into lives altered daily during his absence." (Anita Rau Badami / Tamarind Mem)
With warmth, wit, humour and questioning, as Kamini follows her family's past, like walking around large old cobwebs, she opens fond memories of a father who would return home every few months, bring presents, but above all, have stories after stories to tell. His stories were a work of sheer imagination, which were relentless enough to convert Kamini into a young girl who would grow up to view the world and relationships through this imaginary lens. She is therefore driven to find out, in this grand story of childhood, why did her father have no affection or words for her mother? Why did her mother eventually become so content sitting day-long in a solitary room all those years, finding everything around her, the servants, social dinners, her children, the neighbours - everyone so annoying?
"She was always there, large as life and twice as noisy, too much noisy and nosy if you ask me! Why are you not studying, why are you doing this, why that? My goodness, like a mosquito in my head she was." (Anita Rau Badami / Tamarind Mem)
Kamini's quest to understand her mother, now the only parent alive, ends in thinking of events after events from the past, and more questions as she recalls how her mother changed after a socially despised Anglo-Indian, Paul da Costa committed suicide. Her narrative fades out as she remembers the time she had said goodbye to her mother, as sour as Tamarind, who resented the thought of letting go of her secretly favourite daughter, as well as the younger daughter already, to "some place near the North Pole".
The Hindi word Mem can be translated to 'a woman' or even 'madam'. Until now, who had seemed to be the protagonist in the larger picture of this family is Kamini, but what follows next in the book is the story of Saroja, Kamini's mother, the woman whom local workers and food sellers had code named the Tamarind Mem. Having finally re-discovered her much longed sense of individuality, Saroja sets out on a journey from city to city in India, choosing a freedom that has taken her an entire lifetime. As the third generation woman in her visible family tree, she spent most of her life serving the cultural and structural suppression of women, but now that life had opened the solitary doors of her old house's deserted room, Saroja finds a life she had always longed for.
"But now I have rested enough, my feet are beginning to grow wheels... it is time for me to pack up and go. Once I travelled because my husband did. Now is time for me to wander because I wish to..." (Anita Rau Badami / Tamarind Mem)
As Saroja's story ends, Tamarind Mem emerges out as a story of many generations of Indian women, married to socially imposed destinies. The humour, shamelessly candid culture, sentiments and the message of this book will last for a long time.