The Toss of a Lemon

by Padma Viswanathan

Hardcover, 619 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $26 | purchase

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The Toss of a Lemon
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Padma Viswanathan

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Book Summary

Masterfully brings to life a profoundly exotic yet utterly recognizable family in the midst of social upheaval in an evocative story that spans the lifetime of one woman in a Brahmin household from 1896 through 1962, in a novel inspired by the author's grandmother's stories.

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Excerpt: The Toss Of A Lemon

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

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