By Anita Rau Badami
1996 Viking, Penguin Books Canada
Acorn Avenue, Toronto, ON,
Canada M4V 3B2
Review by Nalini Warriar
novel, Tamarind Mem, is a short but sweet read. It is separated into two parts: one narrated by Kamini; the other by her mother.
As the story unfolds, Kamini, who has just recently moved to Canada from India, calls her mother 'from the silence of her
basement apartment.' The words of the mother, Saroja, reach across the oceans and stir up memories in the daughters mind.
Kamini is of an indefinable age when her sister, Roopa is born. 'She looks like a sweeper-caste child,' the grandmother
proclaims, laying down the childs destiny in a society where black is not beautiful. Kamini's Ma pushes her to 'studystudystudy'
even though all she wants to do is to read Mills and Boon romances. Her Ma wants her to be a doctor or an engineer like she
herself was not able to. A doctor or an engineer made money and Kamini would not have to get married. Roopa is not concerned
about what Ma has to say if she came last in class. All she wants to do is to marry and have babies, she announces at an early
age. Roopa has no imagination, Kamini thinks, and is Ma's favourite. Kamini is constantly trying to divert Ma's attention
from Roopa and gets very adept at playing Dadda against Ma knowing 'that a chasm gaped between my parents, a hole so deep
that even Dadda with his engineer's hands could not build a bridge to span it.' Kamini pinches her sister so she cries, gets
zero in math, misspells 'stupid baby words' so that Ma would break her silence but all to no avail. In the beginning, Ma talks
while Dadda 'locks himself into a tight box of silence.' This changes over the years. Ma in turn builds her own abyss of silence
that grows around her with each year of marriage. With her childish intuition, Kamini is aware of the threat hovering over
her: Ma might leave her marriage and with it, Kamini, behind.
Roopa, the sister with no imagination, has made her destiny
happen. We see little of Roopa who does the 'unspeakable and marries a meat-eater' and runs away to the USA. Kamini herself
wishes to go to a university as far away from Madras as possible. In the end, all that studystudystudy enables Kamini to get
away from Ma for 'Ma's constant unhappiness runs like a dark thread through our lives.'
And though in Canada, Kamini yearns
to 'get away from this freezing cold city,' she dares not utter the words that would open up yet another argument that Ma
has every intention of winning.
In the second part of Tamarind Mem, Saroja brings into her marriage her tamarind sharp
tongue. 'There's something wrong with the women in this family,' she tells her grandfather. When called upon to explain, she
says, 'all they did was to have children and gossip. They are like cows.' Saroja narrates her life to her travelling companions,
weaving in and out of the present.
That first night with her husband who is only 6 years younger than her father, she
realizes with a shock, Saroja wonders if he notices how soft her skin is. She holds her breath while he fumbles with the hooks
on her blouse. Once, his voice cracks open a command and then it is silence. And even though Saroja is brought up in a society
where 'you never tell your child how clever or pretty she is because such a blatant admission would surely summon up the worst
of imps and goblins,' she waits for her husband to stroke her face, to tell her how beautiful she is. She believes it is his
duty towards her, his wife, for hadn't she kept her skin soft and hair fragrant for him, this faceless man in her dreams?
Saroja is not expected to travel with this stranger 'into his private world of journeys, long spaces, trees that touch
the sky, sky that meets the sea.' He calls her 'Ay' and before the birth of the children, she never uses his either. After
the birth of Kamini, Saroja calls him 'Dadda,' a word she can utter without feeling discomfort. Now marriage is not 'escaping
from one locked room into another, wandering in a maze forever and hitting my nose against closed doors.' Now marriage is
a silent war, for Saroja holds her tamarind tongue. And the silence fills the empty house.
With the death of Dadda, Saroja
escapes her prison. With her daughters gone, she doesn't belong to anyone, for she too has reached that stage in her life
where she can only turn the pages of a book already written, she does not write. Paul da Costa plays a brief role although
he does a 'terriblehorrible' thing from Kaminis point of view. From Saroja we learn that 'she wants him.' But she remains
the perfect memsahib. And the few paltry sentences that tantalize the reader do little to quench the thirst.
Giller Prize Winner
$22.99, 412 pp
1999, McClelland & Stewart,
481 University Avenue
Review by Nalini Warriar
is the author of previous highly acclaimed works: The Gunny Sack (1989), which won the Regional Commonwealth Prize; No New
Land (1991); The Book of Secrets (1994), a national bestseller and the winner of the Giller Prize. A collection of linked
short stories Uhuru Street appeared in 1992. Vassanji lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.
It is the late
sixties and Ramji is in America. The Amrika of Elvis, JFK, Bobby, Jackie, Martin Luther, Perry Mason and Rock Hudson. It is
also the dangerous Amrika. Ramji is at the Tech in Harvard and John and Ginnie are his hosts. Initially, Ramji finds Ginnie
'very nice and motherly' but ends up having an affair with her.
On campus, Ramji is thrust into discussions about the
war in Vietnam and elsewhere and whether America has the right to interfere in the affairs of other sovereign states. Ramji
believes in the goodness of the West and that the evil of China and Russia can have a 'domino effect' if it is not kept in
check with the mantle of American friendliness. Vassanji takes the reader back to the past to Ramji's childhood and youth
in Dar es Salaam as he traces a path through the present as seen by Ramji and his friend Sona. In the end, Ramji joins the
anti-Vietnam picketers and learns to use words that earlier had caused him to shudder.
Fast forward to nineties, Ramji
is married to Zuli, a pretty Dar girl and the father of ten-year-old twins. At a get together at Jamila's house, another old
friend of his, Ramji meets his old chum Sona who brings a girl Rumina with him. Rumina is doing research and she needs to
discuss some things with Ramji. The predictable happens: Ramji does not go back with Zuli and the children. Ramji goes off
to Washington with Rumina. It is now 1994 and Ramji is in California, responsible for the magazine Inqualab. The past catches
up with him once again. Theres bombing, a fugitive and many confessions before things settle down again.
Amrika is a
mutli-layered riot of a read. Supported by a mosaic of characters and sub-plots, Amrika will linger in the mind for a long
time before dust begins to gather on the jacket.