The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan

Hardcover, 640 pages

Random House Canada

Price: $34.95

In her debut novel, Vishwanathan tells the tale of Sivakami, a child bride in the 1950’s, and her early widowhood. She is married to Hanumanthrathnam – an astrologer with a reputation for healing, with an unconventional friendship with siddhas. Hanumantharathnam dies promptly on the date he predicted, leaving Sivakami to care for a daughter, Thangam, and their son, Vairum.  

Sivakami’s oddessey extends into several generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One expects The Toss of a Lemon to seize the issue of caste relations in its teeth, because there is simply so much to say about the recognition of caste injustice in Tamil Nadu, the formation of a Dravidian consciousness, the backlash against Brahmins. However,  Vishwanathan prefers the minute day to day activities of a Brahmin household and describes everything with rigorous and relentless domestic detail, and glides over the larger issues of the day, quite a feat in 600 odd pages.  

With Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water, we are sensitized to the plight of the widows, but one finds it extremely hard to feel sympathy for Sivakami because of her extreme orthodoxy. It is difficult to look upon her as a victim, because her caste and her harsh observance of its tenets gives her a sense of inviolable superiority over everyone.

From an anthropological point of view, this is a detailed day to day chronicle of Brahmin life. The most uncomfortable aspect is the whole idea of how every other thing “pollutes” you, how touching even her children during daylight hours pollutes Sivakami’s madi state, sipping chai from a cup will pollute you, putting lips to tumbler is polluting, the shadow of a lower caste person will pollute you, and if someone throws somethng as unchaste as a slipper at a Brahmin, he is positively uncasted.  

One does not know what a reader who is not from India will take away fom this book, but an Indian will struggle for  objectivity. A non Brahmin, and possibly Brahmins from our generation will have to contend with the distaste that the apparent racism-as-a-way-of-life that this book generates. Perhaps one will be forced to recall old indignites at Brahmin friends’ homes, where an aunt or a granny may have barred one from the kitchen.

It is a tough book to read, and bitter to swallow. However in the way it deals with such issues it is a book that simply does not live up to its promise. The promise of a fresh and exciting new voice to the firmament of Indian fiction. The promise of sinking one’s teeth into the touchy subject and pernicious continuity of caste injustice in India.

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13 Responses to “The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan”

  1. How wonderful to see you posting reviews again, I have missed reading your impressions. If I had seen “Toss of a Lemon” at a bookstore and read its blurbs heartbreaking and exhilarating,profoundly exotic,debut of a major new voice in world fiction etc.) I might have been very tempted to buy it, but how unfortunate the author chose not to put the caste system under a microscope, for, like you, I feel this would have been a great vehicle with which to discuss something that has plagued India for generations and generations. 600 plus pages of just the day- to- day life of Brahmins without going into the effect of their actions on other people seems almost self-indulgent to me.

    Speaking of Brahmins, especially the lives of Brahmin women, have you read Ameen Merchant’s “The Silent Raga”? I have a copy here should you wish to borrow it.

  2. It’s so true your saying this thing about resentment towards the Brahmins because of their own self-assumed superiority over others. Sad, that this book instead of trying to equalize and humanize things only bragged more about the so-called superiority of the Brahmins. Nice and very poignant review though I would like to take the risk of reading this book asap.

  3. @Lotus:
    Thanks for missing me. You’ll be happy to know that I’ve READ a great deal, even if i am lagging behind in the log entries.

    Your comment almost makes me wish to do a redux on this post, because there are simply so many loose ends in this story. In fact, I think I will.

  4. @ Sitara:

    Hi babe! Goodness, I wish we were arguing nine to dozen about this, over inumerable cups of chai already! What with your familiarity about Tamil customs you’d be able to tell me a thing or two. 🙂

    the issues are fascinating enough, but it’s the poor writing that got me off. and one feels almost cheated when, at the very end, it is revealed that this was really an attempt at an autobiography.

  5. Even 600 pages are hardly enough to deal with the caste system and the evils. 🙂 It originated very simply, understandably and like every ideology in human minds went out of hand on account of being used by a few to dominate over others.

  6. But you know, even though I comprehend everything, i still fail to understand the need to divide humans qualitatively. any division on whatever grounds was still against the very principles expressed in the ancient scriptures. Spiritually and rationally it does not make sense, and one would expect that there would have been many who opposed it.

  7. Dear Mystic,
    it’s so wonderful to see you here. 🙂

    you’re right – and to put it crassly, as a very beloved professor of ours once did – when you’re at the top of the heap and shitting down on everyone else, you’re not very interested in chnging the status quo.

  8. Gwynne Gertz Says:

    Amazing. This reviewer manages to take the actual strength of this novel and attempts to contort it into a flaw. The review notes the lack of “objectivity” in “The Toss of a Lemon” and then continues to criticize this novel for not being a “vehicle” or diatribe against Brahmins and the caste system. I’m not sure when a polemical piece of writing became the new definition for objectivity?

    Who is this novel for? Anyone who has even a bit of curiousity about what it might actually be like to experience the day to day life of a time in India that no longer exists. This is a superb book so don’t be thrown by the misreading of a poor review.

  9. @Gwynne Gertz:

    The Toss of a Lemon is a bland and insipid piece of writing. It is far from polemical.

    I did not wish for it to be a “vehicle or diatribe against Brahmins and the caste system,” even though that would be the objective point of view.

    I merely wish that if it wasn’t a diatribe against the caste system, then it could – at the very least – be a vehicle FOR the caste system. The fact that it takes neither this stance or another is unjustifiable.

    To reiterate, when a book is about a community that is going through a certain period in history, a reader may perhaps not be interested in 200 pages of birthing descriptions of 10 grandchildren, and myriad other great grandchildren and their children.

    Who is this novel for? It is for anyone who is curious about what a novel should not be.

    And for your information, experiences like this are, unfortunately, all too common in present-day India. The caste system is alive and thriving.

    • What kind of stance do you think ‘Gone with the wind’ takes? And why is it still so popular? It is a well written romance set in a certain period, that is why. I am amazed you say that the novel has to be a ‘vehicle for the caste system’ if it is not anti caste. The author is writing the story of a family, and within it she has managed to inculcate elements against the war on caste as it happened in that period – perhaps if you were born there you would understand better. Also just fyi the treatment of widows a’la Sivakami has been long outlawed and majority women in India are now working, you would probably not know a ‘widow’ from any other woman unless she told you so. Caste is ‘alive and thriving’ of course ‘Race is alive and thriving too in America’ isn’t it? But you still have a black president and that is some progress? Relax your rigidity and do not comment on cultures and customs you do not know much about. Thanks.

  10. If you want to hear a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this post for 4/5. Detailed info, but I have to go to that damn yahoo to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!

  11. I read this review after i read the book – and found it interesting. I disagree completely with the stance that it is ‘difficult’ to see Sivakami as a victim and that is somhow a problem with the author’s depiction of her as someone who is orthodox, disciplined and casteist. One is only a victim if one chooses to be in many situations and despite all outside situations pointing to a victimising situation people like Sivakami chose to sustain themselves via their rigid discipline while still maintaining kindness within. The author does attempt to portray the non brahmin side of te story by description of the active atheist movement and via Vairom’s character. She also ends the story with Sivakami taking a bath for the death of her faithful aide Muchami thereby clearly hinting at the warmth in the character. I believe the novel is a great first attempt and very well researched. There appear to be lots of non indians who think so also, from reviews on Amazon.

  12. i read the book too. I liked the book to a great extent. thanks for your reviews. 🙂

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