The Toss of a Lemon
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
NOTE: I’m not doing a deep dive on caste, which I am unqualified to discuss in any case, and I’m not explaining the vocabulary used in the book. If you get confused, Google is your friend.
I have a confession to make: I first read this book in 2009, a time when 40 books in one year seemed like an incredible sum. (To which I now say, lol. That’s cute.) I visited the library a lot during the first half of the year because I was commuting to and from my DC internship every day for six months, so I needed something to keep me occupied on the hour-long ride. This was one of my better finds: the title caught my eye, and the rest is now history. I loved it so much that when I found a hardcover copy in a secondhand store years later, I grabbed it at once, no questions asked. Yet although it has since become one of my favorite books, I’ve never talked about it on any of my blogs, including all the ones that sank into the swamp. This is one of the most beautiful, heartwrenching, infuriating books I’ve ever read, and I don’t know if I can fully articulate my feelings for it, much less adequately summarize it, but I’m going to try. (On the subject of feelings: I will say that if you can make it through the book without wanting to smash Goli to pieces with a giant hammer, either you’re a saint or you’re just as bad as he is. And this book will make you hungry, so make sure you eat something before you start reading.)
Inspired by Viswanathan’s family stories, The Toss of a Lemon follows four generations of a Tamil Brahmin family as they navigate sixty years of sociopolitical upheaval. The story begins with Sivakami, born and raised in the village of Samanthibakkam, married at ten to a man twice her age. At thirteen she comes of age and moves to another village called Cholapatti to join her husband, and soon enough she becomes a mother, giving birth to a daughter, Thangam, and a son, Vairum. Thangam is renowned for her gold-tinged beauty and her calming effect upon other children; Vairum is known merely as “the ugly one” to people who are not his mother. Their father, Hanumarathnam, is a healer and an astrologer, skilled in predicting the will of the heavens. He is kind and attentive, and the match seems ideal, except for one slight wrinkle: Hanumarathnam’s horoscope indicates that he will die in the ninth year of their marriage. This rather grim prognosis is temporarily alleviated by the knowledge that a son’s horoscope can influence a father’s, but all hopes are dashed when Vairum’s horoscope conflicts with Hanumarathnam’s in such a way as to cut Hanumarathnam’s life shorter. Though no one says as much to Vairum’s face, the general consensus – both within his own family and among their neighbors and friends – is that he killed his father. This is a burden he will carry with him before he even begins to form memories, unspoken but always present.
Vairum’s burden is not helped by the fact that Hanumarathnam turns out to be right, because he does indeed die of a fever that had previously affected only children. Sivakami becomes a widow at eighteen, alone with two toddlers and with no in-laws to support her. Her lifeline is Muchami, a closeted gay man only a few years younger than herself, who was hired prior to Hanumarathnam’s death. Muchami was ostensibly hired to keep Sivakami’s lands in order, but he also becomes the buffer between her and the outside world, speaking on her behalf and taking care of any problems that come up. Meanwhile, Sivakami follows her caste’s widowmaking traditions to the letter, shaving her head and vowing to remain madi – unable to touch anyone from sunup to sundown, not even to comfort her children – for the rest of her life. After the funeral, she and her children leave their house and spend a few years living with her three brothers and their respective families, as convention dictates. Trapped by her family’s expectations, Sivakami watches in dismay as her brothers marry seven-year-old Thangam to an eighteen-year-old hyperactive good-for-nothing named Goli, but the final straw comes when she learns that the brothers also plan to have Vairum educated as a priest. Determined to have Vairum educated in English, but knowing that she cannot defy her brothers while she lives under their roof, she moves her children back to their father’s village to live in his vacated house.
From here, Sivakami’s previously straightforward path splinters in unexpected ways. Vairum attends the Cholapatti school and then enrolls in St. Joseph’s College, an English-run school in the city of Thiruchi, and eventually marries Vani, a musician of almost unearthly talent. He goes on to become a business magnate, succeeding beyond even Sivakami’s wildest dreams, but his growing disgust with his caste, magnified by his and Vani’s infertility, puts him into frequent conflict with his mother and most of the other Brahmins in his community. As an additional piece of bad luck, he is diagnosed with vitiligo at a young age, which – since it looks sort of similar to leprosy – makes people uncomfortable around him. While he struggles to find his place in the order of things, Thangam struggles to survive in an abusive marriage. Her husband has a salaried job, but he throws his money away as soon as he gets it, frequently investing in unsuccessful get-rich-quick schemes – a cinema, a soft drink business, a cigar factory – while accusing Thangam of mismanagement when she reminds him that she needs money to buy groceries. Worse, Goli is obscenely fruitful, and over the years Thangam gives birth to daughters Saradha, Visalam, Sita, Janaki, Kamalam, and Radhai, and sons Laddu, Krishnan, and Raghavan. Between her nine children and a couple of miscarriages and stillbirths, she is almost continually pregnant up to the day she dies from Goli’s casual mistreatment. The children themselves see very little of their parents: Sivakami informally adopts each one as they leave infanthood and keeps them in Cholapatti with her in an effort to lighten Thangam’s load, seemingly aware of Thangam’s unhappiness but unwilling or unable to attribute this unhappiness to Goli.
While Sivakami and Muchami work together to raise her horde of grandchildren, the narrative shifts from Sivakami to Janaki, and then, at the end, to Janaki’s daughter Thangajothi. The world changes in increments during Janaki’s childhood, with the result that she is allowed to attend grade school and marries at a much more appropriate age, though this marriage is still arranged for her by her mother’s brother in accordance with tradition. There are bigger shifts as well: Janaki bears witness to the growing disorder as more and more people begin to fight the caste system, while her lower-caste schoolmate Bharati finds her way into the beginnings of Bollywood and becomes a megastar. Janaki and her family continue to live in wealth and comfort, clinging to their status as Brahmins, but their privileged view is increasingly challenged, both by outside elements and by some of their own relatives. Things finally come to a head when Vairum, seething over his mother’s inability to hold Goli accountable for absolutely anything, invites Bharati to a family gathering in Cholapatti and insists that she eat with them in complete disregard of caste barriers. As a final twist of the knife, he announces that Bharati was fathered by Goli during his affair with a lower-caste woman. This information, coupled with the defilement of the formerly Brahmin-only house, causes both Muchami and Sivakami to suffer a stroke within minutes of each other. The family fractures, and the pieces are absorbed into the new world as it moves into a different structure. The final chapter is narrated by Thangajothi, who moves to Canada after her marriage and later sponsors her twin brothers and her parents, though she notes that her parents still retain their caste pride, and are hoping that the Brahmins will eventually regain power.
Like I said, I am far from an expert on the caste system in India. Most of what I know came from reading this book, so, while some of the frustrations I have with the characters tie into their caste status, this isn’t a fault of the book. Things that would be problems in other contexts are in this case a product of the time and place in which the characters were raised, and I’m going to try to respect that. That being said, and with the obvious exception of my first read, I cannot read this book from beginning to end because boy do I have some serious beef with Goli. He may be one of the worst characters I’ve ever encountered – not in that he’s badly done, but in that he makes me want to shove a baseball bat through the pages and pound him into the ground. Sivakami’s attitude towards him makes me want to scream. Again, this is the result of her upbringing and general beliefs and it certainly wasn’t unusual or problematic during this time period, but it makes me crazy that she always covers for him, never seems concerned that her daughter is clearly unhappy in her marriage, and continually reinforces the idea that Thangam has no place in the house of her childhood. She expresses some mild concern over the safety of Thangam’s children in the house of their father but never seems to worry about Thangam’s safety, possibly because she was raised to believe that a husband can do whatever he damn well pleases. I feel like Sivakami was smart enough and strong-willed enough to cancel the marriage the way she canceled her brothers’ plans to send Vairum to a paadasaalai (priest school), but she chooses not to because she feels it isn’t her place to advocate for her daughter.
At the same time, all of this made me feel deeply sorry for her, because she loves her son so much but she loses him to a more modern order than the one she grew up with, and it makes me want to weep. Whatever my issues with Sivakami, I don’t think she deserved to have her son treat her the way he does. Yet I also can’t entirely hold this against Vairum, because his anger is not unreasonable. He loses his father before his third birthday, and is raised in an environment in which everyone quietly blames him for his father’s death. (Speaking of, I have some slight beef with Hanumarathnam. By all means, blame the heavens for your upcoming untimely death, but to inform your wife that your newborn son has killed you just smacks of self-pity, and it really sets the kid up for a bad life. The act of birth is not a murder weapon. Vairum’s only crime, if it is that, is that he was born at an unfortunate time.) If he seems bratty in the beginning, it might be well to remember that overnight he goes from cuddling with his mother every day to being expected to understand that he is no longer allowed to touch her during the daytime. Of course he doesn’t understand. What two-year-old could possibly process such an enormous change?
His clashes with the traditions of his caste and culture in general might seem like they were caused by his English education, but the main problem is that he was raised in a culture that – respectfully – relies on a level of passive aggression that is guaranteed to foster interpersonal conflict, though this is more politely described as “diplomacy” and “strategy.” Vairum is a very straightforward person, and social nuances make no sense to him. His directness brings him into conflict with Sivakami several times throughout the book, with the result that, although she adores him and would sacrifice anything for him, after a certain point she begins to criticize or undermine everything he does. As a child he grows up resenting her emphasis on maintaining the respectability of their family, particularly as she does nothing to protect either him or Thangam from Goli. This resentment turns into a smoldering fury as he spends half a lifetime watching Sivakami usher Thangam back into Goli’s arms while Thangam’s children – living reminders of the abuse inflicted upon his sister – fill up his house. How can I blame him for that? But on the other hand, he’s such a dick that I also find myself asking, How can I not blame him for that? But on the other other hand, I love his relationship with his wife, whom he unabashedly worships, so we’re back to wondering how I can blame him for all of this. It’s complicated.
This is the part of my own feelings that I can’t really articulate, because I have no idea why I love this book so much when the characters are largely insufferable, and there are so many of them. But even though I normally complain about ensemble casts, this is one case where I remember every character exactly, right down to the order of their birth, even though it’s been years since I read this thing cover to cover. I can’t explain it. I also can’t explain why my favorite character is Vani, who is rather bizarre but somehow still intensely lovable. She’s not particularly relatable – her musical genius has given her some unusual qualities, and one of her daily habits is to spew long-winded, fantastical stories at every meal – but I kind of want to sit down and eat with her, because I’d love to hear just one of these stories. (I say that like I’d ever be invited to take a meal in a Brahmin house as a non-Brahmin foreigner. Well, I can dream.) We mostly see these stories through the lens of Janaki, who is entranced by them and makes every effort to catch them whenever she can, but based on her descriptions they sound like a really good time. Even better, Vairum – who under normal circumstances is impatient with such whimsies – is equally entranced, and he always listens happily to whatever Vani has to say, and I love him for it. Even if their marriage was contracted when Vani was ten, I truly believe that it was a good match. As a more general note, I really appreciated knowing that these ten-year-old brides do not join their husbands immediately. I mean, consummation and childbirth at thirteen or fourteen still isn’t great, but I can’t blame the book for that when this was the expectation of the time.
Though the book is narrated in such a way that I don’t question the marriage customs or a boatload of other things that would normally give me pause, I do have a couple of points of confusion, the first being the religion observed by the characters. They worship multiple gods, but will still make references to one singular god (e.g., “Let’s ask God”). I don’t know which God they’re referring to, but this is not a significant part of the plot, so it doesn’t bother me too much. I am more troubled – and, to be fair, intrigued – by the practice of isolating people during their periods, though given its sheer impracticality I am assuming this practice is limited to people of privilege. Now, I have frequently wished throughout my menstruating life that I did, in fact, have the option to completely shut down until the period is over, because PCOS has a way of making you wish you could just crawl into a hole in the ground and die. Getting locked into my room and having people bring me food just sounds like a great time, to be perfectly honest. But the book makes it sound like the period of isolation (no pun intended) is only three days, and I want to know what happens to people with periods that last longer than three days. Is three days the standard practice, intended to cover only the beginning of the period, or are people supposed to remain isolated until they stop bleeding? If I had been raised in this time and this place, would I have had to isolate myself for a three-week period every two weeks? That’s starting to sound a lot less fun.
Nevertheless, and despite my other reservations, this book is wonderfully done. I love the setting, the magical realism, just the general vibe. The foods all sound so good that every now and then I seriously consider learning to make idlis, but then I realize how much work goes into them and invariably decide that I’d rather buy idlis from somebody who knows what they’re doing. And, while I certainly wouldn’t want to have been raised in Sivakami’s time, the book’s greatest achievement is its ability to show a certain nostalgic affection for Sivakami’s world while also respectfully critiquing those aspects of her upbringing that don’t quite fit with the world as we know it. The writing is gorgeous, and Viswanathan does such an excellent job of explaining the culture that I have never been confused by anything the characters do, not even when Sivakami and Muchami try to sabotage Goli by low-key sabotaging Janaki’s wedding, which is one of those infuriating moments where I want to both hug them and kick them. The ways in which the more conservative characters solve various problems are maddening, but they make perfect sense in context, which is in itself a minor miracle. They don’t do anything just to be arbitrary; they always have a goal in mind, even if they go about it in ways that might benefit from being slightly more direct. It might drive me and Vairum crazy, but for them it’s normal, it’s expected, and it is – most importantly – respectable.