Countries: India primary, Canada secondary
Tamarind Mem is a story told in two voices. Daughter Kamini, now a doctoral student in Calgary, grew up in post-colonial India. The daughter of a railway officer, the family moved frequently and young Kamini's life was clouded by her mother, nicknamed "Tamarind Mem" because of her tart and sour disposition.
Under constant pressure to perform at the strict convent schools her mother forced her to attend, she receives constant mixed messages from a very young age about needing to excel and yet not focusing on academics at the expense of finding a husband.
Her restricted social sphere is limited to her younger sister, who can do no wrong, concocting imaginative narratives about her intriguing neighbours, and limited socializing with the children at the officer's club. Her kindly father is often on the road and, faced with her harsh and contradictory mother, it is easy to envision a childhood that is lonely, frustrating, and restrictive. As an adult living in Calgary and dealing with her now-elderly mother living in India, we see little has progressed for her - her mother is as tart and contrary as ever, sending mixed messages and making Kamini feel inadequate. It is against this background that her mother announces that she is going to travel. Having spent her life being forced to move around the country as a rail officer's wife, she's decided that she is going to finally travel India on her own terms - a decision that causes her daughters no small amount of grief.
Midway through, the story switches to Saroja's voice - she of the tamarind tongue. She is someone who is dripping in disappointment. An ordinary childhood, an interest in medicine cut short with an arranged marriage to a stranger she has absolute no chemistry with. Being moved around the country constantly by her rail officer husband, she has no established friends and only condescending, well meaning servants to keep her company. He is a man who is kind and pleasant enough and yet they have nothing in common. She has no idea how to build a relationship, build a friendship, and so silence becomes a frost, which eventually becomes volcanic. Burdened by family responsibilities - including summer long visits with her childless, nutty sisters in law, she cannot or will not take the time to know her daughters, seeing them as obligations instead of people. It isn't until she finally starts leading her own, independent life as an adult that she thaws out in the face of freedom.
Does the book make me want to travel to India? Absolutely. You get a vivid depiction of everyday life and it is enthralling.
While reviews of the book often state that the writing is a testimonial to the ups and downs of a mother-daughter relationship, it seems more like the intersecting lives of two strangers who have an obligation to each other, yet don't even know each other. Every event in their shared lives is told through such a different lens that it is like reading two different books. Only one story - the mysterious death of the charismatic beguiling Anglo mechanic is told with any shared perspective. As a book, it stands out because both voices are equally compelling and you gain a real sense of each person's character.
Does the book make me want to travel to India? Absolutely. It's depictions of post colonial India for a middle-upper-class Indian family are fascinating. The descriptions are so rich - from the savory foods, to the lush gardens, to the train carriages, to the material of the wedding saris. You get a vivid depiction of everyday life and it is enthralling. It's a pleasure to watch the author weave the picture of post colonial India from one corner of the country to the next and the drama of the central characters simply adds to the enjoyment.
Look for it at your local bookstore, or you purchase the book from my Amazon link.