Padma Viswasathan’s debut novel is deceptively quiet and quietly brilliant. It pads in on little cat feet and rips you along. You don’t realize you’re on an epic journey in the midst of a generational saga until you’re well along and it’s far, far too late to turn back. Not that you’d want to. Not that you even could.
Inspired by the author’s own family history, we join Sivakami in a village in India in 1892, the year of her marriage to the healer, Hanumarathnam. She 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 attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps born with a yoke within her.
Sivakami is of the Brahmin caste as, of course, is her husband. And so when, as the astrologers forecast, her husband is dead by the time she is 18, leaving her with two young children to care for, she must take up the life of a widow, secluding herself most of the time, shaving her head and leaving the affluent and attractive young widow with a wardrobe of only two plain white saris and a future that will be seen mostly from within her own home. It’s the course her upbringing has set out for her and she doesn’t balk. She faces it squarely and begins to forge her way through the rest of her life.
Were you to only read these few lines, it would be possible to believe that this is the story of a woman’s oppression, but The Toss of A Lemon (Random House) is hardly that; never that. And is, in fact, so, so much more.
What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity. In The Toss of A Lemon, we join India at a time of great social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, we experience this only at a distance. The way, in fact, Sivakami might experience it. Our concerns are more immediate, more domestic, though never more mundane. The marriage of a daughter, a granddaughter. The obedience of a son-in-law. The disturbingly progressive thoughts of a son. These concern Sivakami exclusively and, with her as our proxy, they are all that concern us, as well.
The Toss of A Lemon is astonishing. Brilliant. Beautiful. I learned a great deal about 20th century India that I did not know before. That’s secondary, of course. Like the very best novels, at its core, The Toss of A Lemon teaches us about ourselves.