The Toss of a Lemon

by Padma Viswanathan

An amazingly accomplished first novel that takes us into India's Brahmin world from 1890-1962.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547247878
  • ISBN-10: 0547247877
  • Pages: 636
  • Publication Date: 09/01/2009
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book

    Sivakami was married at ten, widowed at eighteen, and left with two children. According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she puts on widow's whites. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children.
     
    Sivakami dutifully follows custom, except for one defiant act: She moves back to her dead husband's house to raise her children. There, her servant Muchami, a closeted gay man who is bound by a different caste's rules, becomes her public face. Their singular relationship holds three generations of the family together through the turbulent first half of the twentieth century, as India endures great social and political change. But as time passes, the family changes, too; Sivakami's son will question the strictures of the very beliefs that his mother has scrupulously upheld. 
     
    The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family.

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  • Excerpts
    1.

    Thangam

    1896

     

    THE YEAR OF THE MARRIAGE PROPOSAL, Sivakami 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 an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.

    She and her family live in Samanthibakkam, some hours away by bullock cart from Cholapatti, which had been her mother’s place before marriage. Every year, they return to Cholapatti for a pilgrimage. They fill a pot at the Kaveri River and trudge it up to the hilltop temple to offer for the abhishekham. These are pleasant, responsible, God-fearing folk who seek the blessings of their gods on any undertaking and any lack thereof. They maintain awe toward those potentially wiser or richer than they—like the young man of Cholapatti, who is blessed with the ability to heal.

    No one in their family is sick, but still they go to the healer. They may be less than totally healthy and simply not know. One can always use a preventative, and it never hurts to receive the blessings of a blessed person. This has always been the stated purpose of the trip, and Sivakami has no reason to think this one is any different.

    Hanumarathnam, the healer, puts his palms together in a friendly namaskaram, asks how they have been and whether they need anything specific. They shyly shake their heads, and he queries, with a penetrating squint, "Nothing?" Sivakami is embarrassed by her parents, who are acting like impoverished peasants. They owe this man their respect, but they are Brahmins too, and literate, like him. They can hold up their heads. She’s smiling to herself at his strange name: a hybrid of "Hanuman," the monkey god, and rathnam, gem. The suffix she understands; it’s attached to the name of every man in the region. But no one is named for the monkey!

    Her mother and father cast glances at each other; then her father clears his throat. "Ah, our daughter here has just entered gurubalam. We are about to start searching for a groom."

    "Oh, well," Hanumarathnam responds with a wink, "I deal in medicine, not charms."

    Sivakami’s parents giggle immoderately. Their daughter stares at the packed dust of the Brahmin-quarter street. Her three older brothers fidget.

    "But you have my blessings," Hanumarathnam continues, making a small package of some powder. "And this, dissolved in milk and drunk each day, this will give you strength. Just generally. It will help."

    Then he looks at Sivakami. She doesn’t look up. When he asks her parents, "Have you done the star chart yet?" his voice sounds different. They haven’t. "Come at dusk. I’ll do it for you."

    What could be better? The humble folk trip back to their relatives’, four doors down the street, for snacks and happy anticipation of their consultation with the auspicious young man, who also has some fame as an astrologer.

    At that strange hour that gives the impression of light even though each figure is masked by darkness, Sivakami’s father, with two of the male relatives, finds Hanumarathnam on his veranda. He cannot make out the young man’s features, but the slant of his chest and head suggests wisdom and peace. So young and a widower, by a freak accident: his wife drowned in the Kaveri River before she ever came to live with him. His parents were already dead. He lives with relatives while his own house—his parents’ home, the second to last on the Brahmin-quarter—stays locked, dark and still.

    Hanumarathnam stands to greet them; they take their seats; they make brief small talk as his aunt brings tumblers of yogourt churned with lemon water and salt.

    He examines the chart by a kerosene lamp while the men finger their shoulder towels. He makes some calculations. He purses his lips and takes in a sharp breath before speaking. "I, well, I must say it. I have just entered gurubalam myself."

    Sivakami’s father hesitates. "Oh?"

    "I will make more detailed calculations, but this is my reasoned guess . . . Your daughter’s horoscope is compatible with mine."

    The young man licks his lips, no longer the astrological authority but instead the nervous suitor. He speaks too quickly. "I am obliged to mention, of course, or perhaps you have already heard: the weakest quadrant of my horoscope has a small shadow . . . It . . . it faintly suggests I will die in my ninth year of marriage. But, as that prediction is contained in the weakest quadrant, it holds no weight, as you know, though ignorant people let it scare them."

    The men do not know but are not ignorant enough to say so, and anyway, Hanumarathnam has not paused in his speech.

    "And most often, the birth of a son changes the configuration, as you know. I understand it must be difficult for you to consider giving your daughter as a second wife. My first wife, she drowned to death in her tenth year. Only three years after our marriage, you see, and it was not I who died, you see? It was her. Quite contrary to the negative quadrant of the horoscope. An, an unfortunate, accident. So I have no children, and I am still young. I have money and manage well. I am speaking on my own behalf only because I have no father and I know the horoscopes better than anyone."

    He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father.

    "I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please . . . consider me."

    That night, Sivakami’s father relates his impressions to her mother. They are positively disposed toward the young man and feel they trust his astrology and his good intentions. They ask their relatives in the morning: have they heard anything against Hanumarathnam or his kin? The relatives assure them that they have heard only good things: fine, upstanding Brahmins all. The young man not only has special talents but has just come into his inheritance, some very good parcels of land. They think it could be a good match, more: a shame to waste the opportunity.

    In the morning, Sivakami’s father bathes and prays. Then he picks up quill and ink and writes a gracious note, pretending they, the girl’s family, are taking the initiative, as is right and conventional, and inviting Hanumarathnam for a girl-seeing as if his already having seen the girl had nothing to do with any of this.

    Most Esteemed Sir, Village Healer and Knowing One,

    The humble man who Writes this Missive to your Gracious Self invokes the Blessings of the Gods and Stars on his intentions. The writer would be Honoured above Reasonable Expectation, if he were to have the Pleasure of Welcoming Your Good Self to the Samanthibakkam home of his family, where his Revered Ancestors have Bestowed their Blessings Through the Ages. With the Wisdom and Learning You have acquired through Great Sacrifice and Effort, please Choose an Auspicious Time, and send word that Your good Relatives will Accompany you to Grace the Threshold of our Poor but Pious Dwelling. We will be Eagerly awaiting your Word. And the Opportunity to shower our Hospitality on Your Presence.

    I remain, Yours humbly,

    The note is in Tamil, a script without capital letters, but this is the idea—inconsistently the most flowery and archaic Sivakami’s father can muster.

    The note is delivered by Sivakami’s brothers after they also have bathed and prayed. With a great sense of accomplishment puffing ...

  • Reviews
    Praise for THE TOSS OF A LEMON:
     
    "Padma Viswanathan has real talent." -- The New York Times Book Review
     
    "A brilliant tour de force." - India Today
     
    "Viswanathan's book, like Rushdie's work, aims for epic status. But it actually achieves something that is in many way more nuanced than the broad brushstrokes of an epic: a meditation on fate's workings in a family dominted by the quiet rule of one woman- and the struggle of her son against the strictures of her belief." -- The Washington Post Book World

    "We are left wondering what will happen as all cultures in the world continue to converge -- will a collective future become more important than singular, personal pasts? -- a mystery that the book earns, and one that haunts us well after closing the back cover." - Minneapolis Star Tribune

    "Viswanathan immerses readers in the realities of the caste system from both sides; in telling a universal story of generational differences on a personal level, she makes a vanished world feel completely authentic. Superbly done." - Booklist

    "the portrait [Viswanathan] paints is dazzling. Gender rules, class relations, and the political castes of late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century India are well presented, making this an important work of historical fiction." - Library Journal, starred review

    "Viswanathan's absorbing first novel, based on her grandmother's life, goes deep into the world of sourthern India village life...Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and worldviews to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners." - Publishers Weekly
     
    "[Viswanathan's] narrative, refreshingly, is free of anachronism, and she has a pleasing way of engaging the reader’s senses—not least with some mouth-watering descriptions of 'dry and wet curries, pacchadis of yogurt and cucumber…deep-fried patties of lentil and chili,' and other such delicacies....Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez—altogether a pleasure." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    "The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic and yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family’s doorstep. It is also the debut of a major new voice in world fiction." - Booklounge.ca

    "This is a rich, sensual book that uses life itself as its plot…reading it is an experience of immersion.... There is a whole world here between two covers." - The National Post (Canada) 

    "It [The Toss of a Lemon] 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…. What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity…The Toss of A Lemon is astonishing. Brilliant. Beautiful." - January Magazine (Canada)

    "With its rich and complex background and often sharp insights The Toss of a Lemon is a valuable and evocative work…" - The Montreal Gazette

    "[I]n The Toss of a Lemon we see exactly how magnetic, how sinkingly seductive that [Brahmin] life was, and how difficult it must have been when the habits and customs of millennia were overturned by the shock of the new…Leaving the book feels like getting out of a warm bath on a cold day. Viswanathan is a charming writer…one’s senses are overwhelmed by a rich density…Viswanathan makes clear the fear and ferocious love motivating ancient tribes, clans and classes that cling to the old ways." - The Globe and Mail

    "The brilliance of The Toss of a Lemon rests not so much in its intricate plotting as in the compressed, poetic precision with which Viswanathan depicts a lost world." - Walrus

    "This soaring new novel, inspired by the Edmonton author’s family history, will draw comparisons to The God of Small Things, but Viswanathan has a voice and a vision all her own." - Chatelaine

    "The Toss of a Lemon is an ambitious work that delivers through its careful examination of class hierarchies, gender divisions, and complex familial relationships…the prose is crisp enough to create a concrete sense of the places that the characters inhabit. The language captures unspoken melancholy through the rhythm of strummed drone strings, or the wonder of childhood curiousity through the taste of soil that ‘is crunchy and damply acrid and contains a couple of jasmine petals'.….Ultimately the family at the centre of the novel serves as a fascinating microcosm of a a nation that is freeing itself of vestiges of colonialism and class divisions." - - Quill and Quire

    "The story is heartbreaking and exhilarating, exotic yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family." – The Asian Star

    "In this, her debut novel, Padma Viswanathan performs a wondrous balancing act of words. She sustains a vivid sense of the moment while spanning decades, brings unforgettable individual characters to life while recounting a saga of generations, and lays bare the inner worlds of those characters while evoking an entire nation in turmoil. Rich with sensual detail, The Toss of a Lemon is the story of a community centred on tradition during an era of upheaval and change. Above all, it is a moving and deftly-drawn portrait of a family." - Alissa York

    "It’s a remarkable achievement for a book to capture the slow, stately pace of an 8,000 year old culture and yet keep a story moving at a brisk pace. The Toss of a Lemon gives readers the rare opportunity to enter the life of a Brahmin widow, to live her norms and routines and rituals as they have been lived by countless women over thousands of years. I closed it indebted for this immersion in a world I could not have otherwise entered." - Shyam Selvadurai

    "The Toss of a Lemon is a glorious feat, as boisterously written as it is wholly engrossing. It’s about love – and cruelty – and how each reverberate across the generations in one family. And it is that rare thing, a novel that manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time." - Peter Orner

    "What pleasure it was to read this rich and fascinating saga. It had me keeping the light on into the night, mad to find out what happened next." -- Lynn Freed, author of Reading, Writing, Leaving Home, Curse of the Appropriate Man, and the The Servants' Quarters

    "The Toss of a Lemon is a captivating novel that in relating the story of one Indian woman and her family tells the story of a changing society. Precisely and deftly written, constantly interesting, morally serious yet sympathetic -- I challenge any reader to start reading this book and give up on it. It joins the company of the great novels on India" -- Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi

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