The Toss of a Lemon

Written by Padma Viswanathan
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

This phenomenal novel, set in India, follows the life of Sivakami from early childhood through old age, spanning the years 1896 through the 1950s. Following Brahmin tradition, Sivakami is married at age ten. When she is thirteen and comes of age, she is escorted to her husband’s home. By the time she is eighteen, she has given birth to two children and is widowed. The strictures for widowhood are incredibly stringent, but the remainder of Sivakami’s life is completely governed by them. Through this epic novel, we follow not only Sivakami’s life, but that of her two unusual children: Thangam, the daughter who sheds gold dust, and Vairum, a difficult young boy who becomes a financial success. The novel is rich in details about rituals of Brahmin life; it is also rich in its characterization of Sivakami’s many family members and near neighbors. Janaki, one of Thangam’s children, provides a point of focus, as does Muchami, who oversaw properties owned by Sivakami’s husband. He stays on to work for Sivakami and provides a view outside of her household, one denied to Sivakami herself.

Critical events in Indian history during this time are reflected through the prism of the caste, although cracks begin to appear in the unanimity of reactions. It is Vairum who discards many of the traditions that his mother believes to be unquestionable, and who shifts the ground under her. While we recognize that Sivakami is extraordinarily conservative, such is our empathy for her that we want her view of the world protected.

This novel was inspired by stories told by the author’s grandmother. Padma Viswanathan has transformed them into a captivating novel, one I wanted to continue long beyond its 600-plus pages. I recommend it most highly.