The Death of the Old Way

(This was published in the Globe and Mail a few years ago. I’m writing about the same culture again, so wanted to archive it for myself. Plus, it’s a great book review, if I do say so myself)

I sometimes think I had the last Victorian childhood in existence, growing up among the Anglo-Protestant clans of Old Montreal. We’re pretty much a diaspora now, clinging to the wreckage, which is all right, things as they have to be. But there was much to love in the old ways, and the best was belonging to a familial grouping of 400 people and having a distinct place within that clan, however marginal. It is why I’ve never been able to fully embrace literary fiction; the isolation of the modernist is so brutal and strange. Far too many people were interested in my fate and reputation, and did not hesitate to criticize. Luckily, I was ridden out of Old Montreal on a rail, so effort at conformity could cease.

  • The Toss of a Lemon, by Padma Viswanathan, Random House Canada, 616 pages, $34.95

How much greater, then, is the loss of the 8,000-year-old culture of the Brahmin caste of the subcontinent? The question is rhetorical, for in The Toss of a Lemon, Padma Viswanathan’s first novel, we see exactly how magnetic, how sinkingly seductive that life was, and how difficult it must have been when the habits and customs of millennia were overturned by the shock of the new.

In 1931, India’s last census to count by caste, Tamil Nadu Brahmins, named after the Indian province where this book takes place, measured a little less than 3 per cent of the population. They were a priestly tribe, descended from the Vedic rishis, enjoined to live a life of learning and non-possessiveness.

The Toss of a Lemon is relentlessly domestic, therefore relentlessly feminine. Politics, independence and war rage on the far borders of the Brahmin quarter, barely noticed. As is business, since the novel’s central family, like most Brahmins, has farms and tenants which support them. It begins with Sivakami, a passive little 13-year-old who trots off obediently to live in her 18-year-old healer husband’s house. A sword hangs over their arranged marriage: If her son is born on the right date, her husband, Hanumarathnam, will die young. Which he does, promptly, on the appointed day. But Hanumarathnam was practical. He taught his young wife, and Muchami, a servant uninterested in women, to manage his farms, so she need not live on charity.

Sivakami dutifully shaves her head and puts aside her beautiful clothes for the two white cotton saris she will wear for the rest of her life. The rules by which she must live are beyond stringent. She can’t touch her children during the day; if she does, she has to bathe. She must cook all her own food and she cannot go outside the gates of the house, and there are dozens more rules. But the life of the quarter streams in though Muchami, her family, her tenant farmers, the inhabitants of the Brahmin quarter, her two children, their friends and spouses, and the many children her daughter, Thangam, bears.

Thangam, of “the burnished hair and molten eyes,” is so gorgeous that “most of the neighbourhood considers Thangam’s beauty itself to be a community service.” She is surrounded by admirers, and eventually begins to shed gold flakes, assiduously collected and used as healing ash. Thangam is married off to a feckless man who neglects her, but not enough to prevent a child being born to the couple almost every year.

The divine Thangam suffers mightily, and no puja or japa by her saintly mother can save her. Her brother, Vairum, can’t save her either, but as an adult, he forbids any more marriages based on horoscopes. Reason, not superstition, must determine the family’s future, and with that, some of the magic trickles away.

Vairum grows into a wealthy businessman, who protects his nieces and nephews. He chooses his musician wife himself despite their joint horoscope predicting childlessness. Vairum can’t overturn that fate until one of his nieces dies of cancer, and he adopts her children, but by then he loathes his mother and her willingness to sacrifice her beloved daughter, his sister, to a husband careless to the point of criminality, for the sake of family reputation.

This is the way class dies, Brahmin, WASP or aristocrat. The sacrifice of individual to clan becomes unbearable, tragic and, finally, impossible.

Leaving the book feels like getting out of a warm bath on a cold day. Viswanathan is a charming writer, and I do not mean to belittle; one’s senses are overwhelmed by a rich density. An almost invisible discipline marches her hundreds of characters from 1896 to 1958. The demons (in the form of an illegitimate child) gather at the garden gate; caste must die, or as a newspaper of the time says, “the upper-caste bigots [must]cast aside their false race pride.” Nothing is said, sniffs a granddaughter, “of mutual dependence and respect. … Brahmins are the servants of society. Why is everyone out to get us?”

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