Book Review: Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

27 May

Toss of a LemonGenre: Historical fiction, South Asian

Pub date: 2008

Source: Personal copy



At over 600 pages, this slow-paced book that tells that story of one community and mainly one family is not for everyone. But it definitely was for me – I enjoyed it hugely. Part of the reason for that was perhaps the fact that a lot of it was rather familiar – the food, customs and family life portrayed here is in the late nineteenth century Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu. This is a story that my grandparents will be familiar with (and Padma Viswanathan was inspired by her family history).

Ten-year-old Sivakami is married off to Hanumarathnam (astrologer and healer) even though a problem in his horoscope predicts an early death. While the birth of their first child, Thangam (named for her gold colouring) is auspicious, the son’s birth time turns out to be inauspicious for the father’s life. Hanumarathnam draws up their astrological charts by asking the nurse to throw a lemon the moment the child’s head is seen. Hanumarathnam is a practical man and goes about training his wife and a devoted servant Muchami to handle the property. After his death, as per the dictates of religion and custom, young Sivakami withdraws from public life (not that women had a public role in any case). But she never stops doing her best for her children.

Sivakami’s brothers marry her daughter Thangam off rather carelessly. And when they determine that her son Vairum (named for his ice-cold diamond eyes) is only fit for the life of a priest, she rebels against custom. Moving back to her marital home, she takes control of her life and that of her son’s. The entire village seems enamoured of Thangam, who I found impossible to know or like. Vairum, on the other hand, has no friends in the Brahmin quarter, but is full of intelligence and a hurt and I felt like I could understand him. When Thangam’s husband proves that he is incapable of being responsible and taking care of his family, Sivakami again steps in and takes care of Thangam’s children.

Spanning three generations and umpteen characters, this is a family saga and also a socio-cultural chronicle. It is the story of a woman strong in her beliefs, one who dares to go against family and some traditions so that her son can have the best. This story is set against the larger backdrop of changing times -the World Wars, Independence, the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu – breakdown of the rigid and unfair caste system, the end of the devadasi system.

Written for the Western reader, there are some things that were over-explained – customs and traditions that an Indian reader, especially a South Indian reader will be familiar with. This didn’t bother me too much though.


I loved this slow tale set in a different time. Heavy and sad at times, hopeful at others, it tells the story of many things that have changed forever. While I loved it, I can absolutely see other readers being put off by the length, pace and ‘exotic’ elements.

Rating: 4*

*See myRating policy

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