Fiction: Written in the Stars

Reviewed by V.V. Ganeshananthan
Sunday, October 19, 2008


By Padma Viswanathan

Harcourt. 619 pp. $26

A novel set in the Indian subcontinent and published in the West bears the burdens of our preconceptions. It is easy to assume that a book about a high-caste child bride who becomes a widow will fix its sights only on the girl's woes and the deep injustices of caste. But while Padma Viswanathan's first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, has at its heart a 10-year-old Brahmin girl who marries an ill-fated man, its ambitions transcend culture and country to reach for the nature of fate itself.

The book opens in 1896, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as a village healer and astrologer seeks young Sivakami's hand in marriage. Hanumarathnam's proposal bears a strange caveat: His horoscope hints at his own premature death. But her parents need not fret, he insists: "As that prediction is contained in the weakest quadrant, it holds no weight, as you know, though ignorant people let it scare them." So Sivakami becomes a child bride, and her background assures her top rank in the social and religious order, but horoscopes drive the book's plot.

The titular toss refers to Hanumarathnam's strategy for determining his children's astrological charts. Sitting outside the birthing room, he marks the moment when a midwife tosses a lemon through a window, signaling the appearance of the infant's head. Then he calculates its future. All seems well with the couple's first baby, a daughter called Thangam for her golden color. But then Sivakami bears a boy, dubbed Vairum for his diamond-like eyes. Families normally celebrate sons, but this unattractive, intelligent child's horoscope foretells his father's death within three years. Resigned, Hanumarathnam begins to prepare Sivakami for widowhood and trains a servant boy named Muchami to be her aide in the management of her household and property.

When Hanumarathnam does die, Sivakami finds that Muchami is the only person who will selflessly help her. When she sees that her brothers will not act in Vairum's interest, she defies tradition by raising her family in her husband's village instead of her own. That choice shapes the divergent lives of her children.

Literally luminous, Thangam attracts the reverence of her fellow villagers. In one of the story's several notes of magical realism, Thangam sheds a kind of gold dust, which her admirers collect and use as they would holy ash. But despite her near-sacred status, Thangam's horoscope presents an obstacle to betrothal because it prophesies her husband's death. The only willing suitor is a shiftless man whose stars predict his wife's death even more strongly. It's a match of dueling destinies.

Thangam eventually bears 10 children. When Sivakami sees that her daughter is failing to manage her unreliable husband and their offspring, she assumes responsibility for the older children. Over the years, as Thangam bears more and more children to be raised in Sivakami's strict home, Vairum's resentment grows. A college-educated social progressive who disapproves of caste tradition and astrology, he watches as his mother raises his sister's children under Brahmin traditions he believes to be wrong. Although Vairum is now Muchami's employer, the servant remains loyal to Sivakami and tries to serve as a bridge between mother and son. This servant's fascinating inner life may deserve a novel of its own. Even in such a sprawling story, we don't get far enough into his head.

All this takes place against the backdrop of considerable change in India, as the book spans more than 60 years. Viswanathan renders these developments -- changes in marriage laws, for example -- in simple, often beautiful language, with details that intersect subtly with the enormous cast of Sivakami's extended family and their friends.

Viswanathan prefaces The Toss of a Lemon with an epigraph from the great Indian novel Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. Viswanathan's book, like Rushdie's work, aims for epic status. But it actually achieves something that is in many ways more nuanced than the broad brushstrokes of an epic: a meditation on fate's workings in a family dominated by the quiet rule of one woman -- and the struggle of her son against the strictures of her belief. ยท

V.V. Ganeshananthan is the author of the novel "Love Marriage."

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