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In Praise of Anita Rau Badami
by Caitlin Fehir

I am a bit of a fickle reader. At times, I yearn for a novel set far from my home in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, one that will carry me away from all that I know, and set me down in unfamiliar territory. But then, just as often, I crave the literature of my own country — books about cold Canadian winters, about our vast forests and eclectic cities. I like reading about people I recognize just as much as I like getting to know an entirely new culture.

Anita Rau Badami is an author who satisfies my seemingly contradictory reading tastes, as her books move from unfamiliar India to places near to my heart. Badami herself is a living embodiment of her novels; born in Rourkela, Orissa, India, she emigrated to Canada as an adult, and now resides in Montreal. As a child, Badami's family was constantly on the move. Her father worked for the Indian railways, and so "home" was one railroad town after another. This nomadic lifestyle is prevalent in her four novels: Tamarind Mem (1997); The Hero's Walk (2001); Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (2006); and the upcoming Tell it to the Trees, all of which focus on the movement of people between Badami's two countries.

That is not to say that Badami's novels are repetitive. True, they all focus on family, and on the clash between cultures and generations, but they are unique in the stories they tell. From Tamarind Mem, which grew out of her master's thesis, to Tell it to the Trees, Badami has created characters who will capture your heart. She gives me the best of both worlds — a glimpse into a place where I am a stranger, and the comfort of the country I call home.

Photo of Anita Rau Badami Reading Badami's novels, it was Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? that first caught my attention. It is the story of three women, Sharanjeet, Leela, and Nimmo. As a child, beautiful Sharanjeet yearns to get away from India. She succeeds in doing this, but only by stealing a husband away from her older, plainer sister. This streak of ambition, coupled with a fair amount of greed, haunts Sharan her entire life. In Vancouver, where she is known as Bibi-ji, she is in a happy, profitable marriage, and she passes on her hints for success to Leela, a recent immigrant. Leela is also an ambitious woman; born to a low place in society, she is a "half-and-half," the daughter of a non-Indian woman. Through marriage, Leela becomes an important person, part of a respected family:

When she met somebody at a wedding or a birth ceremony or at one of the procession of feasts, celebrations and festivals, Leela would introduce herself: 'We belong to the Kunjoor Bhat family — you know, the well-known one?' She would end this statement with a satisfied nod of her neat, oiled head, a pursed smile and a quick tug of the end of her silk sari, which she wrapped around both shoulders because it made her feel matronly and responsible and Bhat-ish. There was not a doubt in her mind that the whole world was aware of the existence of this deeply respectable family.

In Canada, this source of pride is meaningless, and Leela is forced to learn to negotiate a new world.

Book Cover I found these two women, with their many flaws, admirable. Their strength, their desires to succeed at whatever the world threw at them, was unfailing, even when faced with terrible events. Badami sets her story amid a tumultuous time in India's history, spanning the time between the creation of Pakistan to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the attack on Air India Flight 182. Bibi-ji loses her family to war, and when she is reunited with her niece Nimmo years later, her joy at finding a relative is heart-warming. However, this relationship soon turns dark, as childless Bibi-ji asks Nimmo to send one of her young sons to Canada, to be raised by Bibi-ji and her husband. Poor Nimmo feels forced to give up her son, and life in Vancouver is not kind to the little boy. Here, Bibi-ji's greed once again rears its ugly head, and yet I still could not help but sympathize with this ambitious woman.

Badami's characters have this wonderful authenticity about them. They are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil; they are compelling because of the balance between their weaknesses and their strengths. Across all four novels, women, men, and children are complex, and every relationship rings true — readers will understand and identify with these people and their emotions.

Book Cover One common relationship in Badami's novels is the bond between parents and children. Tamarind Mem is the story of a mother and a daughter, and their very different accounts of their life together. As a child, Kamini yearned for her mother Saroja's love, but often found her irrational and moody, saying: "I was never sure about Ma's feelings for me. Her love, I felt sometimes, was like the waves in the sea, the ebb and flow left me reaching out hungrily. A love as uncertain as the year I was born, when the Chinese had marched across the border into India.” Known as “tamarind mem," Saroja has a tongue that cuts, and she is not afraid to use it. Locked in an arranged marriage to a man she does not love, she longs to escape her household duties and travel India. Years later, when Kamini is a student at a Canadian university, Saroja finally has the freedom to do whatever she likes, and sets out on a solo train journey. Along the way, she tells strangers the story of her life.

Badami uses both characters as narrators, first cementing Saroja's reputation as a poor mother through Kamini's thoughts on her childhood, and then giving Saroja a beautiful voice of her own:

I do not belong to anyone now. I have cut loose and love only from a distance. My daughters can fulfill their own destinies. In days of yore, aged parents left their worldly lives to retreat into the forest, where they shrugged off the manacles that bound them to their responsibilities and duties, and spent their days contemplating their histories. They shuffled their memories like a pack of cards, smiled at the joyous ones, shed a tear or two at the others. They shook their heads over youthful follies, and thought quietly about the journey, yet unknown, that stretched before their calloused feet.I too have reached that stage in my life where I only turn the pages of a book already written, I do not write.
Through this change in narrators, the reader sees another side to Saroja, a character, like Bibi-ji, who I loved because of her faults.

Book Cover Tumultuous family relationships are also found in The Hero's Walk, Badami's second novel. The protagonist, Sripathi, is the unhappy head of an extended Indian household that contains his wife, Nirmala; their son, Arun; his tyrannical mother; and his unmarried adult sister, Putti. Sripathi's other child, Maya, has been disowned for moving to Canada and marrying a non-Indian. While Nirmala still talks to Maya regularly, Sripathi refuses to acknowledge that he has a daughter, and has never met his son-in-law or granddaughter. Arun, while still an acknowledged family member, is another source of disgrace. His reluctance to get a job, and his political fervour, annoy Sripathi to no end. He views his son as a lazy man with no ambitions, not understanding Arun's desire to change the world. Into this mess of a family comes little Nandana, Maya's daughter, orphaned by a car accident and forced to live in strange India with grandparents she does not know.

Quotation Sripathi, like so many of Badami's characters, holds tight to tradition. Maya's marriage to a Canadian man is more than he can take, and he sees her decision as bringing shame to his family: "He had forgiven his child so many transgressions, but this deliberate trampling of their dignity, of the family name that he had struggled to maintain all these years, that he would not forgive." This is one of the great hypocrisies that Badami points out in her novels — her families are broken from the inside, but put forward a solid, respectable front, always aware of society's opinions. Far more important than individual happiness is a family's good name. In Tell it to the Trees, even children understand the importance of social acceptance. Varsha and Hemant, whose tyrannical father takes out his anger by beating them, hide their bruises, insisting that they fell down the stairs. Their mother, Suman, stays in her horrible marriage, believing that the life of a single woman with children would be far more difficult and shameful than the abuse she receives from her husband.

Book Cover Besides the setting of India, it is these opinions on marriage and family, and the emphasis placed on tradition, that make Badami's novels exotic. The notions of gender held by her characters are so far removed from my own, and the struggles of women like Suman, Leela, and Saroja are jarring to my middle-class, Western, educated sensibilities. As a young woman living in a world of relative equality, it is seldom that I feel disadvantaged because of my gender. Reading Badami's novels, I marvel at the lives women lead all around the world. Often we read to try and experience lives very different from our own, and Badami's characters are certainly undergoing struggles that I will never fully understand. In the case of Tell it to the Trees, these struggles occur in my own country. This discomfort — the idea that women are silenced not just in place halfway round the world, but very close to home — adds to my appreciation of Badami's writing. She not only introduces me to the history and customs of a new country, but sheds light on a part of my own world that I may have never seen.

I appreciate Anita Rau Badami more with every new novel. Her latest, Tell it to the Trees, is simply brilliant, a story I will reread many times. She manages to combine weighty issues and historic events with the intimate daily lives of families, and bridges the distance between two countries, showing that our differences are not always as great as we believe. Books like Badami's are what I love to read — emotional, challenging, and that perfect balance between familiar and foreign.

Read Caitlin's review of Anita Rau Badami's new novel, Tell it to the Trees here.

Photo of Caitlin Fehir

Caitlin Fehir is an English teacher living in southern Ontario, Canada. Her reading tastes change daily, and she is constantly adding to her never-ending list of books to explore. Her new-found love is traveling, an expensive hobby that is supplemented by seeing the world through literature.

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