I met Padma Viswanathan at a reading at Johns Hopkins, where she got a master's in creative writing, and was captivated by her story. The Toss of a Lemon is an intergenerational tale set in India, drawn from family lore and her imagination. We did this interview via email:
What was the inspiration for your book? The Toss of a Lemon was inspired by stories my grandmother told me of her grandmother, who was married as a child and widowed at 18. My great-great-grandmother, like my main character, Sivakami, chose to raise her children in her own house, despite severe restrictions on Brahmin widows in south India in the early 20th century. Their heads were shaved; they did not wear colors; and, most cruelly, they were not permitted to touch or be touched--even by their children--from dawn to dusk. My character, Sivakami, essentially doesn't leave her house more than a few times in the remaining sixty years of her life, but still succeeds in running her household on the income from her agricultural properties, in giving her son a secular education, and in raising her grandchildren when her daughter proves incapable, all with the help of a trusted servant, her closest confidant.
How much of the book sprang from your own experience or from stories told to you? I feel as though there is something, if only a tiny detail, on almost every page, that owes to things [my grandmother] told me. My own experiences and observations, both in India and otherwise, also very much figure in ... . I incorporated details gleaned from research as well as from a lifetime of eavesdropping! And then there are elements of pure fancy, but these might not be as obvious as one might think: I have a witch living next door to Sivakami, for example, which fact is taken directly from my family history, though I made up some elements of her biography. Ditto the fact that Sivakami's husband, an astrologer, predicted his own death: my great-great-grandfather did that. But then Sivakami's daughter, in a twist that some reviewers have called magical realist, begins shedding gold dust. This bit was totally my invention, though it has a number of--to my mind!--quite logical links to the world I reconstructed.
Did the story evolve as you wrote it, or did it follow the original outline? There was no original outline! I wrote the first chapter first, but that was about the only bit of writing that emerged in sequence. I could tell, when I wrote that passage, that I had found the voice of the narrator and a tone that would be appropriate and sustainable. Once I did that, though, I proceeded by randomly dipping into my transcripts for anecdotes and incidents that intrigued me sufficiently that I wanted to write them into chapters. ... The more I wrote, the more I cut and shaped and fictionalized.
Do people with Indian heritage have a different reaction to the book after reading it? Sort of: India is so diverse that a young Muslim from Gujarat, for example, would have only a slightly closer identification to the story than many westerners. But there are many Tamil Brahmins living in North America, and they do have a unique reaction to the book. Younger ones have said that they learned about a place and time that vanished, for better and worse, before their time; older ones have thanked me for returning to them many of the sights and sensations they miss from their childhoods, even while they ruminated, via the story, on a tumultuous time when old assumptions were being challenged and overturned. But many western readers have also said that they have a personal identification with the story, which is, at its core, about a mother struggling to raise her family and making the best decisions she can for her children on the basis of imperfect information. None of us can tell the future--even if one of my characters thinks he can!--and each of us has been a child, if not a parent. Most of the book's readers have embraced it on this personal level ... .
Has any reaction from readers surprised you? Oh, there was one odd incident: One of my intentions with The Toss of Lemon was to make readers conversant in the complex ways the caste system was enacted in this time and place. Both Sivakami, my main character, a Brahmin widow, and Muchami, her servant, a closeted homosexual, are on the receiving end of caste oppressions, though in very different ways. Despite this, they collude in maintaining the very system that oppresses them. ... My intention was to implicate the reader, to make them feel how seductive the caste system is, how it sustained people, and so give a sense of why it persists, even today, if in mutated forms. So then it was a surprise when one blogger suggested that I should have made some more overt declaration: "In case you don't know, the caste system is unfair and cruel and we must all work to dismantle it." ... The post was followed by comments--from people who hadn't read the book--agreeing with how terrible it is that I glorify the caste system! Ultimately, I had to laugh it off.
How has the book's publication changed your life? I worked on the book for 10 years in relative isolation, so it was a little startling for me when my agent, the first person in the publishing industry to read the book, started talking to me about the characters in it. Apparently, I had half-convinced myself that the story was really just a world inside my head, where I would walk around, recording what people said and did in circumstances that I created for them! ... I don't want it to change my life in any fundamental way, though. I have a husband and two small children; I have another book to write, as well as short-story projects. Tobias Wolff has said he lives a banker's life, by which I think he means he sticks to a routine and mundane concerns. I wouldn't normally dare compare myself to Wolff, whose work I admire intensely, but I aspire to keep my life as boring as he claims his is! It seems a good formula for productivity.
What are you working on now? I’m working on a second novel, called Losing Farther, Losing Faster. It centers on an Indian man named Seth, who lives in contemporary western Canada. Seth is a devotee of a very popular Indian guru, and, when the novel opens, he learns that his guru has been accused of a—highly ambiguous—sexual misdeed. My character has to try to come to terms with his faith in light of the accusations.
Photo by Joy von Tiedeman