A “superbly done” novel of a woman, her family, and a village in India that “makes a vanished world feel completely authentic” (Booklist).
Sivakami was married at ten, widowed at eighteen, and left with two children. According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she puts on widow’s whites. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. Sivakami dutifully follows custom, except for one defiant act: She moves back to her dead husband’s house to raise her children. There, her servant Muchami, a closeted gay man who is bound by a different caste’s rules, becomes her public face. Their singular relationship holds three generations of the family together through the turbulent first half of the twentieth century, as India endures great social and political change. But as time passes, the family changes, too; Sivakami’s son will question the strictures of the very beliefs that his mother has scrupulously upheld. The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family.
Journalist, playwright and short-story writer Viswanathan's absorbing first novel, based on her grandmother's life, goes deep into the world of southern India village life. Starting in 1896, the story follows Sivakami, a Tamil Brahmin girl, from her marriage at the age of 10 through her long widowhood, while Indian political and social life lumbers through immense changes. Before he dies, Sivakami's astrologer husband, Hanumarathnam, foresees his death in the malignant interactions between his stars and his son Vairum's. Though he trains a trustworthy servant to assist Sivakami until their son comes of age, the world that Hanumarathnam leaves behind is rapidly changing, and the family is not entirely fit to survive it; Vairum, especially, suffers the pain of a father's disaffection and, later, a widowed mother forbidden to touch any human being during daylight hours. Irreconcilable conflicts between tradition especially the strict caste rules of Brahmin life and the modernizing world lead predictably to alienation and tragedy, but on an epic scale. Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and worldviews to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners.