Book Review: Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami


Tamarind Mem, written by nationally acclaimed writer Anita Rau Badami, is a tale of a mother and a daughter and their respective life stories. The 266-page book is divided into two parts: the first two-thirds are written in the perspective of Kamini, the daughter, and the remaining third is written in the perspective of Saroja, the mother and book’s namesake, tamarind mem. Tamarind Mem’s main thought revolves around societal pressures that were present at the time Saroja was growing up and the effects of these pressures on Kamini’s life. Despite the appealing message, Tamarind Mem loses the reader’s interest due to its length and wordiness.

Kamini is the eldest daughter of her parents and lives in Calgary, where she is completing her graduate studies. Here, in her cold basement apartment, she reminisces about her childhood and memories of her almost absent mother during this time period. These recollections reflect a deep longing for her mother’s love and attention. With her father (dadda) constantly away on railway-related work, Kamini and her sister Roopa are left to the care of their maidservant, Linda Ayah by their mother Saroja. Both the daughters deal with the lack of attention from their mother in different ways: Roopa chooses to almost ignore her mother’s existence, whereas Kamini tries to hold on to every possible memory that she has of her mother. In the preamble to each story that she recollects, Kamini is consistently worried for her mother’s wellbeing and safety. She calls and writes to her mother every week, whereas Roopa is mostly focussed on her own life with her husband.

Saroja’s stories are primarily centred around her early adulthood days whereby she is forced to marry instead of going to college and becoming a doctor. Her parents arranged her marriage to her husband, a railway engineer who is 15 years her senior. It is here that we notice the sour words of Saroja really develop and originate. She is in a loveless marriage, has no consistent friends and is forced to constantly move from one place to another due to her husband’s job. Due to this, she becomes distant toward every person in her life and is constantly saying mean things to people, even though she does not mean it.

Anita Rau Badami does a great job highlighting societal pressures in Indian culture and the impact of these pressures on one’s life. We see this through the actions of Saroja, where she is forced to marry a stranger instead of becoming a doctor. The impact of this results in her daughters’ longing for her love and attention for all their lives and her becoming a mean, sour tongued woman that many people don’t like. This message is quite powerful. It forces the reader to be conscious of their decision making, and how their lives will be affected if they are just thinking of what is societally acceptable.

Despite the great message that the book has, Tamarind Mem fails to make an impact. This is because Anita Rau Badami describes each tale in painstakingly increased detail. This results in the reader losing focus and understanding of what the message or story is about. In many instances, the descriptors do not add to the tale, rather distract the reader from the essence and emotion of the tale. Additionally, many of the tales narrated have nothing to do what the main theme of the book. All this makes the book a bit of a chore to read.

Tamarind Mem has a great insight on Indian culture and provides a good insight on how Indian immigrants may be feeling after leaving their country, however, due the excessive number of stories narrated and increased descriptions surrounding each story, the reader loses focus on the main theme of the story.