Novel as discovery. For Canadian-born Padma Viswanathan, writing her debut novel led her back to a culture and milieu that went back over a 100 years. Excerpts from an interview…
Remember the days when grandma used to start her tales of yore, "in my day…" Nine out of 10 people would have rolled their eyes and gently slipped out before grandma realised that no one was listening to her. But the one who stayed back to listen may have actually cottoned on to something that led somewhere.
Meet Padma Viswanathan, a Canadian-born Indian origin playwright and author, who transformed her grandmother’s stories into an extraordinary first novel, The Toss of a Lemon. Set in the heart of a traditional Tamil Brahmin household at the turn of the 19th century, the book documents the effects of the momentous changes of that time on one family.
Viswanthan has quite a few short stories and plays to her credit. Now add a 600+ pages novel to that list. Asked what she felt like writing the first scene of her first play, Viswanathan says, "It’s hard to describe, but it felt as though this was something I firmly, intuitively, knew how to do. As soon as I wrote it, I knew there was nothing else, in theatre or otherwise, that I would be able to do as well." Given that books "had always been paramount in my life", she sees writing as a way of giving back, of communicating her learning experiences from books.
Though this one took her 10 years, she didn’t anticipate such a big book. "I don’t think I would have had the courage to begin if I had known it would be so long," she says. Beginning with writing episodes or chapters as they occurred, "and trying to figure out what the narrative arc might be given what was emerging," she even considered a trilogy. Then took it to the chopping board; when it first reached the publisher it was around 900 pages. Back to the chopping board for the final product. "In the process of writing The Toss of a Lemon, I learned, in a way, how to write."
Asked about which writers were looking over her shoulder while she worked, she mentions Salman Rushdie and Ann Marie MacDonald. "It was Rushdie’s novels that I thought about most as I was writing, though Canadian writer Ann Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees also hovered. My prose doesn’t sound anything like Rushdie’s, but I was inspired by the particularity of his voice to find my own. "
For someone who grew up abroad, Viswanathan has managed to recreate an almost-extinct Tamil Brahmin household that has nothing to do with today’s NRI Tam-Bram software culture. "Thirty years ago many of our relatives still lived in households in villages much like the ones I describe in my book. Increasingly, they have moved to the cities and even overseas, but I continued to visit them and, when I was doing research for the book, I stayed with the few relatives who still live in a way that resembles the Brahmin way of life of a 100 years ago."
Without being a diatribe, the focus on the daily minutiae of Brahmin rituals does drive home the injustice of the caste system without the author’s voice intruding or telling the reader so. "My intention was to implicate the reader, to make them feel how seductive the caste system is… and so give a sense of why it persists, even today, if in mutated forms. The book is the product of a lifetime of observing and thinking about this culture and of my stumbling efforts to show respect by conforming to the rules while staying with relatives, even while loudly voicing my objections!"
Some others obviously don’t think so. One Netizen says, "One expects The Toss of a Lemon to seize the issue of caste relations in its teeth, because there is simply so much to say about the recognition of caste injustice in Tamil Nadu… However, Viswanathan… glides over the larger issues of the day, quite a feat in 600 odd pages." Put this one to her and the author asks if she should "have made some declaration: ‘In case you don’t know, the caste system is unfair and cruel and we must all work to dismantle it’. It’s a novel; not a political speech." Negative reactions don’t faze her. "There will be those who don’t find it to their taste; literature is an idiosyncratic enterprise. I have written the book I needed and wanted to write and I’m very grateful it has found its readers," she seems satisfied.
Considering that the book is based on stories told by Viswanathan’s grandmother about her own grandmother, one does wonder about reactions within the family. Her grandmother was "deeply, emotionally affected because she so closely identified with the story. At one point in my book, the children who are being raised by their grandmother, Sivakami, are taken back by their father who, after a week, sends them right back again. Although this incident never happened in "real life", it brought back to my grandmother the feelings of rejection and neglect she had suffered as a child. She is very proud of the book (and its writer), and is now revelling in its success."
Speaking of family, how was her intention to be a writer received by her parents? At first, "they thought it was the most recent in a series of declared professional ambitions that had changed every year since I was 10! They started taking it a little more seriously when my play was produced and I started getting some awards and prizes, but they were still, understandably, troubled by the long, lean years of financial uncertainty. Now, they feel my gamble was worthwhile." The process of publication itself, she says, was "bizarrely easy". The book went to Toronto-based agent Bruce Westwood courtesy another Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. From Canada to the U.S. and it has moved on since: to Spain, Italy, Holland, Brazil and Australia.
And what of inputs from her writer husband? Apart from reading the manuscript and giving suggestions, his role was a generally supportive one. Echoing other working couples, Viswanathan says, "The concerns of artists are often practical ones: income, childcare, a place to work." Unless these are taken care off, she says, one won’t have the "peace of mind" to "enter the realms of imagination". "So we work hard to take care of these things for one another. Our parents have also helped a lot… "
With the first novel flying high, she’s working on her next project for Random House Canada. Losing Farther, Losing Faster focuses on the dilemma of a devotee whose guru (both being Indian) has been accused of a sexual misdeed. The novel centres on how Seth comes to terms with his faith given these accusations. From the end of the 19th century to the 21st century is a fast move indeed.