Tamarind Mem


266 pages
ISBN 0-670-86916-3
DDC 823




Reviewed by Steve Pitt

Steve Pitt is a Toronto-based freelance writer and an award-winning journalist. He has written many young adult and children's books, including Day of the Flying Fox: The True Story of World War II Pilot Charley Fox.


A tamarind is a sour, acidic fruit that can be taken straight only in
small doses. Mem is short for “memsahib,” which means a powerful
woman whose high status usually comes from marriage to an important man.
Tamarind Mem is the nickname given to the main character in this novel
by Anita Rau Badami. The memsahib’s real name is Saroja. In her youth,
Saroja was married against her will to an older man instead of being
allowed to complete her education. Her husband, a high-ranking executive
in India’s post–British railway system, is continually away on
business trips. Whenever he is at home, he dotes on his children but
ignores his young wife. Over the years, Saroja evolves into a bitter,
acid-tongued matron who makes life miserable for her family, servants,
and neighbors.

Saroja’s life is examined from two perspectives. First, she is
presented through the eyes of her eldest daughter, Kamini, who lives in
Canada and has contact with Saroja only through strained phone calls and
the occasional postcard. Kamini blames every unhappy event in her
childhood on her mother but, now that Saroja is old and far away, spends
most of her time worrying about her. In the second half of the book,
Saroja describes her life in her own words to strangers in a
second-class Indian railway compartment. Ironically, although all the
main characters are compulsive storytellers, they are unable to
communicate with each other.

The communication barriers that are intrinsic to the story in some ways
hamper full development of the characters. Instead of being allowed to
see events unfold from a third-party perspective, the reader is
subjected to two isolated monologues. The result is that Tamarind Mem
becomes two flattened sketches instead of a single three-dimensional


Badami, Anita Rau., “Tamarind Mem,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed January 21, 2022, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/5109.