Author drew from her Indian family lore for novel

READ STREET

December 07, 2008|By dave rosenthal and nancy johnston | dave rosenthal and nancy johnston,dave.rosenthal@baltsun.com and nancy.johnston@baltsun.com

I met Padma Viswanathan at a reading at the Johns Hopkins University - where she got a master's degree 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. Here's an excerpt of an interview via e-mail; the complete version is on Read Street:

What was your inspiration?

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. 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.

Do people with Indian heritage have a different reaction to the book after reading it?

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. ... [M]any 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.

Dave Rosenthal

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