A House on Wheels : Anita Rau Badami talks about her novel Tamarind Woman
When I was eight or nine, my parents bought me a green canvas travel bag for
the frequent trips that we made as a railway family. I was allowed to paint my
name and a flower on the bag and use it for my toys, a change of clothes, paper,
and color pencils. It accompanied me on our travels for many years--the contents
changing as I grew older. That bag was finally discarded along with my father's
black Gladstone bag, eighteen steel trunks, five bedding rolls, a wooden crate
that had carried our refrigerator, and several bags of assorted packing
material. After thirty years as an officer in the Indian Railways, my father had
died, and we were leaving that spacious world of bungalows and clubs, swimming
pools and tennis courts to move into a small apartment. "There would be no
more transfers or tours, no more packing and unpacking," my mother told us
with a small sigh. She had enjoyed the life of a railway memsahib, but hated the
constant movement it involved.
While my mother was glad to be free of an existence bound by train schedules
and the need to pull up roots and travel every three years, I regretted the loss
of that existence. I loved the clackety-clack of racing wheels, the hoarse
whistle of an approaching engine, the excitement of a new house, another set of
As a child, we often traveled by saloon--a sort of house on tracks designed
for the railway engineer who was obliged to tour remote landscapes for extended
periods of time. These "homes" usually had three bedrooms, living and
dining rooms, and an office. In some saloons the rear wall would be a large
sheet of glass. I would sit in front of this window pane for hours, mesmerized
by miles of track slipping away into the distance as the train sped forward. If
we happened to be traveling through the state of West Bengal, we would pass
checkered squares of paddy in a hundred shades of green and yellow. Once, while
on a trip to Darjeeling, a town in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, we found
ourselves in an inspection carriage that was a sort of oblong glass bubble. The
train moved slowly up the steep inclines through dense forest shrouded in
silence. Now and again we would catch sight of a brilliant orchid high up in a
tree or exclaim delightedly over a picturesque little waterfall tumbling down
among the ferns. Traveling south from Calcutta to Madras, my father never failed
to point out Lake Chilka, huge and placid in the dawn light, as the largest
saltwater lake in the whole world. Following this would inevitably be a brief
lesson on lakes the world over. And staring out at the flat expanse of water
dotted about with meditating storks, we would be transported to Lake Baikal in
Russia or the Great Lakes of North America.
In that distant childhood, I did not once think that my travels would take me
in ever-widening circles away from the place where I was born and that,
eventually, I would find myself flung right across the planet to Canada. Neither
did I imagine that memories of that childhood would become the backdrop for an
entire novel. In a sense, then, my book Tamarind Woman began as a way of
preserving the past, of holding on to a way of life that I loved. It was only
after I left India for Canada that I realized how unusual that life had been. I
met other immigrants who talked about the problems they had adjusting to a new
culture here and realized that I did not seem to have their problems. Adjusting
to new situations came easily to me. In India, my geographies were in a
permanent state of flux; I was always moving away somewhere, perennially
settling in. Change was my only constant, and my perspective was that of a
nomad. The only difference was that now, in the green canvas travel bag of
memory, instead of toys and a change of clothes, I carried words and stories.
These were the tools of my craft, these would travel with me wherever life took
me. With them I could create and re-create the worlds I remembered, longed for,
or wondered about.
This interview was first published in the The Algonkian, Algonquin's Literary
A Conversation with Anita Rau Badami
Eliza McCarthy has written for Elle, New York, The Washington Post, and
other publications. She lives in Westchester County, New York.
Eliza McCarthy: In the book, you mention a dance-step called the hero's walk.
And, of course, the book is called that...
Anita Rau Badami: This book is my interpretation of a dance-step. The
step I'm talking about is in a classical Indian dance-form called Bharat Natyam,
a pretty common dance-form in India. When I was young, I noticed that the hero
in dance-dramas always came in with this strutting gait. When the demons came on
they used the same kind of walk, except that there were some embellishments. The
demon, or the bad guy, or the villain--call him what you want to--would twirl
his moustache, thump his chest, flex his muscles. And that immediately set him
apart from the hero, who had a certain humility to his gait. The clown in the
piece would stumble and fall and trip, so it seemed to me a fine metaphor to use
for the way each of us lives his or her life. I don't think anybody in the world
is perfect. I don't think anybody is absolutely good or bad or stupid. [laughs]
Each one of us combines all those qualities in our daily lives, I think. So
that's the metaphor.
EM: Was each of your characters walking--or at least trying to walk--the
ARB: I think so.
EM: By my count, you have seven important characters in the book--Sripathi,
Nirmala, Ammayya, Nandana, Putti, Arun, and, of course, Maya. In your
imagination, which of these characters did you begin with? Or did they come to
you all at once, as a family?
ARB: Curiously enough, the book began with Ammayya and Putti. I had
written a short story with these two characters years ago, and somehow the short
story kept growing a little bit each year. It never seemed to end--and I didn't
know how to make it end. So it was just sitting there in my notebook, and I'd
look at it and think, "Well, I've got to do something about this!" So
when this book started, I thought that I was actually going to be writing a book
about these two women. But they didn't seem to have enough going for them for a
At about that same time, I was reading Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A
Thousand Faces, and I was just thinking that we always connect the hero with
the large, big, wonderful character who plunges into all kinds of adventures and
comes back with a trophy of some sort. There's no doubt that the hero is going
to come back triumphant, and I was just thinking, "Well, what about
ordinary people just leading their everyday lives?" I find just ordinary
people very heroic--just the whole business of living, I think, is an act of
heroism. Just to carry that hope through, you know? You try to realize those
hopes, and there are all kinds of pitfalls along the way. If you make it to the
end of your life relatively sane and relatively happy, then I think it's heroic.
EM: Can you give examples of everyday heroism that any one of your characters
ARB: Well, there's Sripathi's wife, Nirmala. I think she is a timid
woman, who has spent most of her life observing what she considers are the
Rules--rules set down by family, or society, or whatever. It's heroic that she
has the courage to look at herself in the mirror, as it were, and realize that
heroism isn't simply about following rules. Sometimes it's about doing what you
think is right, at the cost of displeasing people around you. The fact that she
comes to this realization, and the fact that she holds on to those principles of
goodness--I think she is the only character in the book who is really a decent
sort, no matter what life throws at her. She is just a good soul. And I find her
heroic in a sort of daily, ordinary kind of way.
EM: What about her husband? Was one of your ideas with Sripathi's
character that it's all too easy to get lost in the details of everyday life?
ARB: Well, actually Sripathi, more than anything else, was a man who was
too taken up with the whole notion of duty, and what people in the world around
thought about him. Of the characters-- other than his mother, Ammayya--he was
the most self-absorbed, and everything revolved around his notion of duty. As a
result he made a lot of mistakes--he became this kind of unforgiving, obdurrate
character. Even though he thought he was doing the right thing all the time,
unlike Nirmala, he wasn't doing it for anyone else. He was doing it for himself.
EM: Why was he that way?
ARB: He suffered humiliation when he was ten years old. His father
embarrassed him and his mother by walking out with his mistress. Sripathi is
trying all his life to get over that humiliation.
EM: Speaking of his mother, Ammayya, I know that she was a rather hateful
character, but at the same time, I felt that the narrative came even more to
life when she was around. Did you feel that way about her?
ARB: Oh, I was really fond of Ammayya! I took a great deal of pleasure
working on Ammayya. She was sort of tragic--even though she was a nasty
character. She had been dealt a bad hand. And I'm one of those optimists who
believes that nobody is completely rotten. There is something that makes them do
things that are rotten. And Ammayya was one of those. She's been dealt nothing
but disappointment and unhappiness and betrayal, so it's not surprising that her
whole nature curdled. I did enjoy working on her, because she was the one
character that just let loose, did what she wanted, and said what she wanted to
EM: Did you ever write a draft in which Maya spoke? In the book, she doesn't.
ARB: Yes. Actually, there was. I had a chapter in which Maya interacted
with her father. I dropped it, because it just became too much. There were too
many characters, and I thought, "Well, I'll focus on this family that's
here, that's alive." Maya can be a memory, and by her silence, I thought
she'd be more powerful than if I had her actually doing things and talking.
EM: It seems like a lot of the women and girls in the story measure
themselves against Maya--Putti, Maya's daughter, and even her mother.
ARB: Right, because she was the one who got away. And she was successful
by anyone's standards. In the book, Putti thinks about it, and she thinks that
Maya, even though she died young, had lived as full a life as most people who
live to old age.
EM: In the book, most of your main characters are women. Were you consciously
interested in exploring women's roles in India?
ARB: Not consciously, really. But in most homes, from what I know of
them, even though the woman's place in that particular home might be in the
home, still, she is queen of her house. So I like exploring the many different
incarnations of women in that country, actually. You find quite a range of these
women in this book--each one of them embodies a completely different personality
type. And how can you write a book that's only full of men, anyway? I mean, half
the population of this world is women.
In the last fifty years, since India got its independence, you find women in
every sphere of life. Whether they're at home, or going out to work, they work
as doctors, as nurses, as women who come in to clean your house, so to not
include this range would be to do them a deep injustice.
EM: Speaking of writing about India, did you feel that you were writing for
an Indian or a non-Indian audience? Or both?
ARB: Actually, when I was writing the book, I was just writing for the
sheer pleasure of writing. Because I had a story that I wanted to explore, I had
a bunch of characters I wanted to play with, and that's why I wrote the book. I
wasn't thinking about an audience. It's only after a book is done that I start
wondering about who is likely to read it. Because you're right, an audience here
in North America is going to react to the book differently. And an audience in
India will look at it differently.
EM: It's a very textured book. There are so many details included about
Toturpuram, the imaginary town, so it made me wonder: Did you do any research
about Indian life, or is it all from your imagination?
ARB: This is a life that has always fascinated me. There are these narrow
streets in Madras, a south Indian city, and we have some relatives who live in
those little alleys and streets.
And these are people who had lots of money. They were very well-educated, but
they still lived in these tiny, ugly, filthy houses on these messy streets. And
they were so crazy--the whole lot of them! They lead these bizarre lives full of
ritual and cling to the most peculiar old-fashioned conventions and rituals, and
at the same time, they all had the latest in technology in their homes. They'd
have the latest computers, the latest televisions, but that's it--they'd be
sitting on the floor, and watching these TVs and working on the computers. It
was the most peculiar kind of lifestyle and it used to fascinate me. So this
whole book is a recreation of those little roads and alleys, the little
communities that were so different--I just loved it. It's almost completely
imagined or reconstructed from what I remember of those roads.
When I used to visit, I didn't mind going there and sitting for hours, absorbing
all the little nuances and details and things, because they were so peculiar.
EM: The Raos are Hindu, but they seem to be surrounded by a wild mixture of
religions. Can you talk about the mix that you were trying to get across?
ARB: It's something that exists on a daily basis on practically every street
in India. You have people who are Hindus, Muslims, Christians--not just
Catholics, but Protestants, you name it, all kinds of Christians--a hundred
other religions, living side by side. And the kind of personal religion that
people end up practicing is a bizarre concoction of ritual drawn from each
other. So everybody ends up celebrating everyone else's festivals. Unless, of
course, someone is a real stickler, like Ammayya. There are people like her, who
sort of hate everybody else around them. They are convinced that their way of
life is superior or more relevant than anybody else's.
So, on the one hand, you have that easy integration-- especially people like
Sripathi, who was brought up in a generation that was preoccupied with other
things, such as getting over the British occupation, so religion and caste
hardly mattered. Then you have younger people who just don't care. For them,
it's more important to go out there, find a job, make a living, build a flat.
Finally, there are people like Ammayya who really care about preserving the
traditions, and they make a big fuss. That's all part of the landscape, and it's
bewildering! It's also very interesting for a writer.
EM: Do people care about caste in India today? Ammayya seemed to care about
it, but for others, everything seemed more integrated.
ARB: Especially in urban areas, nobody cares so much, because you are
forced to live in the same buildings. There is so, so little space. You can't be
thinking about whether you are living in a street that has only Brahmins, or in
a building that has been touched only by Muslims or Christians. You just live
there, because that's the only place that you can find. So such distinctions
just crumble away. There are people who maintain them, at all costs. But for the
most part, it doesn't matter.
Having said that, though, it would be totally incorrect for me to say the caste
system doesn't exist, because I think it exists in lots of villages. You find
lots of atrocities committed in the name of caste. But the kind of milieu I grew
up in, which was largely urban, largely middle-class, there wasn't any space for
those distinctions, really.
EM: When did you last travel to India, and what is your relationship with
ARB: My relationship is still very, very affectionate. That's the country
that made me what I am, it gave me a wonderful education, it gave me a lot of
stories, a lot of characters. Five years ago, I was still teetering between
whether to stay here [in Canada] or to go back. I was totally torn. I'd sit over
here and long for all that chaos, and contradiction, and the challenges that
that country represents, and I'd want to go back. But then I go back and start
yearning for the silence of this place.
EM: You think of North America as silent?
ARB: Yes, I do, actually. When I say silent, I mean there seems to be a
singular lack of people-noise. In India, you have people coming out of every
hole you can imagine. It's a whole different setup. People love talking to each
other. You know everything about your neighbor, and the whole street in fact. So
there's a kind of sense of community that you don't always find here. Here, you
can smile at your neighbor, but you know nothing about the neighbor! And it's
bad form to be curious.
EM: Do you find your neighborhoods in Canada as fascinating as the ones in
Madras, on which you based Toturpuram?
ARB: Well, the neighborhoods may not be as diverse or interesting here in
Canada; they are more orderly. Where you have order, there's not much interest!
Where every tree is clipped neatly, and every hedge is perfect, the roads are
always covered over, there's little chance that anything strange could happen--
as a result of the landscape, that is.
But people add color to any street, anywhere in the world. I mean, you can't
chain people down: They are who they are, and they do what they want to do. In
the new book I'm working on now, which is set in Canada, I am focusing on the
people, and letting them color the landscape.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Random House.