The Tamarind Tree by Sundara Ramaswamy

The Tamarind Tree
by Sundara Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy weaves a complex story, one as wild, unpredictable, funny, sad, and as convoluted as the people who populate it. The characters might live in an era long past and in a place we have never been to, but they are as recognizable to us as ourselves. On more than one occasion I smiled and giggled to myself, seeing my father, mother, a cousin, or myself in the characters.

This is a novel of a place and time. The novel takes place in the vicinity — the junction — of the tamarind tree and revolves around events the tamarind tree witnessed, became party to, and became a victim of. But, more than that, the novel is set in and depicts India in the 1950s; not colonial, europeanized India, brimming with exoticism and romanticism, and not fiery, violent India of the Partition and Decolonization, not political India, not anthropological Indian, but India in the lull after the violence, the lived India of Indians, when ordinary people, Muslim and Hindu alike, merchants, beggars, men, women, and children are settling into the age-old necessary rhythms of life: marriage, work, the bearing and raising of children, paying taxes, earning wages. The social politics of the moment underpin the interactions of the people who live and work at the junction of the tamarind tree. It is in these banal frictions between merchants, husband and wife, apprentice and master, that Ramaswamy invokes the shadows of India’s larger social conflicts: religious tension between Muslims and Hindus, the oppression of women and the traditionalism of domesticity, the capitalist desire for individualism and individual profit at odds with a kind of social collectivism necessary to survival and tribalism.

The story is told from an unnamed narrator’s perspective, partly. In other parts an omniscient narrator takes into the interior movements and minds of the characters. The story is fluid, flowing from one character to another, from one drama to another, one scandal to another — not in a superficial way, but to perform how close contact is between the characters, to show the reader how intertwined these lives are.

This is a beautiful novel that imparts the scent and colors of India through a vivid portrait of its people and their everyday needs, their lives, and interactions with one another.

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