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  • fiber farmer - Extraordinary Cultural and Generational Experience

    A Toss of a Lemon is an epic spanning 70 years of Indian life, in the Brahmin tradition. While it's fictional, it's unlike typical fiction in which the story builds towards an ultimate conclusion or climax. This story is simply a narrative, a chronicle that seems so lifelike that I would have believed it to be nonfiction.

    The language is largely informational, in contrast to dramatic or theatrical storytelling, and it carries the reader along much like a boat on a river. The narrator tells the story of the family matron, Sivakami, beginning at the age of 10, continuing through her marriage, the birth of her children, the death of her husband, her widowhood, her family and extended family, and her religious traditions and Brahmin ways. The author describes in matter-of-fact detail a family and social system ruled by religious observance and superstition that contrasts sharply to modern ways and progressive ideas as the story marches through the decades.

    Although I thought, at first, that this would be a dry narrative, I quickly identified with Sivakami as a woman bearing up under the strains of life, fiercely endeavoring to retain her dignity and hold her family together. Her Brahmin practices, complete with caste prejudices, dietary laws and purification ceremonies, make her who she is and are her only real support after the early death of her husband when she is only 18 yrs. old.

    The author does not interpret events for the reader, but simply reports the incidents as they occur, from the points of view of the various characters. An ingenious web of familial relationships is woven in which personalities and politics are all made plain without fanfare or needless drama.

    I feel that I know more about Indian culture and the politics of the caste system from reading this book of fiction than from any textbook I have ever studied on India and its people. The text is sprinkled with Indian words and phrases, briefly defined and then used repetitively throughout the story. Brahmin worship, beliefs and lifestyle practices are also used throughout and described only briefly or mentioned in passing, although they play a part in so many situations that the reader not only becomes familiar with them, but comes to expect them, even when not mentioned in the text. It is a near total immersion in Brahmin culture. I actually had a craving for lentils and curry.

    There is a portion of the book that deals with specific political struggles against the caste system and involving British/Indian relations. My Indian history isn't sharp, so I was lost in a couple of places, but the narrative carries the story along and I found that as I kept reading, a lot of my confusion was cleared up. I know a lot more about India's struggle for independence and the caste system than I ever knew before, as well.

    As an American, the caste system sets my teeth on edge, but in this story, it was the basis for the Brahmin's sense of belonging, security and order. Those who opposed the caste system and those who clung to it were portrayed in nearly the same light, neither side being right or wrong, simply opposite sides of an internal struggle.

    I loved this book. The characters were vivid and alive, the setting painted in readable detail. The culture came absolutely alive to me as the characters walked in and through it. I highly recommend this book.

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