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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Family Ties, Fateful Lives

Padma Viswanathan MA ’04 was in her 20s when her grandmother began telling her family stories that reached deeper than the ones she'd heard before.

"Initially the stories that she told me felt quite distant," Viswanathan says. "They sent her much further back in our family history." Fascinated, she asked more questions, and the conversations unspooled. They eventually filled 200 pages of transcripts.

Yet the stories of Brahmin obligation and choices also had something familiar in them. Viswanathan knew the places where they happened, having spent months at a time at the family's homes in southern India while growing up.

From those stories grew The Toss of a Lemon (Harcourt, 2008), Viswanathan's first novel, which follows a young woman, Sivakami, through her life amid social and political upheaval in southern India from 1896 to the early 1960s. Married at 10 and widowed at 18, Sivakami by tradition must wear widow's whites, shave her head, and touch no one from dawn to dusk, even as she raises two children. For 60 years, she almost never ventures outside her family compound. She's a dutiful Brahmin except for one defiant act: She moves back to her dead husband's house to raise her children, a decision that changes her family's lives and turns their fates in sometimes heartbreaking ways.

In tracing her grandmother's stories, Viswanathan found she could interpolate her own sense of the villages and family scenes into the events. "In the course of trying to figure out how this world worked, how the people in it would have thought and made decisions, I was able to enter it through my own experience," she says.

Indeed, the vivid rendering of Sivakami's world and her choices between tradition and modernity, between caste obligation and freedom, is a great strength of the novel. "A lot of non-Indian readers identify with the book," says Viswanathan, "and view Sivakami simply as a mum making decisions for her kids with imperfect information."

The novel grew over 10 years, and Viswanathan says her year at Hopkins came at a crucial juncture for the last push. She penned the ending in a mad burst of writing over winter break.

She took chapters to workshops led by Alice McDermott and absorbed literature courses with John Irwin and Richard Macksey. "Alice is an amazingly perceptive reader, and always managed to say the one thing the writer needed to hear in order to figure out where to go," says Viswanathan. "She's a model for me of how to be a working writer, mother, and teacher, looking after her art and her family while managing to shepherd a great number of young writers with a very light touch."

Viswanathan values her friendships from Hopkins and has kept in touch with most of her classmates. When she gave a reading in Washington, D.C., many showed up and celebrated at dinner together afterward.

"There had to be something of alchemy in that year that gave me the impetus to be able to finish the book, and finish in a way that I felt good about," she says.

She's now working on another novel, titled Losing Farther, Losing Faster. "I'm toying with the idea of having one of my characters do the Science Writing MA at Hopkins. No guarantees at this early stage," she adds, "but there's part of me that would love to pay homage to JHU in that way."

 

 

 

 

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