Inspired by her family history, Padma Viswanathan takes us deep inside the private lives of a Brahmin family, bringing to life an India we’ve never before seen. At the novel’s heart is Sivakami, married at ten, widowed at eighteen, and left with two children. According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she must wear widow’s whites. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. And she dutifully follows custom, except for one defiant act: she moves back to her dead husband’s house and village to raise her children. Her servant, Muchami, a closeted gay man who is bound by a very different set of caste rules, becomes her public face. This singular relationship, scrupulously formal yet indispensable for both, holds three generations together through a turbulent half century of social and political change.
1. Hanumarathnam hopes to change his ill-fated destiny to die young through the auspicious birth of his son, Vairum. How does Hanumarathnam claim immortality through his children? In what ways do the members of his and Sivakami’s family meet or avoid their fate?
2. It is clear throughout the novel that tradition plays a significant role in Indian life, especially for conservative Brahmins like Sivakami. And yet some traditions change without resistance. For instance, on page 27, Sivakami describes sacrificing puffed rice and ghee in the sacred fire instead of an animal: “At some point, for some reason, this came to be shunned in favor of things that don’t squeal or bleed.” Identify some of the traditions throughout the story that are considered immutable by Sivakami and her family members. Compare these to the traditions that change, both with and without resistance.
3. In a culture where knowing one’s place is paramount, Vairum is a contradiction: he is a member of the highest caste, yet he is an outcast from his community. As a child, his skin condition and personality set him apart. As a young man, his intelligence and progressive ways do the same. Discuss how his unique position molded Vairum into the adult we see by the end of the novel. Do you sympathize with Vairum at all?
4. On page 141, Sivakami muses about the gifts her late husband may have passed on to his children. She wonders whether Vairum “will be the product more of experiments in transformation or of the blood and conditioning of caste.” Which do you think is truer of Vairum? What about Thangam’s and Hanumarathnam’s grandchildren?
5. Hanumarathnam insists that the midwives toss lemons out of the window as soon as his children are born so that he can mark the exact time. When Vairum and Janaki each prepare to marry, they do not rely on astrology but still use the flower method of seeking the gods’ approval for their marriages. What other tools of fate are used throughout the novel? What role do omens play in the story? For instance, what is it about the bizarre suicide of the neighborhood witch’s sister-in-law that disturbs Janaki?
6. The novel contains many elements of both science and superstition—Vairum’s mathematical genius versus his father’s astrology, for example. How else are these two elements at work in The Toss of a Lemon? Do you think one has a more positive or negative effect than the other?
7. What does this novel tell you about traditional roles in Indian culture during the colonial era? What is expected of women in their roles as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers? What about the men’s roles as sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers? Discuss how these roles change or remain the same over time, and how the characters measure up to the expectations of their culture and families.
8. The idea of an arranged marriage often seems cruel to modern minds and hearts, but the experiences of these characters portray another side. What do you see as some of the benefits of an arranged marriage, as experienced by the characters in The Toss of a Lemon? And some of the drawbacks?
9. Muchami and Mari choose to remain childless in a celibate marriage. Vairum and Vani want children badly but cannot conceive. Thangam and Goli can’t afford to care for their children (and Goli isn’t inclined to care, period), and yet they keep having more. Discuss the meaning and significance of children in this novel.
10. When Janaki and Kamalam visit Vairum and Vani in Madras, they are thrown headfirst into a new, modern world—their uncle buys them new clothes, drives them around in his car, and takes them to call on his non-Brahmin friends. Describe the confusion Janaki feels at being thrust into modernity. How else does this kind of confusion manifest itself throughout the novel, for her and others?
11. After Vairum throws Sivakami out of his house to return to Cholapatti alone, she is robbed and gets lost. Forced to seek shelter and water at a pilgrims’ pavilion, she finds herself lying to those who would help her. She thinks, “It’s terrible that she prefers her lies to the truth, but, she has learned, that’s what some lies are like” (p. 554). What other lies does Sivakami prefer to the truth? Identify other characters in the novel that seem to prefer lies to the truth. Why do you think this is?
12. Muchami and Sivakami share a unique relationship and connection. Identify moments in the novel when their connection is most apparent, such as on page 427 when Muchami senses the moment of Thangam’s death. Compare these to the many ways in which there is an unbridgeable distance between the Brahmin widow and her loyal servant. How does this relationship serve them both throughout their lives?
13. Near the end of the novel, Janaki thinks that Vairum has brought the family together to shatter them all. However, in the Epilogue, Janaki’s daughter, Thangajothi, writes that she thinks Vairum was actually trying to do something good for Bharati (though he was also probably intentionally hurting his mother). What do you think of this final scene? Did it color the opinion you’d formed of the characters and events of the novel? If so, how?
14. Ultimately, Thangajothi presents the novel as the result of transmutation, the process by which Hanumarathnam sought to turn his soul into metaphorical gold. Do you find this comparison apt? Why do you think the author chose to call the novel The Toss of a Lemon? What is the significance of this title?
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier.