Here are some discussion guides for you to use in talking about Padma’s books. She is also open to visiting your book club, in person or by Skype! Email her through the contact page to inquire about this.
Discussion Guide for São Bernardo:
- São Bernardo’s opening sentence famously reads, “Before I started this book, I thought division of labor was the way to go.” To what extent are Paulo Honório’s thoughts and actions defined by capitalism and when do they evade that frame?
- Honório, a pen name, is a cognate for “honor,” even though we see Sr. Paulo lie, blackmail and even kill to achieve his ambitions. (Well, okay, we never actually see him commit murder…) The book is set in the northeast, an area famously stricken by periodic droughts, but the name of the nearest town to São Bernardo, Viçosa, translates as “lush” or verdant, while the ranch’s dog is called Shark. Madalena’s namesake is Mary Magdalene. But the names are only a small aspect of the book’s ironies. Discuss some of the others.
- Paulo Honório ends up writing his memoir himself even though he’s not much of a reader: “As far as book-learning goes,” he says, lamenting his difficulties in expressing himself on the page, “I’m pretty well-versed in statistics, cattle-raising, agriculture, commercial accounts—all useless for this kind of writing. If I resorted to all that, I’d come off as an egghead, throwing around technical expressions normal people would never know. Apart from all that, though, I’m totally ignorant.” He’s not only ignorant, he disparages books and book-learning, telling his writer friend Gondim not to “confuse education with reading a printed page.” What are Sr. Paulo’s motivations, then, for writing a book, and what does he gain by it? To what extent do you “believe” this to be his creation?
- Sr. Paulo had in some ways been destined for illiteracy, only learning to read in his late teens because of a stint in jail. And when he and Madalena have their final clash, it hinges on a letter she has written in language he cannot understand. In what ways is this a book about writing and the power of self-expression?
- How or in what way does Sr. Paulo elicit your sympathy? Can or do you like him at all? If you dislike him, what form does your aversion take?
- The book is chock full of expressions, many of which were unfamiliar to readers anywhere outside of Sr. Paulo’s region and class. Many of them were unfamiliar to him until Graciliano Ramos started collecting them for the book and many still don’t exist in printed form anywhere else. What were some of those expressions? Which did you think you understood and which were obscure to you? What’s the point of using expressions most readers would not know?
- How would you characterize Madalena? Why do you think she agreed to marry Sr. Paulo? What drew him to her? And what was at the root of their marriage’s failure?
- Describe and discuss some of the minor characters: Seu Ribeiro, Dona Gloria, Padilha. What is their function in the book? What do you learn from them?
- The book operates on two timelines that come together at the end: the present, or time of writing, and the past, when most of the action happens. There’s a ghostly quality to the present, almost as though the past is more real. Why would that be? What is Sr. Paulo’s future now?
- Sr. Paulo draws ready comparisons to William Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen of Absalom, Absalom. Both are men of obscure origins, driven by the desire for material gain, and the power that wealth signifies, who rise to command respect if not respectability. They bank on their properties and heirs to represent them to the future, but instead are punished with tragedy. Other possible comparisons might include Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Discuss these and other books that São Bernardo brought to mind.
Discussion Guide for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao:
1. Ashwin Rao is the narrator of a story that doesn’t seem to belong entirely to him. How is this accomplished and what is the effect on you as a reader?
2. Although this is a story about the immediate emotional consequences of the Air India bombing, the book also gives attention to the political antecedents and consequences of the disaster. How would you describe the balance of the personal and the political in the book, and how did you feel about this balance?
3. Much of the book is set in a fictional western Canadian town, Lohikarma. Ashwin spends a lot of time walking the town’s streets and describing them, as when he says, “I followed High Street from its lowest point, in the centre of town, straight up toward the university, which is on a rise of its own. Pale clouds lifted and dissolved off the tops of the purple mountains… Trismegistus, I came to call it: lake, mountains, and long, low sky.” At other points, the book travels into the surrounding countryside, to the west coast, and even to India. What is the role of place in this novel?
4. This novel contains portraits of four long-term relationships: Ashwin and Rosslyn, Seth and Lakshmi, Venkat and Sita, and Brinda and Dev. Describe each of these relationships and weigh the effects of character and circumstance on their development.
5. Ashwin is a self-described narrative psychologist, but one who is telling this story to heal himself. Discuss his methods—with his clients, with his research subjects, and with you, the reader—and the possible therapeutic effects of storytelling more broadly.
6. After the bombing, Seth becomes a devotee of Shivashakti, a very popular Indian guru. He almost seems to fall in love with the guru, as when he says “He wanted to know everything about his guru, but not for what he learned. It was simply another way of basking in his presence. Bhakti—love of God as though he were a lover. This is what it was, for Seth: honeyed wonder.” Lakshmi is not so enamoured; in fact, she and their daughters seem quite skeptical, if tolerant, of Seth’s devotion, especially as the years wear on and Shivashakti becomes part of Seth’s life. What are your thoughts on Seth’s spiritual path? Do you have any similar experiences, in your own life, in your family or community, to compare to this?
7. At a certain point, Seth imagines a TV comedy show, Out in Canada, about a new Indian immigrant driving around the Canadian countryside, “…asking real Canadians dumb questions about things that seem obvious. The kind of thing he would laugh at, particularly now that he, too, was Canadian. But in the early years, that was him.” Between the 1980’s and the 2000’s, the time-span of the story, much changes in the lives and place of Indian immigrants in North America. How would you say Seth and Lakshmi experience or reflect a historical shift in the place of South Asians in North America? How do they change over these years of living, working and raising their children here?
8. Ashwin is hoping that his “study of comparative grief” will demonstrate how different people have dealt with the same mass trauma. What do you think this book teaches about what Bharati Mukherjee called “The Management of Grief?”
9. Although the central subjects of the book are serious, there is also considerable humour in Lohikarma’s history, Venkat’s parrots, Seth’s reactions, as well as in Ashwin’s reflections, such as when he says, “I was alone with myself, about whom I have mixed feelings.” Where did you find humour in this book, and what is the place of humour in the toughest times of our lives?
10. The book incorporates much poetry, both explicitly and otherwise. Seth recalls lines from Yeats, both when he boards the bus in Ireland and again, after seeing the video about Shivashakti. Ashwin also frequently thinks in fragments of poetry and is otherwise very conscious of his language throughout. How were you affected the language in the novel—the descriptions, similes, metaphors or rhythms? Choose a few phrases to discuss.
11. Brinda, Seth’s daughter, has decided to leave her unconsummated marriage but is held back by not knowing what the key problem was for her husband, Dev. She muses on how difficult it was truly to know others, even those we are closest to: “You could only know what a person told you or what you witnessed, and the person could deny what they said, and you could completely misinterpret what you saw.” Seth thinks, similarly, “Every one is 99 percent secret.” What secrets does each character hold, which are revealed and what is the effect of each revelation? What is the place in our lives of secrets, revealed and unrevealed?
12.The end of the novel is a huge reversal in expectations. This revelation also changes the way Seth’s family relate to him. How did you feel about the surprise at the end of the book? Did it make you reconsider the way you had felt about any of the characters? How would you have reacted in Seth’s place?
Discussion Guide for The Toss of a Lemon:
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.
Some interviews with Padma to click, if you would like background information:
Miguel Conde, Words Without Borders