Anita Rau Badami has been lauded for her three previous books, with critics praising her brilliantly drawn characters, her wise insight into the Canadian-Indian immigrant experience, and her richly textured writing. In her latest novel, Tell It to the Trees, it is no surprise then to find that the writer described as “compulsively readable” by the Toronto Star has once again crafted a masterful tale of obsessive love, family secrets, and impeded dreams. With the intricacy of a jigsaw puzzle being gradually fitted together, Badami’s novel creates a tense build-up to a finale that may literally take your breath away.
The story is told from the points of view of four central characters: Varsha Dharma, thirteen-year-old daughter of the authoritarian Vikram Dharma and “First Mother,” Helen, whose accidental death rings suspicious; Suman Dharma, the homely second wife flown from India in a hastily arranged marriage; Hemant, Suman’s seven-year-old son whose attachment to his big sister becomes more than mere sibling closeness; and Anu Krishnan, Vikram’s former classmate and a liberated, westernized Canadian-Indian woman who leaves her Wall Street job to write in solitude for a year as the Dharma’s tenant. Her perspective comes in the form of the notebook she keeps as a journal for story ideas, which becomes an observation of the strange family she has begun to live with.
The Dharma family lives in Merrit’s Point, a small town in northern Canada, courtesy of their inscrutable ancestor, Mr. J.K. Dharma, whose first savings purchased him a house and land far from the town centre in a place his aged widow, Akka, refers to bitterly as “Jehannum” – hell. All that is left of his motives for moving his family “all the way up here into this back of beyond,” as Akka calls it, is a small notebook Varsha discovers with his name penned neatly in the front, and a single sentence within: “This is all mine. Silence at last. – J.K. Dharma.”
He dies long before Varsha is born, frozen against the front door at the age of 47 when he comes home drunk and loses his keys one winter night. But his memory is one that permeates the household he has left behind, with his son, Vikram, carrying on a legacy of domestic abuse and violent reprisals, all neatly contained within the home. The Dharmas appear to be a tightly knit, if reclusive, family, and as one of two Indian immigrant families in the town, they are pretty much left to themselves, with any strangeness presumably being chalked up to their cultural differences.
Their differences add to an oppressive atmosphere where the women who come into the family end up trapped because, even if they ever want to try, there appears to be no way to seek help – not that they would. Suman, in her narrative, describes her reaction to the isolation she finds herself in when she comes to Merrit’s Point: “Such is the power of this place that it drove my own voice out of me.”
Despite the secrets within the walls of the home, none of the residents would ever shame the Family Name by letting on to outsiders what is happening inside, not even Akka, the only one who dares complain about her son’s treatment of his wife and children. As Varsha puts it, “Tight as a fist we are, and as hard if you get in our way.”
The novel begins with a death – or rather, the discovery of one. On a wintry morning in February, in the northern Canadian town of Merrit’s Point, a team of searchers “moving around in the bleached landscape like small bright insects” discover the frozen body of Anu Krishnan. This information isn’t a spoiler, I promise – right from chapter one the reader is made aware of the central mystery in the novel. The story goes on to interweave past and present, using first-person narrative and flashbacks to Varsha’s childhood, Suman’s hometown upbringing in a tenement in Madras, India, and young Hemant’s guileless observations of family life to tell the story of a dysfunctional family and the unsuspecting outsider who upsets the delicate balance.
This book is a brilliant, tragic take on the horrors of domestic abuse, with its cycle of violence and remorse, made worse by the pressures of the immigrant life to maintain a balance between old-world values and Western culture. But the story also puts the spotlight on the worst effect of the abuse, which is the willingness of the victim to take responsibility for the crime.
With Tell It to the Trees, Badami has once again proven her mastery of language, using words that move with the languor and squalor of a Madras tenement, with the glacial clip of a northern Canadian winter, with the restless motion of a beetle trapped within the layered shells of a Russian doll – with the quietly harsh determination of a mind unhinged from sanity.