Synopsis: The Tigerclaw Tree follows the shifting fortunes of four generations of a Tenkalai Iyengar family, as each member confronts his or her own role in their family legacy of idealism, political involvement and, ultimately,betrayal. First published in 1998, this attractive new edition brings to life again a novel that became a cult classic in its time.
The story line which traces the family history of 4 generations plagued by regular incidents of violent deaths is set amongst the times of the “Great Indian Mutiny” and the “Swaraj” movement.The book opens with the beautiful and vivacious Ponna being married off at a very tender age to the good for nothing son of the towns money-lender, infamous of his supposed role in betraying his own to the British. From here on it is how their family thrives in the wake of changing times and cultures.
Iyengar traditions and practices are beautifully detailed (including our obsession with Puliyodarai a.k.a tamarind rice, venn pongal a.k.a the iyengar version of rice and daal and the reverence that some from the community have for the jeer)and the author has done well to spare us too many details. The initial pages of the book might lead some readers to believe that the book might talk about how a traditional family revolves across generations in terms of educational, career and lifestyle choices, but then it starts plunging into the core of Indian politics and murk associated with the same! Needless to say all this is something that I personally find boring!
I mean when the story has a 3rd generation brahmin Iyengar doctor married to a Harijan girl (talk about being revolutionary during those times) and his politically inclined cousin carrying on with an Iyer girl who only wants her boyfriend to take the civil service exams and settle down, I expected a book full of life and color, humor, some family drama, angry parents, nosy relatives (even today iyer – iyengar weddings cause a lot of tongues to wag) and all that jazz. But what I got in turn was an onslaught of choicest English cuss phrases and murky political issues! It was hard for me to imagine that people could and behave in the described manner especially some 100 years ago! Not to mention the many affairs of the main protagonist described with equal gusto. The vivid description of the actions of those involved in the affairs could make a beetroot go red..You might think I am old fashioned, but then I am not really interested to know where Uma’s tongue was! Sorry!
What drew me to this book was the fact, that for the first time I had spotted a book about an Iyengar family. The cover of the book was also pretty interesting with a woman in a madisaaru with a thaazham poo in her black hair and the traditional gold thaali chain. Hailing from the community, it was only natural that I’d be drawn to it. I picked it up with great expectations but after a point in time, I just wanted the book to be over! The back cover describes (read the first paragraph) how the book became a cult classic it was first released in 1998…hmm. The author has definitely done a good job in terms of research and presentation. I felt that he hit the nail on the head as far as the sentiments of the community regarding bad karma is concerned when I read the chapter where the family starts preparing for elaborate religious rituals because they believe that cause of premature deaths throughout the generations is due to the betrayal their ancestor was known for!
My verdict: Read the book if you are interested in politics of yore or are interested in the way Iyengars think and live. I read the book because of the later but probably had too many expectations. Maybe I am not the right kind of audience for books of this sort.