"...Tight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way. Suman is the only weakness, the little finger, but Papa and I knew right away we'd have to hold her hard in our grasp. That way she wouldn't have a chance to do anything silly."
I really had no idea that Anita Rau Badami's newest offering, Tell It To The Trees, would be so chilling, so utterly disturbing.
Tell It To The Trees is a story about a dysfunctional family of East Indian immigrants whose burden of secrets spells disaster for them and others. The story centers around the Dharma family, headed by Vikram Dharma who lives in the house that his father, Mr. J.K. Dharma, built years ago in the isolated wilds of Merrit's Point, British Columbia. Living with him are his mother, Akka, his second wife Suman, Varsha Dharma, 13 year old daughter of Vikram and his first wife Harini (Helen) and Memant son of Suman and Vikram.
The novel opens with the finding of the frozen body of Anu Krishnan, a young, successful woman of East Indian descent, outside the Dharma home. Anu was a tenant who had been renting the back house on the Dharma property for the past 8 months.
The events leading up to this point are recounted in the voices of Varsha, Suman, Hemant, and Anu Krishnan, the tenant. In the voice of Varsha we learn the history of the Dharma family and the tragic family event that occurred when she was four years old. When she was four, her mother Harini left her father and shortly afterwards dies in an accident. Vikram and Harini fought a great deal and Varsha's mom went out a lot, what Varsha calls "roamings". Harini was very beautiful and she had many beautiful and expensive things which Varsha found intriguing. When Varsha asked her mother where she got them, she was told that she "found" them. She asked Varsha to keep this a secret from her father, something the little girl found almost impossible to do. When Varsha sought out her grandmother, Akka, she was told "Go tell the trees,...They won't tell a soul." Shortly after this, Harini leaves and is found dead. The reader never really learns the circumstances of Harini's death but later events lead us to consider several possibilities. Varsha was told by her father that she must forget her mother and never ever forgive her. Her father removes all evidence of Harini's existence in their lives, including pictures and all her personal belongings - thus setting the stage for the Varsha's determination not to ever lose someone again.
Eventually, Varsha's father travels to India and returns with a new wife, thirty year old Suman who arrives in Canada six months after their marriage in India. She is quiet and not very pretty but she has a good heart and is willing to love Varsha. Suman learns almost immediately that Vikram is jealous, controlling and has a terrible temper. No matter what she does it is never good enough for Vikram, who demeans and abuses her and the children.
Akka, wise to her son's ways, advises Suman again and again to leave, but the reader discovers that there are several reasons why she cannot. One of the main reasons centers around Varsha, who as her narrative develops, is revealed to be a deeply disturbed young girl. Intensely affected by the loss of her mother, Varsha will do anything to keep from losing another mother. She becomes manipulative, cruel and cunning in her plan to thwart Suman from gaining any chance to leave or even to assert herself. Varsha is also emotionally entangled with her step-brother Hemant whom she controls absolutely. Varsha, although a tragic character, is intensely dislikable, as her narrative progresses.
The entire fabric of the Dharma household is upset with the arrival of Anu Krishnan, a self-confident East Indian woman who was once a classmate of Vikram Dharma. Anu has come to Merrit's Point to take a break in her hectic life and possibly to write a book of stories. As time passes, Anu comes to understand that the Dharma family has many secrets and that things are not as they appear to be. On the outside they present an image of the perfect family, but the reality of life in the Dharma family begins to emerge as Anu gets to know Suman and Akka. Unable to bear Suman's abuse, Anu begins to support her emotionally and offers to help her. It is a decision that has heart-rending repercussions for everyone but also offers possibility to Suman. Some readers may not like the inconclusive ending....
Tell It To The Trees is the first of Badami's novels that I have read. It was amazing, unsettling and completely riveting. Despite the story being told from four different perspectives, each narrative flows seamlessly from one to the other. Although the reader knows where the story is leading (to the death of Anu), Badami is able to create a suspenseful recounting of what actually happened, with the result that both shocks and disturbs. What begins as a simple recounting of events through the eyes of several narrators increasingly becomes a psychological thriller.
This novel explores many issues including those of arranged marriage, wife and child abuse, immigrants in Canada, and especially identity. Tell It To The Trees vividly portrays the increasing isolation of the Dharma family in the Merrit's Point community - an isolation that is matched by Suman's isolation from the rest of this frightening family. The writing is beautifully descriptive and provides the reader with a definite sense of the wildness, isolation and cold surrounding the Dharma family. This is in contrast to the beauty of Suman - her colourful saris and a her delicious, unique food.
I thought the idea of the children telling their "secrets" to a tree very interesting. Varsha, overcome with guilt both her own and that of others, uses the tree like a confessional.
Tell It To The Trees is brilliant, well-crafted novel that makes me definitely want to read more from this author. You can check out this booktrailer:
Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2011