The women in Roshni Rustomji’s novel The Braided Tongue are some of the most interesting, insightful people I have met in a contemporary novel in a long time. At the center of the book is Katy Cooper, a painter in her forties who embarks on a search for knowledge about her past. When she was child on the brink of adolescence, her father died, and she was forced to move from Mexico to the United States to live with white foster parents. She doesn’t remember much about her life in Mexico or about the circumstances of her father’s death, but what memories she does have are powerful and sensory – the sound of her father, who was originally from Devinagar, India, singing “K-K-K-Katy beeauutiifuul Katy” to her; the vibrant colors of the bougainvillea and roses and the more muted hues and shades of the “raucous birds”; “the rich textures, the complicated tastes” and “the rough fragrances” of Mexican food. This last memory fueled a “silent obsession” in Katy when she was young and living with her foster parents, Gregory and Theresa Saunders. Narrating the book as an adult, Katy says: “Many of the doodles in the margins of my notebooks started out as attempts to draw the hunger I lived with as I ate the foods Theresa Saunders served me with such loving care and generosity.”
Mrs. Saunders took Katy, who suffered pain in her legs, to four doctors, none of whom could arrive at a diagnosis. To ease her foster mother’s anxiety, Katy learned to hide this pain, which has followed her into adulthood and now, over twenty years later, is leading her to explore alternative methods of healing. If she is going to cure this pain and not merely numb or deny it, she must turn to resources outside of the medical industry, and her most powerful resources in this regard are her two close friends, Carmelita and Ratna, and a cousin from India, Roxanna Japanwallah. These memorable women help Katy as she travels to both India and Mexico to learn about her ancestral roots and to deal with the origins of her physical and psychic pain. What emerges from Katy’s journeys is an intricate and illuminating story about powerful women coming up against the immense greed and racist exploitation that is America’s great export at the moment.
It is a testament to the complexity of Rustomji’s vision that this novel is full of faith and hope.