TORONTO - The seed for Anita Rau Badami's new novel, "Tell it to the Trees," was planted more than a decade ago.
The Montreal-based author was visiting a remote town in northern British Columbia to do research for a freelance magazine story when a young Indian woman — a complete stranger — offered to put her up for the night.
Badami dined with the woman's family and spent half a day in their home.
"There was this feeling of desperate unhappiness in the house," recalls Badami. "I think that stuck with me, the mood in that home."
Perhaps the woman invited a stranger to stay because she was reaching out for help, muses Badami, who watched the wife tolerate her husband's verbal abuse as an elderly mother-in-law — beautiful and educated — sat in complete silence.
"There was something going on," Badami says. "I was a stranger there, and this man didn't seem to have any problems abusing his wife verbally while I was sitting there. I don't know what else went on."
Badami draws from that family, as well as from long-ago interviews she conducted at a women's shelter in Bangalore, India, in "Tell it to the Trees."
The novel tells the story of an Indian family living in an isolated town called Merrit's Point.
At first glance, the Dharmas appear to be a loving and close-knit unit. Patriarch Vikram has arranged a second marriage for himself and he and wife Suman live with his mother, Akka, and their children, Varsha and Hemant.
Things change when an outsider named Anu takes up residence in behind the home and begins to penetrate the family's secrets.
Anu was somewhat of a stand-in for Badami herself, the author says, as she attempted to make sense of the long-ago visit to British Columbia.
Another inspiration for the novel came from interviews Badami did nearly 20 years ago with staff and patients at a crisis intervention centre, the first of its kind in Bangalore.
Badami worked as a journalist in India before moving to Canada in 1991.
Many of the women at the centre had fled their homes and wanted to return to collect their children. Some of the women's husbands had gathered outside the building's high walls and iron gate to try to lure their wives back home.
"It really, really moved me to see such helplessness," says the author. "Some of the women had been totally abandoned by their families. Some of them just didn't have anywhere to go. A lot of them were ashamed that they had to leave their marriages. It was a very complex set of emotions."
Badami says she always becomes curious when she enters a home and senses tension.
"There are all these stories of hidden violence inside homes," she says. "Sometimes you wonder what's going on in your neighbour's house. Even if you're living in close proximity to that neighbour, you really don't have any idea."
Intervening can be a tricky thing, the author concedes.
"All of us lead such busy lives," says Badami, whose other novels include "Tamarind Mem," "The Hero's Walk" and "Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?"
"There's that delicate line. Are you going to alienate someone? Are you poking your nose in when nothing is really going on? Is it just your imagination working overtime?"
She adds, "I wonder what that kind of atmosphere of fear and dislike must do to a child's psyche."
The idea of how far a child will go to protect what he or she thinks is important is a central premise in "Tell it to the Trees."
Although "Tell it to the Trees" follows an Indian family, the notion of secret keeping — of people suffering in silence rather than reaching out for help — is universal, says Badami.
"Tell it to the Trees" is set to hit shelves Tuesday.