I first came across Ambai’s writing a couple of decades ago. I have been a fan since then and have read every translation I could lay my hands on.
C.S. Lakshmi, who writes most of her fiction in Tamil using the pen-name Ambai, sees herself as a feminist who has lived life without making compromises. What attracted me to Ambai’s feminism are her relatable feminist stories; stories about regular, lower middle-class, or middle-class women, leading seemingly nondescript and ordinary lives, but displaying extraordinary courage and resistance in remarkable ways. In the context of Indian feminism, I think this is especially important because there seems to be a general perception that gender issues are primarily a concern for women with privilege, those who are educated and somewhat already empowered.
Ambai draws our attention to the fact that the stories that she writes are born out of lived experiences, inspired by the world the writer inhabits and beyond. In the case of her recently published collection of short-stories, A Red-necked Green Bird, translated by G.J.V. Prasad, it is mostly the underbelly of Mumbai, crisscrossed by lives lived in local trains and packed with grimy chawls. The other remarkable aspect of Ambai’s writing is her intersectional feminism, wherein gender intersects with issues of class, caste, religion and even disability. All these aspects of her writing, and more, find its reflection in this remarkable collection of short-stories.
Bodies with expiry dates
A few days ago, social media was flooded with stories about an 85-year-old man who gave up his hospital bed for a young man, and unfortunately died. I do not want to get into the debate about the ethics or morality, or even the “kindness” of that gesture. What interests me though is how we view old age and the elderly in our society, often outwardly reverential, but in truth seeing them as a burden, as those who have lived past their welcome.
It is precisely such a concern for the ageing and the aged, the gamut of issues they face – practical and emotional, the lack of agency or its denial, issues that are neither acknowledged nor addressed by the family or the state – that lie centerstage in Ambai’s collection of short-stories.
The very first story explores the story of a daughter coming to terms with a father who has dementia, who seeks respite from the tedium of life in a crow that visits her daily. ‘The Crow with a Swollen Throat’ metonymically mimics the quirks and the ailments characterised by her father.
The subject of old age and its accompanying aspects is, however, never romanticised. The toll that it takes on the caregivers is powerfully dramatised in the story of Urmila Tai, who, caught in a quagmire of exhaustion, guilt and financial burden, sets herself on fire – seeing death as the only way out of an impossible situation. Then there is this overwhelming sense of indignity and loneliness that drives Kamala to jump to her death, but who strikes a note of resistance even in death – her last concern being that whatever else happens, her spine should not break.
But Ambai sees life for the aged as possible beyond the loneliness and the suffering. In ‘Swayamvars with No Bows Broken’, Ambai looks at the possibility of the elderly finding companionship, even love, but not necessarily always defined by labels that are in consonance with what society, or family finds acceptable.
Sisterhood and more
The other thread that ties the collection together is the sense of sisterhood that prevails amongst the women in the stories. It is not always an easy sisterhood, but cutting across relationships and class divides – between those with shared histories, or between strangers in a pavement eatery – we come across women deriving comfort, solace, support from each other, journeying with each other, physically, metaphorically, and enabling each other to find their destination.
It could be an intuitive sense of empathy between an academician and a nurse from Mangalore, whose paths cross in faraway Finland; or a tumultuous journey undertaken by Preet and Malar, who overcome perceived betrayal to find companionship. But Ambai’s feminism also makes room to see men as possible allies, whether it be a grandfather who takes out the champagne to celebrate the unexpected pregnancy of his unwed granddaughter, or the companionship shared between Shanti and Nandalal in their golden years.
But the alliance is not always an easy one, as is brilliantly explored in ‘The Pond’ with its subtle critique of men who see themselves as feminists but yet may fail to comprehend the reality of being a woman who is often reduced to just a body; a body to be abused. Or even the fantastic ‘The Lion’s Tail’, where a woman has a relationship with the androgynous Ottaagam who belongs to the eleventh dimension, only to discover that gendered binaries and expectations are not necessarily of this world alone.
My favourite story, though, is the title story, one which centres around a young woman who is hearing-challenged, that powerfully elucidates that language is communication and that “it can happen without sound”. It is a story that is told loudly and clearly from the point of view of the hearing-challenged Thenmozhi. But like any story by Ambai, it is about so much more – the quiet strength of women, the small and meaningful ways in which women navigate and subvert repression, and the freedom that men continue to enjoy even though they too are sometimes victims of an oppressive patriarchy.
Ambai promises in her introductory note that she will continue to write till she runs out of the countless notebooks and pencils that fill up her almirahs. I, and many of her fans, will hold her to that promise.
Shibani Phukan teaches English literature in a Delhi University college. You can find her on Instagram @fotonama007
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty