I recently picked up a copy of Ambai’s “In a Forest, A deer” translated into English from the Tamizh, “Kaattil Oru Maan”. I had read a few of these stories in Tamizh earlier, but this time, I found the entire collection in English. (On an aside, ever notice how hard it is to buy our own languages in the big bookstores? I also searched online but could not find a really professional site stocking sufficient Tamizh literature – maybe there is a business opportunity here!)
Ambai is a writer whom I’ve read little before, but loved whatever little I had the opportunity to read. In a Forest, A Deer doesn’t disappoint either. It appeals to me all the more as a Tamizh woman who can identify with some of the crises of identity that her characters go through. The feminist aspect of her literature particularly appeals to me. For those of us who love our culture but find aspects of it infuriating. Dressing up, for example. Traditionally, South Indian men too sported a pottu (bindi) and North Indian men perhaps a Tilak. Clothing too was traditional dhoti or kurta pyjama. With time however, Indian men have discarded these symbols of Indianness, while many of us women continue to wear Indian clothes, although with large Western additions to our wardrobes.
The challenge ofcourse is that we have now become the flag carriers of Indian culture, which is why someone like Shashi Tharoor has the gall to “ask” (dictate?) women to wear saris, while he himself goes in for a shirt and trousers. I love Indian clothes, and I wouldn’t want to abandon them. But. The pressure to be a ‘Bharatiya Nari’ , to wear a bindi (which is a constant family request, if you live in the South, and are married), to wear a thali and ‘ensure’ the husband’s long life (questions of one’s own long life go unanswered), this constant pressure is often wearying.
Ambai’s characters are in a sense asking these questions all the time. In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “Forest”, Chenthiru undertakes a journey to a remote village in a forest, disillusioned with a family business that refuses to allow her a significant role, and determined to search for her own answers. This behaviour is perplexing to everyone, including her husband, Tirumalai. The desire of a woman to journey on her own, is inexplicable, it has no roots in history.
It was most appropriate for a woman to be a rishi-pattini, spouse of a sage, journeying along with her husband. If she did go there on her own, it could only be as the seductive Menaka, putting an end to a sage’s meditation. For a woman, a forest is a place where she cannot find her way…
The story is rich in its allusion to mythology. As Chenthiru makes her own way ahead, a parallel story is being written, where the myth of the Ramayana is being transformed, as the unjustly banished Sita writes her own story.
Sita looked up. The sage Valmiki was standing in front of her.
“What are you writing, Amma?”
She stood up and bowed to him. “A life story,” she said, “Sita’s Ayanam”.
“Isn’t the Ramayana that I wrote sufficient?” he asked.
“No. In the ages to come, there will be many Ramayanas. Many Ramas. Many Sitas.”
This movement between two ages, between life and myth makes the story more layered and enjoyable. Ambai uses such techniques in many of the stories to keep the reader engrossed. There is also the sense of an ongoing struggle, not always very overt, but reminding one of the battles on even today.
In the story, “Wrestling”, classical singer Shenbagam gives up her career, while her husband Shanmugam enjoyes the limelight. No one is presented as a demon, but the sense of loss is tremendous. One participant has lost, another’s will has led to the loss, and the resultant guilt, quietly held resentment and striving for an outlet, make for an interesting wrestling of wills. The match is not yet over.
“Unpublished Manuscript” is perhaps one of the few stories, where the struggle is open, violent even. Senthaamarai discovers her mother’s old manuscript bringing to life the father she has never known, as it turns out, an alcoholic poet given to verbal and physical violence. I liked this story both for the way Ambai has depicted the closeness of the single mother and daughter, and for the story-in-story form.
When she finished reading it that first time, and her mother returned home, she hugged her tightly. When Amma went to sleep that night, she went up to her and kissed her forehead. Amma woke up. Looking directly into her eyes, Amma asked, “Have you read it?” She laid her head against her mother’s chest.
Not all the stories are as dramatic. Some are just ordinary people, crossing the norms of ordinary behaviour. A woman who wants the single seat behind the bus driver, usually occupied by men. Not to make a statement, it is just more comfortable to have a seat to yourself on a crowded bus! Women who ask why, if Lakshmi is so powerful, she doesn’t take over Vishnu’s place, instead of sitting at his feet. Women who decide that the garbage collection work should be shared by everyone. These ordinary women who are the heroines of Ambai’s stories, are at once familiar and extraordinary. Their familiarity lies in their ordinary lives and problems, the sort of thing that could be faced by anyone travelling on a Mumbai local. But every now and then, the extraordinary peeps in, as they cross the lines of the normal, giving one the assurance that yes, truly, there is space for our own stories to grow.