Friday, February 02, 2018

In a Forest, a Deer - Ambai

In a Forest, a Deer is a collection of short stories written by famed writer Ambai, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. I had been intrigued by the writer with this beautiful nom de plume for a long time. And this book came to me as a Christmas gift from a dear friend.
The book is a collection of eighteen interesting stories. I dived into the stories headlong, deliberately without reading any of the introductory notes. With new authors, I usually like to do the ‘discoveries’ myself. And what a revelation it was! Free of all feminist tropes, these stories are fresh, contemporary and very relevant. These are not stories of wonder-women but regular, everyday women who sparkle in their quiet, mundane existences.

Ambai uses a wide variety of themes and styles. One and Another explores unusual relationships. Vaaganam is a humorous take on the strong desire to own a vehicle, which in turn translates into freedom. Wrestling and Journey 3 have poignant thoughts wrapped in an organza of humour. A Rat, a Sparrow is a fantastic story about a ‘Madrasi’ trying to settle down in Bombay. Ambai walks us through communal tension in Direction and A Movement, a folder, some tears. A Movement… was a very difficult read, despite creative styles and techniques like flashback, an email and even an email attachment. My personal favourite is Parasakthi and Others in a Plastic Box, about the gossamer bonds that weave a mother and her two daughters together. It moved me to tears. Here again, she uses the medium of letters to tell us the story. Forest is perhaps the best example of the brilliant literary spark of this writer. It flits gracefully between mythology and contemporary.  Though all stories have a broad theme, each story delicately spreads out bunches of different thoughts, ideas and sub-themes, just like beautifully set pleats that enhance the grace of a saree.  Ambai’s storytelling has an almost lyrical quality to it, with generous use of images and metaphors.

Ambai’s women are quirky, strong, independent and free, in their own capacities—physically, mentally or at least spiritually. There’s a tiny little story within a story in Direction, called For Lakshmi too, an Adishesha. Read that and you will understand the strength of Ambai’s unbridled imagination. Goddess Lakshmi is tired of sitting at Vishnu’s feet all the time. She is miffed about all the unfairness around her and feels she deserves her own Adishesha too!  I have never read anything quite like it. Another thing I will not forget about the characters is their very Tamil names, not of Goddesses but of nature and human virtues. There is Kumudha, Shenbagam, Thangam, Dhanam, Thirumagal, Chendhiru, Senthamarai and many more. The men have more regular names. 

Every time I read a translation, I stop for a bit to think about the translator. I will say it now and will say it again, translation is one of the most difficult forms of all writing. Lakshmi Holmstorm has done a wonderful job of it in this collection. I don’t know if it was about the translation or if it was because I happen to know Tamil, but I found myself re-translating the lines back into Tamil in my head as I read the few couple of stories. It all settled down beautifully after the third/fourth story and they read like stories originally written in English. A pond filled with lotuses. Each lotus as wide as mother’s lap. Each lotus made up of a thousand, thousand petals is a gem of an expression. I am now curious to find out what it was in Tamil and if it was as beautiful. There’s another place where she says, “as white as white can be” which I am sure was “vella-veleyr” , an adjective peculiar to Tamilnadu. Having grown up listening to such local peculiarities, I never imagined it could be expressed in English so well. What I also like is a neat little glossary at the end of the book and sometimes at the end of a story. The editors have thankfully not messed up the pages with a mosaic of symbols and legends. I am curious to find out why the translator has chosen to use the Hindi word choli to describe a blouse that is worn with a saree. Also why did she choose to spell the musical instrument Veena or Veenai, as Vinai and Vina in some places. Doesn’t Vinai, with the short i sound connote an evil deed? The names of some actors are also incorrect like M T Rama Rao for N T Rama Rao (they got it right in the second instance) and K P Sundarambal for K B Sundarambal. I shouldn’t nit-pick.

I believe that those who’ve been fortunate enough to travel much (by circumstance or choice) stand to gain a wide knowledge of languages, customs, religious practices, quirks of different communities and also become open to appreciate different styles of cuisines and music. Then there are those who learn and develop all of these without stepping out of their zipcode. These are people who read extensively. And if a writer has one or both these opportunities, the writing becomes truly rich. Even while I was reading the stories, Ambai seemed to be doubly blessed thus.  Only when I read her biography after completing the book did I learn that my guess was right. She has travelled much and is a voracious reader. Somehow
, luckily for me, many books I have been reading these days have copious references to music. So does this book. The references range from Raavana’s Kambodhi, Tiruppavai, Andal Paasuram, Bhimsen Joshi to Gangubai Hangal. Oh and she loves talking in detail about food. Be it paruppu thogayal or a Maharashtrian millet roti. The kitchens are not the domains of only women. A character’s father could make a hundred varieties of chutneys. Ambai’s protagonists believe in God but are not god-fearing. They are highly spiritual but not very religious. The ring-side views and the first-person accounts do give a pleasurable intimacy but somewhere at the half-way mark, the mind craves to see a wider canvas. As if the writer/editor read your mind, things begin to get interesting soon.

In a Forest, a Deer is overall, a wonderful compilation of enjoyable and thought provoking stories. A must-read if you are looking at exploring a new ethos, a new voice that is strong and vibrant but not shrill. Will I be right in saying she is India’s (or at least Tamilnadu’s) answer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? While I do my research, I will leave you with some quotes from the book.

Brahmacharya, samsara, vanaprastha and sanyasa—must these all happen at separate times and stages?... Why could they not all be mingled together?

Everything comes down to sruti, getting the pitch right, doesn’t it? We speak of sur, being in tune. Who then is an asur? Not someone with crooked teeth and ten heads, but one who is ignorant of sur. A-sur. Because such a thing as sur isn’t resonating within them, they run away with themselves without subjecting their impulses or their strength or their direction to any discipline. They are not reined in by their sur.
There was another friend who insisted on telling jokes after having downed three pegs of rum. ‘I’m going to act like a Madrasi’, he proclaimed loudly….He laughed at his own performance. Nobody else laughed with him. Vijay went up to him and whispered something. He looked at her and said, grinning away, ‘It was only in fun. I like the temples in Tamil Nadu very much. Then dosa, vada, idli,’ he drawled stressing the ‘d’. “Saniyane,’ she said…Only Amulyo understood what she said.