For over 60 years, CS Lakshmi aka Ambai has been telling stories of Indian women, stories of hope and desire, defiance and struggle, of changing societal structures, altered ambitions, as well as the humdrum of everyday.
Ambai, 77, is also a feminist scholar responsible for setting up Sparrow (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women) in 1988, a repository of oral histories, photographs, documentaries and books about Indian women from all walks of life.
Last week, Ambai won a Sahitya Akademi award for her 2019 collection of Tamil short stories, Sivappu Kazhuthudan Oru Pachai Paravai, translated into English as A Red-necked Green Bird by GJV Prasad in 2021. How did she become Ambai? What does she make of the award? Why does she write? Excerpts from an interview.
Tell us how CS Lakshmi became Ambai.
In the early ’50s, when I was about nine years old, the then editor of the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, Devan, wrote a novel titled Parvathiyin Sankalpam (Paravathi’s Resolution), which was serialised in the magazine.
It was about a woman from a small town being ridiculed by a city-based English-educated husband and how she makes a name for herself as a writer, after he tells her to leave the house. She writes with the pen-name Ambai, as her name is Parvati and Ambai is another name in Tamil for Devi..
Finally, the husband returns to her but she has no desire to go back to her earlier life. I liked her rebellious nature. Later, the androgynous nature of the Ambai in the Mahabharatham, who changes her gender to seek revenge on Bhishma, also appealed to me. So Ambai became my name at age 17 or 18. Also, in the ’60s, most writers wrote with a pseudonym. That was the trend then in the Tamil literary world.
What do you make of winning the Sahitya Akademi award after all these decades?
Personally, awards don’t matter so much to me, but they do provide an opportunity for many to read you. Your stories get translated into different Indian languages and that widens your readership. About the Sahitya Akademi award, it came as a pleasant surprise for I did not even know I had been shortlisted. It has missed many senior writers who have been mentors to many. So getting it was a bit of an embarrassment. But it has brought back many old friends into my life.
There’s a growing interest in translations. What do you think needs to happen to break these language barriers further?
There was a golden period of translation in Tamil in the ’40s when almost everything from Bengali, Gujarati and Hindi was translated into Tamil. We read Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, VS Khandekar, Ramanlal Desai. But the favour was not returned. I don’t think the readers of those languages read anything translated from Tamil.
I feel more books are getting translated into English rather than into other Indian languages. People who know more than one Indian language are becoming rare. There are others who translate via English but I am not for that.
Not much of contemporary Tamil fiction is getting translated into Hindi, Bengali or even other south Indian languages. That is a serious lacuna! From Tamil to English we have some excellent translators like late Lakshmi Holmstrom and so many more… and I thoroughly enjoyed working with GJV Prasad this time.
What do you think it will take to enable more voices and more stories that go beyond the dominant mainstream, in our literary sphere?
I think digital technology has already made this possible. There is also quite aggressive self-promotion by new writers and I feel that a lot of new voices are heard and very different perspectives can be seen at least where Tamil literature is concerned.
There is, of course, Perumal Murugan but there are also others. In 2016, a writer called Haran Prasanna brought out a book of short stories which looked at gender-based power struggle in families very differently. Ba Venkatesan and M Gopalakrishnan, who were shortlisted along with me, have used styles and a language that are unique. Imayam has written some very unusual novels and stories. I can name so many more.
B Kanmani and Priya Vijayaraghavan have written on very different themes. Era Muthunagu has written a beautiful novel about traditional barber communities who were also practitioners of medicine. Writers like A Vennila and Shylaja Vamsi not only write but also have become publishers to promote different voices and genres of writing. Writers like MA Susila not only write but also translate. There are some 50 writers I can award for changing the trends in literature in Tamil if I had the money and the power!
What do you wish to accomplish through your writing?
I don’t think one writes to accomplish anything. One responds to the contemporary but what one writes is always synecdochical. One can never capture the entirety of anything. Once a traditional painter I knew had drawn a Hanuman and he had drawn part of the tail extending out of the frame. So there is always something beyond a frame that remains untold and unexpressed; something that has not been set to tune. And one should be humble enough to let that be.
Do you read contemporary Indian writing in English? Do you see a disconnect between Indian writing in English and in other Indian languages?
To be honest, I prefer, Indian language writing. It is not a question of disconnect but there is a certain way in which Indian English writing changes certain things. There is an emphasis and expansion of small things for the sake of the English reader which reads well but one is unable to relate to it. I would not say that about everyone. I like Shashi Deshpande, I loved Jerry Pinto’s novel and I am not a poetry person but I love the poetry of Arundhathi Subramaniam and Menka Shivdasani and I like the work of Anjali Purohit who combines writing, poetry, painting and curation. Maybe I am a prejudiced Indian language chauvinist!
* CS Lakshmi was born in Tamil Nadu in 1944, and grew up in Mumbai and Bengaluru. In her late teens, she began to use the pseudonym Ambai, inspired by a book about an independent woman writer, penned by the author Devan.* The second daughter, and third child, born to loving parents, she was initially considered bit of a misfortune. But she grew up in a loving atmosphere. Since she was a sickly child she was sent to a Tamil medium school near her home and it was in school that her love for the language and its literature was born.* Ambai would go on to get a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University and write some of India’s most memorable feminist tales. They explore relationships between women and men, women and sex, sex and the body, women and their spaces and silences.
(Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)