TNM spoke to the Mumbai-based Tamil feminist author who won the Sahitya Akademi award 2021 for her short story collection ‘Sivappu Kazhutthudan Oru Patchaiparavai’.

Tamil author AmbaiAuthor: Kunal Ray/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0
Features Interview Wednesday, January 19, 2022 - 18:38

Mumbai-based Tamil feminist author Ambai recently won the prized Sahitya Akademi award for 2021 for her short story collection Sivappu Kazhutthudan Oru Patchaiparavai (A Green Bird with a Red Neck). The news comes as a breath of fresh air for Tamil writers everywhere, as Ambai is only the fourth woman writer in Tamil to ever win the award.

In an exclusive interview with The News Minute, Ambai is warm, quick to smile and takes efforts to make the interviewer feel comfortable.

The writer quietly entered the literary scene in the 1960s with an adventure novel for children. She then began to write in popular magazines and later in literary magazines. She writes in both Tamil and English. Over the years, she has written short stories and essays, both equally insightful. Like some of the extraordinary women writers in Tamil before her, she also created very different women characters in a language that was unique to her.

My first question to Ambai brought out a bit of her famous sense of humour. Asked if the award will help shape her writing, she said, “At 77, I don’t know how much more shaping I need! Also, awards can never shape nor help you as a writer. It may get you some attention for a while but will not really help you in a creative way.”

“As a writer at 77 and with COVID around, one does not know how much of a career as a writer is left,” she added.

Is she a recluse? “I don’t enjoy giving interviews to those who have not read me. I’m not a recluse, but just someone who doesn’t like to be defined and categorised,” she said.

Then she spoke of her sisterhood with other feminist writers. “The feminist movement has spread in many ways. The same groups don’t exist now, we have all taken up different activities. But the feeling of sisterhood has remained, even if we are functioning in different ways in different areas,” she said.

“I’m quite thrilled with the poetry being written in Tamil, even if sometimes I’m not able to understand or respond to it immediately. That they are being written with passion and not just as some kind of template writing is a very good sign,” said Ambai.

Asked to counter the allegation that her earlier writings stood up to scrutiny better, Ambai said, “I feel a writer must never go defending what she writes. Once it is in the public sphere, it will be received in many ways,” she said. “And how would you like me to counter this, except by saying that these stories are as good as my previous ones? That will be a pretty ridiculous thing to do,” she added.

“With each story or collection, one is moving towards a different area of expression. It is not always possible to identify exactly where it is moving. Life is too subtle and one cannot immediately know what is happening or where one is standing,” she said.

Does she expect her latest collection of short stories to do better than her previous works? “My publisher has to deal with that. I have nothing to do with the marketing side. If the publisher benefits, I’m happy. Kalachuvadu has been publishing me for so many years, it is time they got some benefit out of it,” she said.

Congratulating Ambai, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publications, said, “We bought the complete rights to publish Ambai 20 years ago. She totally deserves the award.” Among the books published by Kalachuvadu, this is only the second to win the Sahitya Akademi. “Award or not, publishing Ambai is always an honour,” added Kannan.

Sukumaran, editor, Kalachuvadu, told me that Ambai was among the first in Tamil literature to give women a strong voice. “Ambai is a part of the feminist movement of the 1960s, which had the USA as the epicentre. In Europe, writers like Simone de Beauvoir were making rapid strides in feminist theory. Ambai did this mostly via short stories,” he said.

Ambai said short stories continue to be her preferred format because she is able to express herself better. Has she written novellas? Or were they just, as Sukumaran put it, extended short stories? “Do you mean my long stories are just long stories? Maybe they are. Why not?” she shot back.

Ambai has lived in Mumbai for many years. “I like Mumbai much more than any other city. It has a life and energy that other cities don’t have,” she explained her love for the city.

Sukumaran explained the importance of the award in the present context. “Other women authors in the 1960s were writing stories that usually revolved around the family, that reinforced the status quo. Women were confined to the kitchen. They had to listen to their husbands. They had to stay within the limitations laid out by their family,” he said.

“Rarely did women write a story from the woman’s point of view. Lakshmi, Anuthama, Komakal… reduced the woman to a doll,” said Sukumaran. “In my opinion, the first Tamil writer to show that the woman has her needs and a life of her own was Ambai. She was one of the first to question the status quo,” he added.

“She created a human arena in which women had space. Many people may have read Suryan. This was among Ambai’s early works. It was written from a female point of view, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Such stories were unusual and Ambai was among the first to come up with such innovative works,” Sukumaran said.

Saying that Ambai constantly rejuvenates and refreshes herself as a writer, he said, “She is one writer who has interrogated herself in the 50 years she has been writing. She has not restricted herself just to writing. She is an outspoken critic of patriarchy at an ideological level. Through her articles and essays, she has poignantly written on feminism,” he said.

Sukumaran said it was surprising that the Sahitya Akademi award for Tamil has not gone to a Dalit woman yet. “No Dalit Tamil woman has won it for writing quality literature. That’s yet to happen,” said Sukumaran.

Ambai, whose real name is CS Lakshmi, is a historian and received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Not only that, she has also done extensive research on the history and life of women.

“SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women), run by Ambai, is a meticulously maintained record of women’s contribution to literary and social events. It’s a record of oral history,” he said.

Among other honours, Ambai has won the Puthumaipithan Memorial Award given by Vilakku Ilakkiya Amaippu, the lifetime achievement award from Toronto University, the Tamil Nadu government’s M Karunanidhi cash reward, and an award from the University of Madras.

Her short story collections include A Purple Sea; In a Forest, A Deer; Fish in a Dwindling Lake; A Night With a Black Spider; and A Meeting On the Andheri Over Bridge. Her non-fiction works include The Face Behind the Mask; The Singer and the Song; and Mirrors and Gestures. Irom Sharmila’s collection of poems, Fragrance of Peace, is in Tamil, thanks to Ambai.

Nandhu Sundaram lives in Medavakkam, a Chennai suburb, with his wife and nine-year-old daughter. He loves the city deeply and wants to change it everywhere he goes. He loves movies (all kinds), books and cricket. He is also trying his hand at short stories.