The Short Stories

12 Ambai: Squirrel

Ambai: Squirrel

An Analysis

The Author and her Milieu

Ambai or C.S.Lakshmi was born in a large middle-class Brahmin family in 1944. Her parents hailed from Palghat, which was a constituent of the Madras Presidency but is now a district in Kerala. It had a predominantly Brahmin population. The family had settled in Coimbatore. Ambai was the third child of her parents, the eldest being a son while the second was a daughter. When the third child too happened to be a daughter the family was visibly upset. More so because it was an unplanned pregnancy and Ambai’s birth was an accident. In fact Ambai recalls in an interview how for many days her father did not even cradle her in his arms and always called her ‘blackie’ because of her dark complexion. ‘Blackie was however named Lakshmi for two reasons, firstly because her maternal grandmother’s name was Lakshmi and secondly because she was born on a Friday. Prejudice against the girl child in Indian society is a well-known fact and Ambai was to some extent a victim of this prejudice being the second daughter. Her first photograph was taken when she was four years old. Before that nobody ever thought of taking a snapshot of hers.

Ambai was put in a Tamil medium school as against the English medium one to which her elder siblings went. This happened soon after her younger brother was born. When in a few years her father got transferred to Bangalore, Ambai was again put in a Tamil medium school. According to her own admission ‘In my family I am the only one to write in Tamil. The others write even their personal letters in English.’ Despite these minor irritants, Ambai’s childhood was a happy one and she remembers fondly the many enjoyable vacations spent at her maternal grandmother’s house with innumerable cousins who became her playmates. Ambai was greatly influenced by her grandmother who was a self-taught Tamil scholar and who cultivated an interest in the young girl for Tamil literature by reading out poems to her in the language and explaining their meaning and also sang beautiful Tamil songs that enraptured the young Ambai. She gifted her book of songs to her when she died. In addition to her grandmother, Ambai’s own mother too was another constructive influence on her and who became at many points in her life the pillar of support she needed to stand on her own two feet. Ambai read avidly all the Tamil magazines and journals her mother subscribed to and grew up on the conservative, tradition bound often-romantic writings that these magazines encouraged and perpetuated. When Ambai first began writing at the age of sixteen, she wrote in a style similar to the one she had soaked up from those magazines. As she comments on her early writings she says: ‘Most of my initial stories had very rigid and orthodox views of sexuality, femininity and life in general. The widows in my stories, after a speech full of symbolic metaphors always refused to remarry and my heroines married idealists who were combinations of Tagore, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.’

Ambai’s family was a conservative one, as a result her upbringing followed on the lines of a conventional pattern. She took the usual training in Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam and gave performances till 1974. There was a tacit code of conduct for women and all had to adhere to it. Whatever they did had to be within the bounds of the tradition oriented demands of Tamil life and culture where an ideal woman was a perfect wife, mother and daughter having no desires or demands separate from those of her husband or father or brother. She was required to readily submit to whatever the patriarchal authority desired from her. Thus, to take a step which would run counter to the wishes of her father required tremendous courage and some guile from the young Ambai when she decided to move away from the confines of her home to Madras for widening her horizons and spreading out her wings as it were. She cited education as a genuine excuse and applied for MA at Madras Christian College. Her father was dead against the idea saying, ‘If you wish to study at Bangalore it’s OK. If you go to Madras you will get out of our hands. I wonder if you would ever return home.’ It was her mother who asked her if going to Madras would change her life. When Ambai replied in the affirmative, her mother did not say a single word more and pawned her jewelry and arranged for her to go and pursue her dreams. It was only after the mother and daughter had reached Madras and Ambai had been put up in a hostel that her father was informed. By then it was too late for him to do anything. He relented and resigned to Ambai’s decision and financed her education in Madras.

Ambai had already published two novels before she turned twenty. At sixteen she had won the first prize in a competition organized by the journal Kannan. Her entry Nandi Malai Charalile (At Nandi Hills Falls), a novel, was published shortly after she won the competition. This novel appeared under the name ‘Ambai’, the pseudonym that she had used for the first time on this occasion and was to continue using it thereafter for all her creative writing. The choice of the name ‘Ambai’ was determined firstly due to her atheist attitude and secondly by the strong impression that a character of that name left on her in Devan’s novel Parvatiyin Sangalpam (Parvati’s Vow). In this novel Parvati’s, the protagonist is abandoned by her husband because her education is not equal to his. At this Parvati takes a vow. She uses her knowledge of Tamil and begins writing. For her writings she uses the pseudonym ‘Ambai’ for it is another name for Parvati, and becomes a famous writer. When her husband learns of her new found fame he wants to return to her. At this Parvati tells him, ‘I do not need you any more.’ Ambai liked the determination of this woman protagonist of Devan’s novel and made her choice. As she recounts in an interview she says, ‘I do not believe in rituals or dogmas associated with Fridays in our culture. So I did not like my name Lakshmi and wished to use a pseudonym.’ Having read Devan’s novel she says, ‘I liked [Parvati’s] determination very much. So I chose Ambai as my pseudonym. Later on, I learnt about the character Amba, in Maharashtra. I began to like my pen name even better.’ Ambai always distinguishes between her persona as Ambai, writer of fiction and her persona as C.S.Lakshmi, cultural anthropologist and critic.

Her first short story Gnanam (Knowledge) was published in the journal Ananda Vikatan. She published many more stories in this magazine in the coming years. But her early writings were modeled on traditional concepts of womanhood and chastity. Her world was still limited to her home and there was a tacit rule limiting her interaction with the world outside. She therefore naively went along believing in the prevalent concepts, which required women to be chaste, pure, submissive and docile. To believe that a modern woman was one transgressing the bounds of morality was merely an extension of these conventional concepts.

Ambai struggled to break free. A rebel at heart she knew that there was a different and wider world beyond the confines of her walled existence. Thus her decision to move to Madras came about. She did her Masters from Madras and though she missed her mother immensely she never thought of returning home unlike the protagonist of her story ‘Kaartu’ (Wind) who does. She became friendly with writers like Ramaneeyam, Meyyadiyan and Aar. Vi. After her MA she worked briefly as a schoolteacher at Panruti but was asked to leave because of her anti-establishment activities. She would read works like A Tale of Two Cities to the children in their Moral Science class. Most of her energy at this time was taken up in fighting against the management and consequently she hardly wrote anything during her stay at Panruti. Her novel Andhi Malai(Twilight Time) was being serialized and she was ‘vaguely embarrassed’ by it, though she did not know the reason why. After leaving Panruti she took up a job as an English tutor in Tyagaraja College in Madras. Subsequently she secured a UGC fellowship and took admission in JNU for her Ph.D. and moved to Delhi in 1967.

Ambai’s experiences had widened her horizons till now. She had begun questioning the constant suppression that women were being made to submit to in all spheres of life. Her whole being rebelled against the men who oppressed women as well the women who meekly submitted to men. Before leaving for Delhi she wrote a story Siragugal Muriyum (Wings Get Broken) and sent it to Ananda Vikatan. Written form the woman’s point of view the story was about ‘a sensitive woman married to an insensitive man and the sense of suffocation she felt.’  It was promptly rejected and returned. Kalki andKalaimangal, two other popular journals, returned it too. In Delhi when Ambai sent it to Kanaiyazi, she asked the editor Kasturi Rangan, to tell her what was wrong with her story. She thought that not having written for a long time has made her go out of practice. But Kasturi Rangan was a keen and perceptive editor. He was quick to see why the story had been rejected. It talked of a woman’s silent suffering and highlighted the male insensitivity. Had the wife meekly submitted and prostrated herself at her husband’s feet the story would have been readily published by any of the magazines it was sent to. But the fact that the wife dares to murmur a protest was enough to blacklist it. Kasturi Rangan published the same in his journal Kanaiyazi and thus began a new chapter in Ambai’s literary career. Venkat Swaminathan and Indira Parthasarthy who were her friends from her days in Madras helped polish her art and constantly encouraged her to write.

Ambai’s literary career aptly reflects the various stages in her development both as a writer and as a person. From her early idealistic writings like Andhi Malai she moved to writing stories with new concerns but still wrote in the conventional style. Moving to Delhi, however, was the bold step she took to venturing into women centered stories that questioned the paradoxes of their suppressed existence. Coming under the influence of Marxist ideology at JNU she examined its inherent contradictions when she saw it being practiced by her upper class friends. From writing in the conventional style she moved to experiment with new forms, new themes and looked at old subjects from new angles. Her interests widened to include films, theatre, painting and Hindustani music. She learnt the Rudra Veena in the Drupad style from Zia Moinuddin Dagar Saheb. Ambai was deeply influenced by what her Guru said about rendering and appreciating a Raga. He said that a Raga ‘should not attack you like a huge ferocious wave. It should touch you gently like the wave does when you stand on the shore. It is a massive wave initially. But it internalizes its power, its impact lies within and touches you gently.’ Ambai admits to applying the same to everything -- all branches of fine arts as well as to ideologies. According to her ‘Be it feminism, Marxism – whatever it be, it ought to contain its potency before it touches you Stories that have a lot of feminist ideas go unappreciated if they lack an engaging style.’ Herein lies the germ for Ambai’s desire to evolve new forms and a new language for expressing her ideas in her writings. Her friends from the literary circle helped perfect her idiom and develop an individualistic style.

In 1974-75 she began research for her book The Face Behind the Mask. Meanwhile she continued writing stories, articles and novels. Apart from this she also wrote a few plays. During this period her research took her once again to Madras where she interacted with the Pregnyai (Consciousness) group. She became quite friendly with other members of this group such as Veerasami, Ravishankar, Paravi and Ravindran. She was the only woman in the all male group but suffered from no inhibitions while she argued with them, read with them, watched films and reviewed the same with them and on the whole spent an invigorating time with them. In the year 1976 she met and married Vishnu Mathur after living with him for six months. The decision to marry came after a lot of thought because neither of them believed in the institution of marriage. It was only to avoid countering criticism all the time and thus waste their energies in a meaningless activity that the two decided to have a registered marriage. According to Vishnu it was better to spend that energy on their relationship. But the conservative household at Vishnu’s parents’ made her feel suddenly imprisoned. It took a lot of determination and a tremendous amount of understanding on both sides for the relationship to last. Neither of them wanted to compromise their principles for anything. For this reason both of them decided not to have any children. Ambai had meanwhile started teaching at a college in Delhi. In 1978 they decided to move to Bombay. To resign from her job was Ambai’s own decision. In Bombay she did not take up any teaching assignment and devoted all her time to writing. She even wrote stories for a few films. The Face Behind the Mask was published in 1984. In 1987 Ambai received a fellowship in social history and researched on the lives of workers from the beedi industry. She had stopped writing for the journals in the early 1970’s and subsequently her stories came out as collections. Ambai’s recent writings have been for a journal from Neiveli, called Dalit.She has written on the death of the Marathi poet Vilas Gokhare and also on the Sathin, Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan. The Dalits as well as women are a suppressed lot in Ambai’s opinion and the various modes of oppression practiced against both the groups have a striking similarity. Ambai has also worked on the social history of women in Tamilnadu, and the same is currently under publication.

The Short Story in the Tamil Literary Scene 

The Tamil short story was born in the writings of V.V.S Iyer (1881-1925), who wrote a few stories from 1915-1917 and published them together in Mankayar Karsiyin Katal in 1917. With the sudden increase in literary journals and magazines, the Tamil short story finally found its niche. Writers like Rajaji and Narana Duraikannan used the form for didactic purposes and the short story unlike the novel became a powerful tool for dissemination of current concerns and ideas. Anthologies were compiled and writers like Subramanya Bharati, Pudumaipittham, N.Pitchamurthy, Kaa Naa Subramanyam, Chidambara Subramanian, Mouni, and B.S.Ramaiah and of course V.V.S Iyer became famous and helped the Tamil story to flourish. Many periodicals gave an impetus to this growing popularity of this form. Ananda Vikatan was one of them and was headed by R.Krishnamurthi, himself an established writer who wrote under the pseudonym Kalki. This popular journal published stories with an apparent preference for simplistic, entertainment-based narratives. Manikkodi, was another periodical launched in 1933 by Stalin Srinivasan, with the cooperation of his friends Va.Ra, and T.S.Chockalingam. Even though Srinivasan’s main interest was politics, he encouraged the younger generation of creative writers to contribute to his magazine. Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, Na.Pichamurthi and P.G.Sundarajan wrote frequently for this periodical. In 1935 B.S.Ramaiah took over as editor and made it his ambition to raise the Tamil Short Story to world standards. The writers associated with Manikkodicame to be known as the Manikkodi group.  Though Manikkodi was devoted to the short story genre it was different from magazines like Ananda Vikatan and endeavoured towards writing of more serious concern that would pose a challenge to the established social mores and customs and also provide an alternative to magazines like Ananda Vikatan. The Manikkodi writers wrote against child marriage, against exploitation of women, against traditionally accepted norms about chastity. They wrote about the ordinary people, their trials and tribulations, their small joys and big sorrows and their constant battle against the elements. T.Janakiraman, Jayakanthan, Pichamurthy, Mouni and Laa Saa Ramamirthan carried forward the Mannikodi tradition in their writings.

The 1970’s witnessed a boom of ‘little’ magazines – a sudden spurt in publication of small periodicals and journals which wanted to cash in on the increasing readership. When a number of periodicals were circulating over a hundred thousand copies a week or month, the kind of writing they carried and generated is anybody’s guess. Only stories with a strong entertainment value, written along simplistic lines, upholding the conservative social, cultural structure could find a place in them. Any serious writing that could have benefited from this wide circulation had to take a backseat due to the market dominated policies of these new periodicals. Despite this, however, a few good writers did emerge and also endured. Kandasamy, Konangi, Dilip Kumar, Thopil Mohamed Meeran are a few of the notable names of the post 70’s Tamil short story writers. The image of the woman that found expression through most of these writers’ works, remained one that was modeled on the precepts of Manu. Woman was the goddess of chastity; she was required to be passive and submissive, accepting her fate unquestioningly and uncomplainingly, worshipping her husband like a veritable god and finding fulfillment only in marriage and children. Apart from her home, her husband and her children, a woman was not supposed to have any life let alone have any personal longings, aspirations and desires separate from those of her family. Even if some writers were bold enough to raise a few questions the ending always showed the woman conforming to traditional beliefs. Such was the image propagated and reinforced by these male authors and the majority of women readersstaunchly believed in this image themselves.

What about the women writers however? Did they make their presence felt and if yes then did they do so by writing about issues closest to their hearts or were they swept along by the wave that commercialized literature? Gowri Ammal, Vai. Mu. Ko., Gugapriyai, Kumudini, Savitri Ammal, Visalakshmi Ammal, ‘Lakshmi,’ Krubai Sathyanadhan Ammal, Tamarai Kanni were familiar names in Tamil households. The society demanded from women the impossible task of being a repository of all its social and moral values. Brought up on a surfeit of such social precepts and religious customs these women writers merely reinforced the hackneyed ideas which gave man the freedom to have his will and asked women to submit to the same. Though most of them remained tradition bound, for some it was not due to any lack of awareness but more because the dominating market forces required a certain kind of writing only. Even a slight hint of challenging those traditions meant rejection such as ‘Kumudini’ faced when she wrote Diwan Magal. The story was about a non-Brahmin boy marrying a Brahmin girl. Ambai writes how ‘the orthodox Ananda Vikatan editor kept it rotting in the drawers of his table considering it too bold a theme, and it lay there till it was serialized in Manikkodi and later brought out as a book in 1946. Hemmed in by conservative thought, these women writers, with the exception of a few continued to write within the male paradigms and happily affirmed the patriarchal social structure.

For most of these women writers the image of a writer was more important than finding a means of self-expression through their writings. As Venkat Swaminathan observes, ‘Women writers were pampered and made into stars, but they were not allowed to question tradition or break the rules of convention.’ They genuinely believed in the shackles they adorned themselves with. They willingly conformed believing implicitly in the roles that the male dominated society had chalked out for them. Gugapriyai was quite convinced about a woman’s role in society: ‘Service, motherhood, chastity, wife-hood – what else is necessary for a woman?’ she coolly asked Ambai when the latter interviewed her for her book The Face Behind the Mask. Visalakshmi Ammal told Ambai she is certain that only marriage can bring fulfillment. ‘Lakshmi’, who was a doctor by profession, did bring in the working woman as a new subject but ultimately found that marriage was the final goal for them too. A man’s presence was absolutely necessary for a woman’s existence. These were early writers who genuinely believed in denying themselves any voice of self-assertion or even self-expression. The same was not expected, however, of the later women writers, Ambai’s contemporaries, who nevertheless continued to conform and submit to the dictates of the patriarchal configuration. Rajam Krishnan, Siva Sankari, Indumati, Vimala Ramani, K. Jayalakshmi, Gomati Nagarajan, Vasanthi, Girija, Kritika and R.Chudamani are some notable women writers of the period after 50’s. With the exception of a few like Kritika and R.Chudamani, the rest continued to reinforce the traditional renditions of womanhood because they let the market forces determine the kind of writing they did. K. Jayalakshmi admitted to Ambai, ‘I write for money now and cannot write whatever I want.’ A story that she wrote on a woman’s right to adornment even after her husband’s death was rejected by every magazine and finally was accepted for broadcast over the radio by a stroke of luck.’ Thus personal convictions of a few of these writers differed from what emerged in their writings. Girija, for instance, remarked in an interview that a woman is still a slave and ‘most laws to protect women and the so-called rights of women are only and eyewash.' R.Chudamani expressed that ‘women have been praised, protected and glorified and in essence enslaved. A woman wanting to break this is stopped by the social system that is only a larger form of this exploitation.’ But as Ambai notes in her research on Tamil women writers, most of them writing after 1950 and later ‘seem to present uniform traits that lead to facelessness. In reality this facelessness has been assumed in some cases and natural in others for many reasons.’ As pointed out earlier, these reasons were at times located in the demands of the market and at other times in the demands of the family as happened in the case of a writer who was beaten up by her husband when she wrote about the inner sufferings of a middle-class housewife. Can she write about anything else than husband-worshipping wives, she asks in a defeated tone? At the same time, reasons for not giving expression to issues closest to their heart also lay for some in the inherent contradictions within them. Such was the case with Girija, who on the one hand talked about the individual’s right to defy false norms and on the other remarked sincerely that she accepts most of the social restrictions imposed on women.

The reasons could be many but the fact remains that the image of a woman in Tamil literature and Tamil short stories continued to be predominantly the kind that staunchly adhered to tradition. It preserved the hallowed image of a goddess of chastity but in essence enslaved women to this image. Ambai’s probing, questioning, protesting stories caused disturbing ripples in this apparently smooth exterior of the Tamil literary scene and proved to be a trailblazer for the feminist voice in Tamil literature. 

 Ambai’s Writings

Ambai’s early stories conformed to traditional precepts but the second phase of her writing that began with Sriragugal Muriyum (‘Wings get Broken’), propelled her towards serious self-expression and a questioning of the centuries of oppression to which women have been submitting without so much as a murmur. Chaya, the neglected wife in ‘Wings get Broken,’ questions the sanctity of marriage even though ultimately she resigns herself to her fate. It is small wonder that all established magazines rejected the story. Ambai’s voice registered displeasure and agitated the calm surface of conventionality and conservatism. She realized that self-expression for women writers had no place in the male-dominated literary scene. She remarked that her story about the protesting wife could have been published ‘if the girl Chaya had committed suicide or had been killed as a punishment for her “sinful” thoughts. Traditionally she has no right to live the moment she questions, even to herself the sanctity of marriage.’ Ambai, however, was not one to be cowed down by convention or be dictated to by market forces. For her writing was a vehicle for expressing herself and in the story she highlighted the way men have circumscribed the world of women and determined their parameters for them. She has delineated a wide variety of women characters in her stories. Ranging from Chandra who enjoys the protective cover of her household, which nevertheless works as a control in ‘Gifts’; to Jiji who takes pride in slaving for her family and is overjoyed by the authority that a bunch of keys brings her way ‘A Kitchen in the Corner of the House.’ Then there is Rosa, who, though a victim of custodial torture and rape refuses to be used as a pawn by people who want to cash in on the publicity in ‘Black Horse Square.’ In ‘Wrestling,’ Shenbagam quietly asserts her position as she slips into her rightful place on the stage, singing with her husband, Shanmugam.  The place that she claims for herself had been denied her till now due to her husband’s fear of being overshadowed by his wife. The facets are many and all make a disconcerting statement about the position of women in society. As Venkat Swaminathan observes, ‘Shorn of the specificity of time, place and milieu, the undercurrent is a cry against oppression which is timeless and universal,’ (From Many Indias, Many Literatures). Ambai pointed out in her works, the innumerable clever and subtle ways in which society sought to suppress and repress women in all areas of life. She protested against ingeniously cultivated beliefs, against deep entrenchment of traditional ideas about womanhood that prevented women from seeing themselves as persons, separate from their family, parents, husbands, and children. She boldly sought to foreground the feminist concerns through her writings and succeeded in forcing people to take notice despite the stories being unconventional not just in their choice of subject and theme but also in their treatment of the same, in Ambai’s experimentation with form.

Ambai moved from writing simple realistic stories to highly complex ones where she made use of multiple perspectives, various levels of narration, and plurality of voices and skillfully wove in symbolic and archetypal sequences which at times placed an ironic interpretation on the main narrative. At times her stories were just a series of reflections, interior monologue which effected the protagonist’s ‘realization of the tragic contrast between the freedom of the inner world and the constraints of the outer world’ (Chaya in ‘Wings Get Broken’). At other times she experimented with form using the structure of a fable (‘Yellow Fish’) or a collage of surrealist images as in ‘Some Deaths.’ Then there were stories like ‘My Mother her Crime’ which had an inter-mingling of dream and reality. Lakshmi Holmstrom has observed that in Ambai’s work ‘there is a kind of exhilaration in this playing with forms at the height of her work, in what looks like post-modernistic techniques of multiple perspectives - many voices, fragmented and interspersed narratives – techniques which are normally used in the post modern novel.’ Ambai’s method is post modern but on the other side of it is her rootedness in Tamil literature and culture which is evident in her easy and often inverted use of allusions such as Ahalia in ‘Squirrel’ or Vamanan in the story with the same title.

Along with using different forms Ambai also felt the need to evolve a new language to give expression to her deepest concerns. This new language she feels, can evolve only out of our understanding ‘as gendered and historical beings’ and requires ‘going down into the deep foundations of life.’ She articulates her need for such a language in her research The Face Behind the Mask and ends by saying that ‘a language such as this does not come out of the experience of oneself and others alone, but by an ability to “see” the experience – by expressing the experience.’ Women, according to her, need to express the silence in their lives and need to create a space for themselves. In her essay entitled ‘Dealing with Silence, Space and Everyday Life’ Ambai reiterates that ‘the key struggle in women’s lives, it appears is the struggle to become conscious of this space, and where possible transform the quality of this space and loosen its bindings, fight its corrosion.’ The space exists but there are various processes working towards obliterating that space and silencing the voice, which expresses a need for that space. This is a process that is ageless and ubiquitous and has been going on for centuries.

If one ventures to explore this inward space that is a woman’s ‘it would mean tapping into a silence that tethers a range of passionate feelings – it means laying bare what has not been voiced hitherto because it has not been able to be voiced.’ There are so many unarticulated desires, emotions, aspirations in women’s lives that make up that silence, that space. In most of Ambai’s writings she endeavours to express this silence in words and images – a task that seems to be a difficult and daunting one – almost impossible Ambai’s fiction thus becomes a continuous quest for freedom to express, to communicate. It becomes a quest for self-fulfillment for understanding gender constructions, social, cultural oppressions. Ambai firmly believes that an understanding of what we are today can come only from our understanding of our past and thus her fiction becomes a quest for one’s roots, a journey into the historical past that has created the present self. Historicizing the self is a step towards understanding and one that she undertakes in ‘Squirrel.’