The Short Stories

12 Ambai: Squirrel

12.1 Squirrel


       An Introduction

‘Squirrel’ was originally published as ‘Anil’ in Ini (October 1986) and was included in Ambai’s second collection of stories,Veetin Mulayil Oru Samayalarai (‘A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,’ 1988). Between 1974 and 1984 Ambai did not do much of creative writing as most of her time was taken up by her research on Tamil women writers. While researching this field Ambai came to realize that most of these women writers conformed to the demands of a gender based society despite having convictions of their own which ran counter to the image they were required to project. It has already been illustrated how most of them failed to use their writing as a means of self-expression and allowed either the market forces or the family circumstances, to determine what they wrote. It was almost as if they wore a mask, which hid their real selves. As already mentioned, Ambai published her findings as C.S.Lakshmi in 1984 in a book that was aptly titled The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature. ‘Squirrel’ was a natural outcome of her experience as a researcher who is researching women’s writings.

‘Squirrel’ has been translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom in 1992 and published in a collection of Ambai’s storiesThe Purple Sea. A revised version of the translation came out in 1997. Apart from this there is another translation available which is by Chudamani Raghavan and Vasantha Kannabiran. The same was included in Volume II of Susie Tharu and K Lalita edited Women Writing in India from 600 BC to the Present. In the original there is a very obvious difference between the Tamil that the narrator uses and that used by the librarian and library staff. The narrator’s Tamil is Brahminical urban Tamil while the others use Tamil that is identifiably non-Brahminical. Such subtle differences, however, are not carried forward in any of the translations available.

       Detailed Analysis

  •     The Literal Level

In presentation and form ‘Squirrel’ is a story remarkably different from the other stories included in your course of study. It has a strong ideological base as against a strong narrative content. On the face of it nothing much happens in the story from the point of view of plot. A woman researcher visits a library to look up books written by women authors. Books, which have been gathering, dust due to neglect that in turn has resulted from the prejudices of a patriarchal society. Neglect has reduced these books to a state where they crumble at the touch of a hand and the library staff has been working at a physical restoration of these books by mending their spines with some glue and pasting back those pages that have come loose. The narrator listens to bits of conversation between the library staff and is helped by the librarian in bringing down books from the top shelves, which the narrator cannot reach. She sits reading these books alone on the third floor with just a squirrel for companion and is finally told that an official order has come to burn down these books which are of no use to anyone and instead require a lot of expenses for them to be restored. This is all that happens on the literal level. But on the metaphorical level a lot more is happening.

  •     The Metaphorical Level

The story is not just about a researcher who has a squirrel for companion during her visits to the library. It is much more than that. It is a rediscovery and a commemoration of women and women’s writings. It is about restoring an old forgotten past to the present consciousness. It is about resurrection versus annihilation where the idea of Ahalia is used skillfully to indicate what the narrator has set out to do. Just like Ram whose touch breathed life into Ahalia, so too the narrator wishes to bring these old, neglected, forgotten women authors back to life. In this context then the library becomes a metaphor for this quest into the past that seeks to unearth, discover and resurrect. Linked to this journey into the past is the writer’s quest for her historical self. What is it that she wants to do by reading neglected women authors? Her need to communicate, to bond intellectually with these women and their writings is part of her desire to understand her present consciousness and she knows that for a complete understanding of the present self one needs to historicize it and understand the past which has shaped it.  Often the boundary collapses between the factual real world surrounding the narrator and the dream world that she enters through the books she sits reading. Characters seem to step out of the pages to become real life figures, living their experiences in front of the narrator’s eyes making her a participant too. The squirrel becomes her only link with reality when it pulls her back into the present world by the ‘kwik kwik’ sound it makes. Let us now go over the story step by step to see how Ambai expresses her basic need for female bonding through the idea of a researcher researching women writers.

  •     Imagery

The first paragraph of the story begins with an emphasis on minute factual details of the ‘meshed windows’ the ‘angled tops’ the ‘ornamental arches’ and the ‘shadowy verandahs’ of the building the narrator is about to enter. Yet, there is a sudden change from this literal level to the metaphorical when the books in the library are personified and referred to as ‘Yellowed, stretched out on iron shelves.’ The image conveys the sense of a very old person lying stretched out on an iron shelf. This is the first indication of the life these inanimate books contain within them for the narrator. The effect that the sight of these books has on the narrator is similar to what the sight of an appetizing meal would have on a hungry person. There is a feeling of expectation, ‘a quickening of breath. A watering of the mouth.’ This indicates the narrator’s hunger for the books she is about to read and the idea is conveyed through sensations associated with food and hunger. Thus food imagery comes into play as early as this and will recur throughout the narrative in various forms to highlight different kinds of appetite being talked about in the story. The narrative voice is observant as well as reflective. But as yet we do not know who the narrator is.

  •     The Narrator

It is only in the second paragraph that the narrator refers to herself in the first person and we are face to face with the ‘I’ of the story. Her description of the librarian’s face looming over her as she enters the verandah is almost like a surrealist image superimposed on the narrator’s world of internal reflection:

 ‘There was a face as if suspended in space, floating in front of me. It was as if, starting from a pair of owl-like eyes, the flesh of the cheeks and the neck had all slithered down like a waterfall … then a few teeth appeared in a smile which pushed aside the wrinkled folds of skin.’

We get a taste of the narrator’s ability to lose herself in a reverie and then be suddenly jolted out of it as early as this and the same is going to continue with heightened effect as the narrative progresses. Notice that the narrator remains nameless but we come to know that it is a woman because of the way the librarian addresses her. In the translated version he calls her ‘madam’ but in the original the word used is ‘amma’ which is a word used by men in Tamil for addressing women irrespective of age or class.

  •     A Retelling of Mythical Allusions

The library holds a promise for a different world altogether for the narrator. The steel door leading to the library, chequered all over with steel wires seems like ‘a shadowy door leading to a different world.’ She imagines that the moment the door opens she would see ‘Urvashi dancing to the sound of her own anklet bells.’ The reference to Urvashi, is a very early instance of Ambai’s strong cultural grounding despite her modern themes and techniques. She uses the allusion to put across effectively the sense of eager anticipation that the narrator feels as she is about to enter a lost and forgotten world through the writings of the neglected women authors. It is significant that in this world Urvashi doesn’t dance to anybody else’s tunes but to the tune of her own anklet bells, for her own pleasure. The personification of books continues in their description as ‘lying on their backs, their tongues hanging out … sometimes the spine of the book was broken by its own weight. If you touched it there, you heard a sudden snap.’ It is evident that the books the researcher is seeking belong to a period very far back in time. They have yellowed with age and also disuse and are crumbling to pieces. Her interest in them, however, is a step towards bringing them back to life -- something that the library staff has been trying to do on a more literal level.

The reference to Ahalia at this point is another excellent example of how Ambai is able to weave mythical allusions into a modern narrative and yet keep the relevance intact. ‘Each book that was stroked and awakened to life was a very Ahalia,’ writes the narrator yet concludes with a pensive question ‘But which epic was there that recorded its history?’ The touch of Ram had resurrected Ahalia and the narrator seeks to do the same for the old books that she strokes. Notice the emphasis on touch that recreates, resurrects, and brings back to life. It is begun here and will carry on throughout the narrative. Yet, unlike Ahalia’s history that was recorded in an epic there was no such epic to record the history of these books seeking a similar resurrection. Also, unlike Ahalia, these books face annihilation as they are about to be burnt down than be restored to life as the conclusion of the story indicates. In this context a cross reference comes to mind that has also been pointed out in the annotations to the story in the suggested Anthology. In Pudamani Pittan’s short story Sabo Vimochanam there is a retelling of the legend of Ahalia’s resurrection but with a difference. In the story Ahalia chooses to turn into stone again voluntarily when she learns of Sita’s trial by fire to prove her purity and chastity. An act, which has traditionally upheld the divinity of Ram and by extension, has also upheld the supremacy of the patriarch, is questioned and rejected. What is highlighted in Pittan’s story is man’s inhumanity and injustice that forces his Ahalia to reject life. In Ambai’s ‘Squirrel’ a similarly callous attitude is iterated gleefully by the male librarian banishes these women’s writings to a death by fire. This is the ‘suggested retelling’ of myth in Ambai’s stories that Lakshmi Holmstrom has talked about.

  •     The Squirrel’s Entry into the Literal and Metaphorical Worlds

As the narrative progresses we are taken into the library through a factual description of the same but what you need to notice in the next few paragraphs is the emphasis that Ambai places on the physical sensation of touch which immediately establishes a connection between things and people. Here the connection is between the narrator and the books on the literal level and between past and present on the metaphorical level. And not just any past but that past which has shaped the present consciousness. The narrator tries to hold down the pages of a book, which were rustling through a sudden gust of wind. As she puts her hand on the cover ‘the trembling of the leaves passed into [her].’ At this point the squirrel enters the narrative and the factual world of the library. At first the narrator refers to the squirrel merely as ‘it’ thus raising our curiosity which is satisfied only a few lines later when we are told that this ‘it’ is a squirrel. The food imagery comes into play again as this squirrel has a special liking for the glue that has been used to paste together the pages of these old and crumbling books. A squirrel is very selective in its food habits and the fact that it has chosen to eat the paste only on the books of these women writers seems to indicate to the narrator the squirrel’s inexplicable preference for these writers. This in turn immediately establishes a connection between the two in the narrator’s imagination. Thus the squirrel enters the narrator’s metaphorical world as well and becomes her companion in her journey into the past in her quest for her historical self.

  •     The Past Resurrected/Surreal Techniques

It is interesting how Ambai chooses to resurrect the past for us by the manner in which the narrator refers to these women writers and their works. Names of books, journals, and magazines and also names of writers are recalled with a sense of the narrator forging a relationship with all of them. She admonishes the squirrel not to eat the paste on a particular book:

 ‘That’s Chintamani, the women’s journal that Balammal ran. That faded picture at the back that’s she in a nine-yard sari.

My relationship with her has only just begun. We have not yet conversed with each other. I don’t as yet know everything about her, only that she was not all that fond of Vai Mu Ko.’

The squirrel takes one look at Balammal and runs away. Two things have happened here. We have taken a step into the past with references to Balammal and Vai Mu Ko, two women writers who were also founder editors of two respective journals. Both these journals were geared towards improving the lot of women by highlighting their problems. But the names have been mentioned in such a manner that it almost seems they have stepped out from the past and become part of the present world and the narrator is now eager to begin her relationship with them. The dream and the reality coalesce to an extent that distinctions are removed and the two become one. It is a surreal experience where dream images superimpose on reality and take the narrator into the forgotten world of these women writers from whom she wishes to understand her present- self. The sensation of touch is emphasized once again as the narrator moves from one end of the open shelves to the other ‘touching the books. Establishing a relationship.’

The narrator becomes a participant in the events she reads and thus bonds intellectually with the women writers who wrote about those events and also with the women who appeared in them. Notice how Ambai once again weaves in a mythical allusion and gives it a humorous touch when she refers to a whole generation of writers descending into her stomach as she swallows a speck of dust that flew from the books displaying Rani Victoria Kummi. She feels that if Yasoda had cared to look into her mouth now she would have seen a Victoria Kummi instead of the universe she saw in baby Krishna’s mouth. The oblique reference to Krishna carries the allusion still further in a witty, ironical way. Krishna had preached to Arjun ‘to be like water on a lotus leaf, detached.’ From the detached manner of the library staff it seems to the narrator as though Krishna had preached the same sermon as soon as this library was set up. ‘Nothing that the library contained touched anyone who was working there.’ They seem to be more interested in their knee-high stainless steel tiffin carriers. The food imagery resurfaces to highlight the difference in the appetite of the library staff and that of the narrator. The former is interested only in food while the latter has a voracious appetite for the wealth of information the books contain about a neglected and forgotten world.

  •     Plurality of Perspectives

The difference between the attitudes of the library staff and the narrator should also draw your attention to the fact that the story is employing more than one perspective and therefore has a plurality of voices and narrative. One of these perspectives is that of the librarian and the other of the library staff and both are rooted in factual reality. Their narrative intersects the interior reflections of the narrator and we re-enter the factual world through their talk of food. In this exchange, however, two things are noticeable which proves that this is not just a comic interlude. The librarian, who is the only male character in the story, seems to be a husband oppressed by a dictatorial wife who decides what he should eat and what not. He longs to be free and eat as much as he wants. Thus he wishes to be born a woman taking his cue from the female members of his staff who celebrate their existence by enjoying their food without any restrictions. There is a strong hint here of the wife’s area of control operating through the kitchen but is it merely a case of reversed roles? Do we have here for a change a female oppressor and a suppressed male? Our doubts are soon dispelled when we witness the manner in which the librarian exercises his control over the women staff of his library: ‘“Get on with your work. Five lakhs of books are waiting to be catalogued. That’s enough about minced meat and husbands who grind spices.” ’ His disparaging comments on the books so cherished and desired by the narrator also throw the prejudiced male attitude into high relief: ‘“… This is all rubbish, madam, rubbish. These are just women’s books madam. Do you want them?”’ The librarian thus becomes a symbol of not just the male oppressor but also embodies in him the attitude that the patriarchal society adopts towards women and their writing. 

  •     Role of the Squirrel

The ‘kwik kwik’ of the squirrel ends this interlude with reality and draws the narrator back into her dream world. Notice how effortlessly the squirrel becomes a bridge between dream and reality, between past and present, taking the narrator from one to the other. The squirrel’s role in the narrative recalls its mythical relevance where it had played its part in helping Ram to build a bridge from Rameswaram to Lanka. The narrator recalls this allusion but does not hope for any miracles to happen in the current context. Despite her reservation a miracle does happen as soon as the librarian begins to throw down the books on the top shelves to her. Penmadhi BodhiniJagan Mohini and many others come crashing down bringing with them the world that had been forced into oblivion.

  •     Feminist Concerns

As the narrator touches the spine of an old mended nineteenth century book, ‘an ecstatic tremor rose from the soles of [her] feet and passed through [her] like an orgasm.’ As she bonds with these women writers and their works on an intellectual level, Ambai chooses to describe the asexual experience in sexual terms. Ismat Chughtai had talked about sexual bonding between women. In ‘Squirrel’ Ambai talks about intellectual bonding but sees it to be as much a deliberate and conscious act as entering into a lesbian relationship. Ambai once stated in an interview that ‘rejecting a sexual relationship with a man in a patriarchy and entering into a relationship with another woman is definitely a political decision.’ The narrator’s decision in ‘Squirrel’ to study neglected women writers is an equally political decision and so Ambai chooses to convey it through a sexual metaphor which indicates the completeness of the bond that her narrator has established with forgotten women writers.

The story is dominated by feminist concerns in more ways than one. The need for women to communicate and bond with one another is emphasized through the narrator’s efforts. At the same time the incidents that she relives through her reading of them in the women’s writings, highlights the suppression of women. There is the actual case of the tonsuring of a young widow after her death because only then can last rites be performed on her. Or the young Bengali girl who prefers to die rather than have her parents become homeless for the sake of marrying her. There is the deserted wife who jumps into the well along with her children. The narrator relives all these experiences, thus strengthening the bond she has with these women simply in the fact of being a woman herself. This is the past that has shaped her present consciousness. Each experience is a seen and felt experience. Ambai has illustrated in her fiction what she has advocated as a critic. The characters walk out of the pages of these books, not literally but metaphorically, indicating how deeply their experience is felt by the narrator to become a part of her own experiential self. In all of this the squirrel remains her only companion and her only link with the real world.

  •     Resurrection vs Annhilation

In the real world there are different issues altogether that are preoccupying the minds of the staff. The librarian, for instance, has an endless exercise going on for requisition of string for use in the library. This is a whole world removed from the ‘magical string’, which links the narrator to the woman writers and their books. The squirrel, by eating the paste on these books has devoured some of the experience of that world which the narrator shares with them. Thus it has become her companion in her world of illusion. At this point the harsh reality intrudes and intersects the interior reflections of the narrator. The librarian informs her of the government’s decision to burn the books: ‘“It’s very expensive to mend and repair all this. Not many people read them either. Perhaps one or two like you.” ’ Market forces conditioned by the male attitude thus banish a whole generation of women writers into oblivion. The Ahalia’s face annihilation even before they could be resurrected. Many voices are silenced. The narrator’s imagination already sees the fire spreading like a funeral pyre but ‘the squirrel lies prostate in front of the window, its four legs spread out, in an attitude of surrender.’ It is no longer satisfying its hunger. The food imagery that has run like a refrain through the whole story now culminates in an image of self-denial. The window facing north is significant and at the same time it is a culture specific reference. In Tamil culture a dying person is made to face the north direction. Here it is the squirrel that seems to have committed vadakkiruttal, a ritual of fasting unto death, facing the north direction and is done in protest or in sorrow. The case here seems to be both. The squirrel fast unto death also aptly images the fate of the books which have been condemned before they could even be brought back to life by readers like our researcher narrator.

  •     Themes and Style

The themes of the story thus emerge as operating on a pattern of opposites such as resurrection versus annihilation, hunger versus self-denial, past versus present. It works on three levels: the narrator and her world of interior monologue; the library staff and their world of mundane reality and thirdly the world of dreams in which surrealist images superimpose on reality. This makes for a plurality of voices and a mixture of narrative sequences making ‘Squirrel’ a story that is postmodern in technique. The narrator remains unnamed but is characterized as an academic, a researcher who is urban, educated, independent, reflective, determined to unearth and to understand. One who observes and analyses.

  •     Autobiographical Relevance

For years Ambai herself had been engaged in a process similar to what the researcher-narrator of ‘Squirrel’ is shown to be doing. The germ of the story therefore lies in real life experience. There are obvious connections and similarities between what her findings were at the end of her research as C.S.Lakshmi and what she is expressing as Ambai in ‘Squirrel.’ Ambai was able to resurrect lost and forgotten Tamil women writers in her book The Face Behind the Mask. It was while researching that Ambai came to realize with increasing urgency the need for the women of the world to bond with one another, to communicate with one another in order to arrive at some understanding of their historical selves. She implored women writers to write the truth, to have the courage to write the truth, to strive at discovering their true identities as persons rather than be subsumed in the roles of mother, wife, and daughter.

For expressing one’s real self Ambai felt the need to forge a new language. In her opinion, ‘to arrive at this language would mean a search and the search would be for one’s historical self and one’s society out of which the language would be created. Such a search would involve a journey into the historical past and present that has created the present historical self.’ The narrator of ‘Squirrel’ undertakes just such a journey when she goes researching women’s writings in the musty shelves of the dingy library. Those writings which had been gathering dust on the top-most racks because no one ever inquired for them and no one ever read them for they were after all simply women’s writings which talked of women’s concerns.

  •     What ‘Writing’ Should Involve

The story becomes a reflection on the activity of writing itself as the narrator enters this world of books by women authors. Writing should lead us to self realization and liberate us from identities yoked to traditionally held beliefs and concepts. A simple exploration of women’s writings in the past helps the narrator to historicize her self and arrive at an understanding of her present self through her ability to bond intellectually with the women she reads about. Through a dexterous use of cultural allusions, of surrealist images and dream impressions, Ambai makes the past come alive for us. The dividing line between dream and reality collapses so that past and present seem to become one. She is able to ‘see the experience’ as she reads about it - something that Ambai has advocated in her critical writings. Ambai’s essay ‘Dealing with silence, space and everyday life’ is an important orientation for understanding what she is attempting to do in her stories. Her desire to find ways of communicating that which has not been able to be voiced before is uppermost in her stories. She translates that silence into words and images and succeeds in communicating the same. For the same reason she places an emphasis on the importance of physical touch which too becomes a means for communication for then we not only see but also feelthe experience of others. If we are to understand who we are as gendered and historical beings then it is imperative that we should be able to see and feel the experience of others like us. This is what her narrator in ‘Squirrel’ achieves just as Rosa, the protagonist of a later story does in ‘The Black Horse Square.’ This in turn ultimately leads to an understanding of the present historical self which says Ambai should be the ultimate aim of the activity of writing. 

A cultural exploration becomes a self-exploration as well. The same is achieved because the story works on the literal as well as the metaphorical level. In addition it draws upon various cultural and mythical allusions to make its point. The mythical references are not used to reinforce traditional concepts. Rather there is a reinterpretation of these myths in the current context. Thus Ahalia might have been resurrected through the touch of Ram but the narrator’s touch only briefly breathes life into the neglected authors and ultimately has to let them perish under the official decree.