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Who is Kamumma and why Ambai centres her new short-story collection around urban women

'A Red-necked Green Bird' turns the page on social cliches and individual histories

Written by Amrith Lal |
Updated: July 18, 2021 8:21:18 am
A Red-necked Green BirdA Red-necked Green Bird by Ambai (Translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad), Simon and Schuster, 200 pages

A Red-necked Green Bird is a collection of 13 stories by Ambai (CS Lakshmi), translated exceptionally well from Tamil into English by GJV Prasad. These stories are like short, elegant musical compositions that speak straight to the heart. Told with minimum embellishments and stylistic flourishes, the bhava is maintained throughout. Reading them is like listening to a master, for instance Palakkad K V Narayanaswamy, singing a Tyagaraja composition – calm and unobtrusive but leaving behind a sense of the profound. There is an inner aesthetic in these stories that is very political and responds to the immediate. This politics also gives a distinct gendered edge to the stories.

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A generic feature of this collection is that the stories are told from the perspective of an urban woman protagonist. Ambai’s women are exceptionally strong and compassionate characters, who refuse to bend to societal common sense. They stand their ground in the face of adversities and exercise agency, but not without engaging or negotiating with the other views.

Kamumma in “Journey 21” is one such character. A Bharatanatyam artiste, she broke conventions and shocked the conservatives to dance “as she desired”. She walked out of her marriage when she was three months pregnant because her upper-class husband insisted that she stop dancing on stage. She lived outside marriage with her guru’s son, a mridangam artiste who was five years younger to her. She created a dance drama on Gandhi and wore Khadi, but refused to be a teetotaller. She danced to the verses of Purandaradasa, Basavanna and Akka Mahadevi, but remained an atheist. Late in her life, she asks her daughter, Ananya, to find out what happened to an autobiographical monograph she wrote for a government institution. “Will you go once and find out what happened? Did I write for it to be burnt?” She asks. Ananya discovers that the godown – “a python that had swallowed everything” – was overrun with forgotten histories of communal riots, stories of artistes from marginalised performing communities, Adivasis, protests and so on. The godown, and Kamumma’s own story, becomes a metaphor of our fraught times, where inconvenient truth waits for “an encounter with either the termites or the fire”.

“A Red-necked Green Bird”, the title story, is almost a novella, of journeys, discoveries and relationships. It moves through the lives of Vasanthan and Mythili and the dissonance in their life when they discover that their foster daughter, Thenmozhi, is hearing-impaired. Unable to accept Thenmozhi’s preference for a world without sound, Vasanthan leaves home. A shocked Mythili and Thenmozhi, now grown up, locate him in his exile but decide not to confront or persuade him to return. The two women accept his decision to leave them. The postscript, a letter from Thenmozhi, says: “Language is communication. It can happen without sound.” The remark stands out since the story is narrated in the manner of a musician revealing the raga and bhava of a song – little incidents in the lives of the characters are recalled, like notes of a song, through conversations, to build the edifice and invoke the mood.

In her introduction, “Stories and Me”, Ambai speaks about her stories as slices of life seen through a window – “an opening to see the outer world from within”. “I have seen the world through so many windows, and continue to do so… bus windows when I am travelling, train windows, the world that spreads out outside plane windows… The windows in small and big temples, in various geometrical shapes, that caused the sunlight to fall on the ground in the same shapes… the stained glass windows in churches – through many such windows the world had displayed itself to me in small fragments or large scenes in various ways at many times. That world continues to fall on my mind like sunlight in geometric shapes falling on the ground. I am confused whether what are born from it are stories or various forms of myself.” The window opens into the busy crowded world of Mumbai where people are mostly lonely. The city – and its Tamil subculture – is an unobtrusive, and often a calming, presence, and adds to the life-affirming sentiment that pervades these stories.

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