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The language of (female) friendship is what we have left for the next generation

Tamil writer Ambai on writing detective fiction, why men come first in any literary history and the unacknowledged legacy of women’s lives.

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: November 13, 2016 12:02:10 am
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At first, the stories in A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge (Juggernaut, Rs 399) seem like a departure from your usual writing. But you’re actually using the tropes of detective fiction to delve into people’s lives.

I was interested in exploring the complexities of a city like Mumbai. People are always caught up in love or crime or in deciding what the future is going to be like. I thought it would be interesting to have stories with a woman private detective, who is doing routine detective work. It [provides] my character, Sudha Gupta, with many ways of looking at people’s lives.

Have you always been interested in detective stories?

I enjoy reading detective stories. Not crime thrillers as such, but there are certain stories which also have a lot of human elements. The detective fiction of Agatha Christie and even Arthur Conan Doyle, or Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler talk about the human frailties that lead to crime.

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Have you ever met a woman detective like Sudha Gupta?

No. I started writing these because in most of the stories I had read, the detective was always male. The Tamil stories were published in 2013. Just the previous year, I had published a book of the usual short stories, so when these stories came out, people were shocked. The magazine, which generally publishes my work, wondered whether to publish them at all. But I told them that all my life I have written stories without worrying about who reads them.

In an old interview, you spoke about your stories being rejected by magazines.

Yes, I never know who will read me. I don’t think I’m accepted fully even now. If a list of the best writers in Tamil is ever made, I wonder if I would figure on it.

Doesn’t that bother you?

Not at all. I enjoy doing what I do, and, maybe, some people enjoy reading me. But I do feel that in any literary history in any Indian language, only the male writers are cited first. Women are always also-rans. For example, a very well-known writer recently edited a big collection of Tamil stories of the last hundred years. In the introduction, he writes the history of Tamil literature decade by decade. In the section on the 1970s, he mentioned all my male contemporaries. Then, there’s one paragraph that says women also wrote. I objected to that. I said, you mention all my contemporaries, then you mention me with many other women writers, including one who wrote in the early 20th century. All of us women writers only belong to that small paragraph because we happen to be women.

Even when women writers are talked about, it’s almost always as “women writers”.

A very close friend published my second collection of stories, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House. It had four stories which, one could say, featured women protagonists. There were nine stories with no protagonists — one was a fable, another was about a river, another was about a fish. In the blurb, my friend wrote that the four stories are about women, and he called the other nine ‘experimental’. I told him you can’t say that I’m ‘experimenting’, because I’m not. I know exactly what I’m doing. And I’m not writing only about or for women. Just the previous year, he had brought out a collection of stories by an excellent male writer. All the protagonists were male, but, in the blurb, my friend wrote that these are stories about ‘life’. So when men write about men, it’s universal, but the same doesn’t apply for women writers who may write stories with women characters.

How does this affect the legacy of women in creative fields?

I don’t think the legacy that women leave behind will be taken seriously, unless women’s position in the family improves. When a senior male writer dies, it is possible that the family will create a library not just of his works, but also of the works he collected. Someone may institute an award in his name. But this hardly happens with women writers. I often wonder what happens when a woman artiste dies. What happens to the instrument a woman musician might have used? Is it given to a museum? Does the family take care of it? One of my great-aunts kept a diary almost all her life and when she died, they burned the diaries with her, except one that I was able to retrieve. Her diaries were not seen as important. Women themselves often didn’t see records of their lives as important.

With your work in Sparrow (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, Mumbai), you must have had many opportunities to rescue such records.

I still recall a Maharashtrian family approaching us when Sparrow had just been set up. A grandmother in the family had walked all the way from Burma to India and wanted to talk about the experience. So we interviewed her. Some people asked me what is so feminist about walking from Burma to India. I told them that the walk itself may not be feminist, but wanting to record that experience is.

Then, there was the time I interviewed senior Tamil writer Anuthama. She told me that she would like to give her private papers, letters and photographs to us. There was this one beautiful photograph of her sitting in the backyard and writing. Normally, when photos of male writers are taken, they’re always shown seated at a table. But that’s not necessarily the case with women.

Where women other than writers are concerned, I don’t think the things they leave behind are taken care of, unless, say, you’re the wife of Bimal Roy, in which case, your photos may go to the archives. The work of other women may not end up in raddi, but they might lie in a cupboard somewhere.

One senses that conversations are important to your fiction…

I like to talk to people. I find it very difficult to go past a person standing alone and crying. I have to ask if I can help. And I find that they’re always willing to talk. I think this is because in Mumbai, people don’t have the time to listen. So, if someone is willing to listen, people tell them things.

You embrace the label ‘feminist’. What do you have to say about the suspicion that it seems to attract?

When Dr Neera Desai (co-founder of Sparrow) published a book in 1952 on women in modern India, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay said the book is very well-researched, but that the author is a feminist (laughs). There’s always this feeling that feminism has come from abroad, and that it’s a bad word, associated with male bashing and bra-burning. But what I think is that we must go on despite these perceptions.

I no longer have the time to explain what feminism means. There’s also this notion that there is only one feminism; but there are ‘feminisms’. Different women from different backgrounds and cultures have put up resistance differently. But what it basically means is the right to lead your life the way you want, without anyone or any system degrading you as a person.

The depiction of the female bond is central to your stories. Could you talk about this?

In my mother’s generation, they did a lot for one another — like always being there to help deliver your cousin’s child or your sister-in-law’s child. Two older writers I knew, who wrote in the 1940s, Kumudini and Gugapriyai, were good friends and spent some time together every year. Women then didn’t have a language for that bond. But with my generation began the need to give this bond a language, to say that you care and that you need another woman’s friendship. I think this language of friendship is what we have left for the people of your generation.

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