The eve of International Women’s Day saw people gather at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in Delhi to celebrate the life and work of Dr C S Lakshmi, who writes under the pseudonym Ambai. The Tamil feminist writer and historian is the recipient of the Hutch-Crossword award, Pudumaipiththan memorial lifetime achievement award, the Lifetime Literary Achievement Award of Tamil Literary Garden and the Kalaignyar Mu Karunanidhi Porkizi award for fiction.
In conversation with editor and publisher Karthika VK, Ambai spoke fondly of her girlhood and her family. “I often slept with a book by my side, instead of a toy,” she says, fondly recollecting how her house was sprawling with hard-bound books. “There were only two ways to get out of the house — either by getting married or by pursuing higher education, and I chose the latter, of course,” she adds. Her father did not approve of her choice because he knew that once the bird eaves the nest, she’ll never come back home. “And he was right!,” exclaims Ambai, “I never looked back.”
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It all began in 1953, when Ambai was nine-years-old she read a novel that had a deep impact on her. In the story she read, she encountered a Chennai-based, educated woman whose husband constantly ridiculed her intellectual capabilities. At one point he asked her to go back home because he couldn’t live with a woman who was so intellectually inferior to him. So she went back home and became a teacher and started writing, under the name of Ambai. After she became famous, she returned to Chennai,only to find her husband bereft, having lost his job. She took him in and eventually he gets a job; following which he asks her to quit writing so that they can go back to their old life. She doesn’t say anything but writes him a letter saying that now that he has a job, she would leave him and never go back to their old life. “So when I started writing, I had to pay tribute to Ambai, and hence the pen-name,” says Ambai, who has always resorted to short stories as her favoured form of writing. “Novel writing is quite difficult for me,” she says.
Her stories have been translated in two volumes — A Purple Sea and In a Forest, A Deer but the writer finds it hard to accept the politics of translation and says she will always speak up against it. “When Indian language stories are translated to English, it is assumed that it will only serve a Western audience. So they program it to represent Indian culture and in the process, many words gets lost in translation. I have a fear of people who say that the author is dead. I refuse to be an author who dies. I will always have problems with my translators,” she says.
Currently the director of SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women), Ambai is also the series editor of five volumes of translations of 87 writers from 23 languages of India. Her organisation aims to educate the masses about the politics of family and religion, topics which more often than not are excluded from textbooks. “It is very important for women to have a sound knowledge of their histories. Unless one knows women’s history, how are they expected to make policies governing them?” she says.
Often women, like Ambai’s mother, are fierce feminists without knowing what feminism is all about. “They pretend to act and live in a traditional context, but are constantly breaking rules,” she said, recollecting the time her mother challenged the priests when they refused to let her see her husband’s body burn after he passed away. She reiterates the need for knowledge of women’s histories and the importance of oral histories in that context. “Learning to listen is a big anchor project for us, for the person who speaks might forget what they said, but the listener does not,” she adds.
Ambai’s latest venture is a project that revolves around women and religion. “It is an important area of focus because earlier we didn’t know how to deal with women who believed in rituals, and not as a tool to oppress others. This project is inspired by spirituality and Bhakti literature,” says Ambai.
The discussion at IHC was followed by a performance of Ambai’s play “Crossing the Rivers”presented by Natyadharmi Theater group and directed by KS Rajendran.