I don’t like to be defined and categorized: Tamil writer Ambai at TNM

TNM spoke with the Mumbai-based Tamil feminist author who won the 2021 Sahitya Akademi Award for her short story collection “Sivappu Kazhutthudan Oru Patchaiparavai”.

Tamil feminist author based in Mumbai, Ambai, recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2021 for her collection of short stories Sivappu Kazhutthudan Oru Patchaiparavai (A green bird with a red neck). The news is a breath of fresh air for Tamil writers everywhere, as Ambai is only the fourth female Tamil writer to win the award.

In an exclusive interview with The News Minute, Ambai is warm, quick to smile and goes out of his way to make the interviewer feel comfortable.

The writer discreetly entered the literary scene in the 1960s with an adventure novel for children. She then began to write in popular magazines and later in literary magazines. She writes in Tamil and English. Over the years, she has written short stories and essays, both equally insightful. Like some of the extraordinary female Tamil writers before her, she also created very different female characters in a language all her own.

My first question to Ambai brought out his famous sense of humor a bit. When asked if the award would help shape her songwriting, she replied, “At 77, I don’t know how much I need more shape! Also, awards can never shape or help you as a writer. It may grab your attention for a while, but won’t really help you creatively.

“As a writer at 77 and with COVID around, it’s unclear how much of a writing career is left,” she added.

Is she a recluse? “I don’t like giving interviews to people who haven’t read me. I’m not a recluse, just someone who doesn’t like to be defined and categorized,” she said.

Then she spoke of her fellowship with other feminist writers. “The feminist movement has spread in many ways. The same groups no longer exist now, we have all taken up different activities. But the feeling of brotherhood remained, even though we operate in different ways in different areas,” she said.

“I am delighted with poetry written in Tamil, even if sometimes I am not able to understand it or respond to it immediately. That they’re written with passion and not just as some kind of writing template is a very good sign,” Ambai said.

When asked to counter the claim that his earlier writings held up better to scrutiny, Ambai said, “I think a writer should never defend what he writes. Once it is in the public sphere, it will be received in many ways,” she said. “And how would you want me to counter that, if not by saying that these stories are as good as the previous ones? It will be a pretty ridiculous thing to do,” she added.

“With each story or collection, we move towards a different field of expression. It is not always possible to identify exactly where it is moving. Life is too subtle and you cannot immediately know what is going on or where you are standing,” she said.

Does she expect her latest collection of short stories to do better than her previous works? “My editor has to take care of it. I have nothing to do with the marketing side. If the publisher takes advantage of it, I’m happy. Kalachuvadu has been posting me for so many years, it’s time they cashed in,” she said.

Congratulating Ambai, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publications said, “We bought the full rights to publish Ambai 20 years ago. She totally deserves the award. Among the books published by Kalachuvadu, it is only the second to win the Sahitya Akademi. “Award or not, publishing Ambai is always an honor,” Kannan added.

Sukumaran, editor of Kalachuvadu, told me that Ambai was among the first in Tamil literature to give a strong voice to women. “Ambai was part of the feminist movement of the 1960s, which had the United States as its epicenter. In Europe, writers like Simone de Beauvoir were making rapid progress in feminist theory. Ambai did this primarily via short stories,” he said.

Ambai said short stories continue to be her preferred format as she is able to express herself better. Has she written any novels? Or was it just, as Sukumaran said, long news? “Are you saying my long stories are just long stories? Maybe they are. Why not?” she shot back.

Ambai has lived in Mumbai for many years. “I love Mumbai more than any other city. It has a life and an energy that other cities don’t have,” she explained her love for the city.

Sukumaran explained the importance of price in today’s environment. “Other female authors in the 1960s were writing stories that generally revolved around family, which reinforced the status quo. Women were confined to the kitchen. They had to listen to their husbands. They had to stay within the limits imposed by their families,” he said.

“Women have rarely written a story from a woman’s point of view. Lakshmi, Anuthama, Komakal…reduced the woman to a doll,” Sukumaran said. “In my opinion, the first Tamil writer to show that woman has her needs and her own life was Ambai. She was one of the first to challenge the status quo,” he added.

“She created a human arena in which women had a place. Many people may have read Suryan. It was among Ambai’s earliest works. It was written from a female perspective, in the context of the Vietnam War. Such stories were unusual and Ambai was among the first to come up with such innovative works,” Sukumaran said.

Saying that Ambai is constantly getting younger and fresher as a writer, he said, “She is a writer who has questioned herself in the 50 years she has been writing. She didn’t limit herself to writing. She is a virulent critic of the patriarchy at the ideological level. Through her articles and essays, she wrote poignantly about feminism,” he said.

Sukumaran said it was surprising that the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Tamil has not yet been awarded to a Dalit woman. “No Tamil Dalit woman has won this award for writing quality literature. It hasn’t happened yet,” Sukumaran said.

Ambai, real name CS Lakshmi, is a historian and earned her doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Not only that, she has also done extensive research on women’s history and lives.

“SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women), managed by Ambai, is a meticulously curated record of women’s contribution to literary and social events. It is a record of oral history,” he said.

Among other honors, Ambai has won the Puthumaipithan Memorial Award from Vilakku Ilakkiya Amaippu, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Toronto, the M Karunanidhi Cash Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu, and an award from the Madras University.

His short story collections include A purple sea; In a forest, a deer; Fishing in a declining lake; A night with a black spider; and A Meeting on the Andheri Over Bridge. His non-fiction works include The face behind the mask; The singer and the song; and Mirrors and Gestures. From Sharmila’s collection of poems, Perfume of Peace, is in Tamil, thanks to Ambai.

Nandhu Sundaram lives in Medavakkam, a suburb of Chennai, with his wife and nine-year-old daughter. He deeply loves the city and wants to change it wherever he goes. He loves movies (all kinds), books and cricket. He also tries his hand at news.