March 30, 2020
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Tribute to a remarkable writer

Ambai Novellas & Essays, Edited
By Gita Krishnankutty
Katha Perspectives Rs 200, Pages: 127
A few years ago, a collection of excellent stories translated from Tamil, called The Purple Sea, was my introduction to this remarkable writer who prefers to write her fiction in Tamil, which she calls the language of her dreams and images. Then an encounter at a seminar revealed her to be a passionate and articulate feminist, perfectly at ease in English as well.

Katha has now brought out a collection of two novellas by her as well as an essay she has written on women and literature, with a brilliant introduction to Ambai's literary oeuvre by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Although the volume contains stories by three other Tamil writers, translated with the competence and sensitivity that is now a Katha hallmark, the volume belongs to Ambai. Both her novellas, Wrestling and Unpublished Manuscript, are the kind of writing one rarely encounters outside the regional languages. Both deal with unspoken pain, both with women who are highly intelligent but locked within a frozen silence. In both these novellas, Ambai traces the familiar pain of a failed marriage and the price of feminine independence. Wrestling has a heroine who is forced to hide her talent in order to promote her husband's career while Unpublished Manuscript records the pain of a single mother, forced to leave her beloved hometown to get away from an abusive and jealous husband.

What gives Ambai's writing such strength is her clever use of the past and present which helps overcome the simplification of feminine pain, so central to her work. Used as a bifocal device, this gives her a diving board to make interesting leaps: the past comes in rich images and colour, the present's studied in black and white. This balance is further worked into the narrative pace: the past has leisurely cadences, the present is urgent and relentless. When space and silence are tackled in English writing, they often carry the burden of western feminist cliches. In Ambai's Tamil cadences, they acquire a terrifying power to see into the innermost depths of a woman's pain.

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