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Life and death in Ambai’s 2021 Sahitya Akademi award winner

The Tamil original of A Red-necked Green Bird, which won the Sahitya Akademi award 2021, rejects binaries for a richer experience of life

Author C.S. Lakshmi, who writes as Ambai.
Author C.S. Lakshmi, who writes as Ambai. (Screenshot via India Habitat Centre Lodhi Road, on YouTube)

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Make no mistake, this is a book about Life although the stories may seem to dwell upon Death. In Ambai’s A Red-necked Green Bird death is not in opposition to life, but in continuity with it.

Translated into English by GJV Prasad, the book originally in Tamil as Civuappuk Kazuttu Tan Oru Paccaip Paravai, was announced today as one of the winners of the Sahitya Akademi Award 2021.

In the collection, the characters, both human and otherwise, may have either left this plane or may belong in another plane of existence; however, they continually reach out from these parallel universes touching our physical world. She uses consciousness, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, mythology as lenses to view the inexplicable, almost mystical aspects of life. Although certain dimensions may seem irrational or incomprehensible, the tenderness and compassion of the telling makes them completely valid.

Stories such as the one of the crow with the swollen throat whose penchant for fresh food reminds the protagonist of her father’s yearning for food, despite his throat cancer; or the one about Mumbai city, where people, especially struggling women who have made it their home, repeatedly arise phoenix-like, much like the city itself, all weave together an intricate tapestry of the interconnectedness of life, death, memory, rituals and cultural consciousness.

We meet protagonists like the dancer Kammumma who walks out of an incompatible marriage while heavily pregnant to live with a younger mridangam artist, sharing with him a love that “ungendered each other”; the widow, Shanti, who walks into a new relationship with a younger man, Nandu, two years after her beloved husband Arun’s death. There’s Shanti, living and loving against society’s, and her own apparently progressive but deviously conservative children’s expectation, who is defiant at a stage of life when defiance in women is unacceptable. By quietly wresting agency, she preserves dignity. We also watch helplessly as the ageing, grieving, widowed Kamala comes to a decision, following a double heartbreak – the death of her husband but equally the callousness of the son’s decision-making in the process. Suicide, she decides with unflappable rationality, is to die with dignity – to die on her own terms as much as to live on her own terms. Her last wish is that her spine survives the fall and remains intact if only to teach her son the strength of people, especially women.

A Red-necked Green Bird by Ambai, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; Simon and Schuster India; 201 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399/-
A Red-necked Green Bird by Ambai, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; Simon and Schuster India; 201 pages, 399/-

As is evident, Ambai’s feminist credentials need not be laboured. She does not reject the “other” or rest on binaries and oppositions in order to corroborate it. There is generosity and space for flawed individuals and always the possibility of redemption. Her male protagonists, (yes, there are a couple) like the protagonist from ‘The Pond’ and Achyut are feminists in their own right, not just allies. Other men too Rajappa, Vasanth, Nikhil, Arun or Nandu may have their shortcomings but, they are neither chauvinists nor misogynists. We hear echoes from Simone de Beauvoir to Donna Harraway, as Ambai intertwines contemporary history, geography, psychoanalysis, politics, resistance poetry and ballads while also referencing parallels in myths and science fiction. She even dwells upon the destruction of nature and the native but also the creation of magnificent, dreamlike cities where new forms of creativity emerge through industrialisation, modernity, and technological fantasies.

The collection of stories here seems to confirm that if we can accept that life is not oppositional, and that meaning-making does not have to be in binaries, then perhaps we might see that a richer experience of life is possible. Finally, a quick word about the ubiquitous strains of music. The stories are suffused with music of various genres – contemporary, popular, Bollywood, old Tamil film music as well as sterner Carnatic music with its complex ragas, creating a mood and backdrop against which her characters live their lives even if they may be falling to their death.

Prasad, also a writer and poet, appears to have internalised Ambai’s metaphor of translation as preparing the soil to nourish the original seed. Like a savvy gardener, he retains just enough of the original soil – the use of Tamil words and words, verses, as well as songs from other Indian languages – for the seed to feel the comfort of familiarity to grow and blossom.

It is somewhat serendipitous that in a collection of short fiction translation, at least two of the stories — the title story, ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ and ‘The Lion’s Tail’ dwell on the concepts related to language and communication. While the former contemplates concepts such as hearing, sound, speech and communication, the latter delves into translation or even perhaps the inadequacy of language necessitating the creation of new words for new realities.

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