Ambai | Feminist without compromise

The 79-year-old writer, who won the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award, is seen as the first feminist writer of Tamil, who perpetually challenged the gender order

Updated - October 10, 2023 04:53 pm IST

Published - October 08, 2023 02:22 am IST

Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi)

Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

In ‘A Love Story with a Sad Ending’, the inaugural story of Ambai’s A Night with a Black Spider: Stories (2017), the demon Mahishan is smitten with Devi, who will kill him. He sends his ministers to her, with overtures of love, hoping to win her over, and she responds: “Since she was valorous, she said she was a man, and since Mahishan was speaking of love, he was feminine.” And then, the writer chimes in, with the precise sort of comment that faithful readers have come to expect of her: “In speaking thus, she spoke within the existing parameters of feminine and masculine. If she was a combination of feminine and masculine qualities, why could he too not be a combination of the masculine and feminine?”

C.S. Lakshmi, the pseudonymous Ambai, who has been writing since she was 16, and is 79 this year, has a body of feminist writing in Tamil that rivals no other. Last week, she was named the recipient of the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award that recognises and salutes sustained and outstanding contribution to writing and literature in India. On Saturday, she also was recognised with the Shakti Bhatt Body of Work prize. The Sahitya Akademi award came in 2021.

The Tamil publishing world believes Ambai to be the language’s first (and abiding) feminist writer, constantly challenging social gender normatives and sometimes, rewriting them. Kannan Sundaram, publisher of Kalachuvadu Publications, recalls his decades-long association with Ambai, and her work over 63 years. “I’d consider Ambai (whom I have known since I was 7 or 8 years old) the first feminist writer of Tamil. There are other writers who had feminist elements in their writing, but I think Ambai was a feminist through and through — in her life and work and activism,” he says. As the writer herself puts it: “I lived as a feminist without compromise.”

Ambai was born in Tamil Nadu in 1944, and secured a Ph D from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She started writing in the 1960s and through the 1970s and the 1980s as the only feminist writer in Tamil. She had to face the flak from the literary world, then predominantly upper class and male. “She bore the heat over two long decades, there was so much trash talk and belittling, comments. Nevertheless, she carried on, steadfastly, until the 90s maybe, when she had some company among feminist writers,” Mr. Sundaram explains.

Wider audience

The inimitable Lakshmi Holmstrom translated her works for the world outside the Tamil tongue. In fact, Mr. Sundaram points out, other than Perumal Murugan, Ambai is perhaps the only other Tamil writer to have their entire oeuvre translated into English. Thanks to the translations, a larger world came to be introduced to her writings, the world of her characters, the spaces they inhabit, their lingo, their peculiar situations in life, the quotidian, always enlightened with perspective, and sometimes, an invariably sharp tongue. Ambai herself, reportedly, famously, told one of her editors of an anthology with ill-concealed annoyance at the typical slotting of women writers: there is no need to specify that I am a woman writer.

She had a range of characters, well fleshed out within the short confines of the format she loved, knew well, and cherished — the short story. Be it the love-lorn demon Mahishan or Thangam Athai who never ‘blossomed’ as a woman, the daughter-in-law Minakshi who seeks an extension of the kitchen, even the intrepid investigator Sudha Gupta, her characters are flesh and blood; the women may have agency or not, but there’s an underpinning of quiet rebellion, understanding of social structure, a tacit agreement with feminist thought, and repeatedly, they question the gender order.

Ambai’s SPARROW is another achievement. In 1988, she founded the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, to document and archive the works of women writers and artists, a rare and niche collection that has several manuscripts. Those treasures that might have otherwise been lost to humanity will now endure.

As for her writing, one can only hope she will keep the promise she made in the foreword to A Night with a Black Spider: “…my stories are not done. There will be another collection that comes out soon holding onto the tail of this one. Then another one holding to the tail of that one.”

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