Literary Review

Ambai talks about her new new book, a collection of detective stories

Ambai (C. S. Lakshmi) has a new book out. A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge (Juggernaut) is a collection of three longish short stories, translated by Gita Subramaniam. What marks the difference is that these are detective stories, all starring Sudha Gupta, Mumbai resident, mother of one, employer of one (Stella), wife of one (Naren). This marks quite a change from what one expects from Ambai. Excerpts from an interview:

The literary origins of the detective story go back right up to Oedipus Rex, we are told, where the king must find the sinner/ criminal who has transgressed the moral order. Is there a similar lineage in Tamil fiction?

I think all epics and classical texts contain mysteries, for life abounds with mysteries. Kovalan of Silappadhikaram is beheaded for a crime he did not commit. Kannagi comes to the court of the Pandyan king to prove that the queen’s anklet with pearls was not stolen by her husband. She dramatically breaks the anklet and rubies spill out. Then there is the mystery of whose son Karna really was in Mahabharata. There is the abduction of Sita in Ramayana and the search for her. And there is the mystery of who Lava and Kusa really are. The interesting thing is that no one is really a sinner or a criminal but everyone is caught up in the eddies and spates of life.

The formal demands of the short stories you generally write are quite different from the demands of form in the detective story. Did you find reconciling the two difficult?

The demands of form are different, but since I was not really writing a crime fiction in that sense I did not find it too difficult to tell a different story. Every story one writes demands a certain way of being told. Actually, I found it very interesting for I had to make sure I did not make any factual errors in small matters. For example, in ‘The Paperboat Maker’ a person has to be followed. He is in a car and is taking the Sea Link route while the person who is following him is on a motorbike. Motorbikes are not allowed on the Sea Link route. So I had to make him take the Tulsi Pipe Road and also roughly calculate the time it would take for him to take that road and follow the person after he gets out of the Sea Link route. These are small things but they matter. I have heard this about Marquez; I think he mentioned it in an interview. He wrote a story about a train and the crucial event in the story happens at a particular station. He gave the story to Fidel Castro to read and Castro told him it was an excellent story but that particular train did not stop at that station. For me, these things matter in all the stories I write. I make sure that I don’t talk of a tree in bloom when the story is happening in autumn. But in a story of this nature, such facts become crucial.

In your opinion, is literature a means to social change? There are many issues that your stories deal with — sexual abuse of children, the denial of women’s rights in old age.

I don’t think literature can lead to social change. Literature can touch upon issues that a particular author feels strongly about. I don’t think it can lead directly to any change. I think writers, like many others, are not creatures who can retain their righteous anger all the time. When Kiran Nagarkar gave a talk on Bedtime Story, he said something which I always recall. Talking about writers and how callous they can be, he said: “In truth, I had also become conscious of the fact that there is something worse than callousness, an outburst of righteous rage which subsides just as easily as it had risen.” It is wrong, I think, to think of writers as architects of society. They are as vulnerable or egoistic as anyone else. When I received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toronto-based Tamil Literary Garden group, I said in my acceptance speech that “literature’s seminal concern does not lie in its depiction of ‘truth’. Rather, its interests lie in the relationship that we have with what we perceive as truth. That the nature of this ‘truth’ is constantly altering in our life is the real truth. Literature is about giving a language to this experience, at times explicitly and at others, holding back.” The changes you want to see in society must be done through activities that can encompass literature but must go beyond it.

Sudha Gupta has a family that is kept well and truly in the background. Naren is a shadowy figure and her daughter has a walk-on part, represented by notes and comments in passing. Stella, on the other hand, is a well-developed person who even gets her own romance. I ask this because classical detective fiction generally presented the detective as without a family: Hercule Poirot has only Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon; Miss Marple is a spinster; Gervase Fen is a bachelor; both Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin seem to have no visible families; even Sherlock Holmes only has a shadowy and distant brother.

That is a good question. I normally like situations where women would be able to do many things within a familial situation, whether it is their marital family or parental family. I like to think that no extraordinary space is needed to do what you want. A woman who knows what she wants will know how to extract the space for that from within the family. “A room of one’s own” is a kind of a dream for both women and men, at least, in India. I grew up in a family which had no individual bedrooms and I am still in a house where I have to create space — sometimes fight for it! — to sit down and write. We can’t run away from a family to do the work we want. We must stay in a family, if necessary, and change the family as an institution. I have spoken of once attending a literary conference abroad where I was told that an Indian male writer had spoken poetically about how stories alighted on him like the morning birds that arrive when he opened the window. When asked to comment, I said that it’s a beautiful metaphor but one needs a window to open and the time to open it. Another male writer I know had once said that the gathering clouds in the sky had continuously beckoned him to write. Real life is devoid of such miracles. Most women, especially in India, must make the family the miraculous space to work from. Of course, they have the choice of remaining single but single women have families too, which many forget. Coming to Sudha Gupta, I felt the need to make her work seem as normal as any other work a woman may choose to do. I did not want her to be a lone hunter for she is not dealing with crime as such. As to her husband and even daughter, it is possible that they may emerge as full-fledged characters in future stories!

Jerry Pinto is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 6:32:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Ambai-talks-about-her-new-new-book-a-collection-of-detective-stories/article16440110.ece

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