Short Stories Books

Setting them free: Review of ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ by Ambai, trs G.J.V. Prasad

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Three images are central to the story ‘The Crow with a Swollen Throat’: the crow, food, and Carnatic music. All three, as ideas outside the story, are connected to different periods of our historical and social past. While the crow in Hindu philosophy symbolises our ancestors, food and music are associated with ritual and community. Within the story, the three are tied to various phases of the protagonist’s past — both suppressed and revoked — building a narrative of memory and forgetfulness.

Ambai’s collection of short stories, A Red-necked Green Bird, explores modernist concerns with its simultaneous rejection and invocation of the past. Psychologically candid, the stories capture the human mind in all its uncertainties. They tread paths of mythology-legend-philosophy (at the personal level as well) even as they have conversations with the present.

Life in metros, and all that comes with it — the real estate mafia, loneliness of old age — form the storyline of ‘In the City that Rises From Ashes’. It evokes a past of trade unions, mills, and then charts the emergence of the underworld, malls, five-star hotels, art galleries — all of which erase an entire way of life. Poems of the Dalit poet Narayan Surve, the folk music and dance form, lavani, and the legend of the burning down of Khandavaprastha to build Indraprastha make up rich strands of the story.

‘The Crow’ and ‘In the City’ sum up Ambai’s preoccupations, which range from the mythological to the social, drawing from each other. If the spiritual is part of the new social, then we get that too it in the titular story. Certainly among the best in the collection, this story follows the journey of Vasanthan towards spirituality. At the same time, Ambai builds a rich counter-narrative to spirituality in Mythili’s determination to hold on to the responsibilities of her home and child.

Ambai is deeply concerned about women, who are the protagonists of most of her stories. In her works, she has repeatedly sought to rescue them from conventional constructs. In this collection too, we find women in situations and experiences that portray them as they are. Bestowed the authenticity of experience, they are thus set free.

A Red-necked Green Bird; Ambai, trs G.J.V. Prasad, Simon & Schuster India, ₹399

deepa.ganesh@thehindu.co.in


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