A feminist Tamil writer explores the dreams and challenges of women’s lives.
Ambai (A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge, 2016, etc.), the pseudonym used by researcher and educator Dr. C.S. Lakshmi for her fiction, evokes in sensuous, vibrant prose the colors, flavors, and sounds of Indian life in a collection of 21 stories translated by Holmström. The clash between tradition and modernity, the embrace of family and the desire for independence, the lure of transgression and of nostalgia, and the fraught meaning of freedom: These recur as themes in many stories that examine a woman’s struggle to define her identity in changing times. In “Wheelchair,” for example, Hitha is frustrated in her relationship with a self-proclaimed political revolutionary. “There is no difference whatsoever between a revolutionary and any other man when it comes to treading upon women,” Hitha asserts. She is looking for love; he tells her that love is a bourgeois disease. She listens to love songs; he criticizes them as “sentimental nonsense.” She wants to be cherished and, at the same time, is seduced by the idea of freedom. In the charming tale “Parasakti and Others in a Plastic Box,” a woman living in America, devastated by her recent divorce, is visited by her mother, who carries with her several miniature idols in a plastic box. Cooking traditional dishes, singing Tamil songs, and befriending neighbors, she exudes warmth and solace for the daughter who feels disconnected from her past. For some women, journeys—meaningful, necessary, planned, or spontaneous—end in epiphany; others find contentment at home. The title story, for example, takes place in a kitchen that, Ambai stresses, “was not a place; it was essentially a set of beliefs” propagated by women who sit in the shadows, their heads covered, kneading dough or stirring fragrant spices into dal. Yet Ambai upends the image of oppression: The women who make food appear “as from a magic carpet” reign in their kingdom of the kitchen, where they shape their families’ lives.
Fresh, graceful stories create a palpable world.