Ambai, the pen name of CS Lakshmi, speaks with a broken voice. Her stories too are fragments of experiences, memories and journeys – but with a resonance that travels from the original Tamil into English with grace. Her books are noted for their feminism, which often results in her work pigeonholed by the Tamil literary establishment. Her latest work to be translated into English is the collection of short stories, A Night With A Black Spider. She has also spent 30 years at SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), which she founded. She spoke to about the reworking of mythology in her writing, the significance of journeys, the future of Tamil to English translations, and why she objects to being referred to as “a wonderful writer among women writers”.

Excerpts from an interview:

You’ve enjoyed a long and successful reception among readers both in Tamil and English, but have spoken often of your exclusion from the Tamil literary circuit. Can you tell us what being a woman writer in the 1970s and beyond in this arena was and is like?
I don’t think it is an exclusion as much as an attitude that does not make women part of Tamil literary history or makes them part of it in specific ways. I remember in the 1970s a friend of mine was writing the modern literary history of Tamil for a journal abroad. He gave it to me to read and I found not a single mention of any woman writer. When I asked him he was surprised and said, “But this is literary history. When we write specifically about women writers we will include women writers.” That is the way it is even now I would say. Women writers are generally seen as those who write family stories. Yes, women have written family stories but the stories have problematised the family as an institution and seen it as a site of struggle. Many women writers like Vindhiya, Rajam Krishnan, Anuthama and R Chudamani have dealt with this theme and many other themes very powerfully. There is a wide range of writers like Krithika, Hepzebah Jesudasan and others who have written wonderful novels yet this friend of mine thought they can’t figure in Tamil literary history!

Recently there was a collection of some 88 Tamil stories in translation. In the introduction, while writing the literary history the editor had mentioned only male writers. And the literary history was done decade-wise in chronological order and the order was a male order. A bunch of writers were grouped because they identified themselves as Dalit writers and Dalit writing came into prominence at a particular period, which is okay. In this grouping there is no women and men division; they are all there because they are Dalits. But writers like Poomani who did not want to take on a Dalit identity wrote from the 1960s. His story is included but he is left hanging outside both the registers.

And when the introduction talks of earlier decades or of the decade I began to write in, no women writers are mentioned but Vannanilavan and others – they are my contemporaries – are mentioned. But women writers are put in the category of “also ran”. We are all bunched together – from Ammini Ammal, a very early writer, onwards – as women writers who also wrote. Thus Rajam Krishnan, who is a contemporary of Sundara Ramasamy or Su Ra, as he is known, and who wrote even before him from the 1950s is in this group of women writers. So is R Chudamani, a writer who also wrote from the 1950s. As if women’s bodies are not touched by time and history. This is grossly unfair and also historically a faulty way of writing literary history.

A couple of months ago an e-journal dedicated a special issue to me. The dedication was for Ambai, a wonderful writer among women writers. I objected and told the editor there was no need to specify me as a woman writer in this context. He wrote back saying but you do write about women and we do call Obama a Black President or something to that effect. It can get very irritating. Like when I brought out a collection of some 13 stories, four of which had may be what you can call women protagonists, in 1988. In the blurb the publisher wrote that these stories were about women. He did not know what to do with the rest of the stories which were about deaths, a yellow fish, a fable with a pig, a river and so on. He said, “There are also some experimental stories in this book!” A book he had brought out of a male writer just the previous year which began with a three year old male child and was entirely about men was, of course, mentioned as a book about life! I quote this incident so many times that it has become “Ambai’s whining”.

A signature characteristic, running through a few collections, is of story titles that are simply numbered journeys. “Journey 11” to “Journey 20” unfold in A Night With A Black Spider, largely over a series of trains. What is it about travel – and more specifically, that state of suspension within a vehicle – that draws you?
I started the Journey stories and numbered them like painters number their paintings like Painting 1, Painting 2 and so on. These are really vignettes which try to capture fleeting moments, images, words and intense feelings connected with journeys which often haunt you after a journey. Not all of them happen in trains – in a state of suspension within a vehicle, as you put it. There are also buses and autos, sometimes even many different journeys linked together.

Only the opening story, of the asura Mahishan’s unrequited love for Durga, occurs on a non-human plane. What inspired this change of direction?

Actually I did not see it as a non-human plane! There are other stories of mine like Forest (from In A Forest, A Deer) where I have retold mythology. I think gods and goddesses and mythologies are so closely linked with our lives that we often don’t see them as being different from us. This particular story is actually based on Devi Bhagavatham where the Devi looks down upon Mahishan and his clan. And when I read the actual dialogues my sympathies were so much with Mahishan. There is also that hidden layer of the issue of inter-caste marriages like that of Divya and Ilavarasan, where Ilavarasan was allegedly murdered.

Because you are so forthright about caste and gender inequities, there is a tendency to see you as primarily a political writer. But there’s a subtle play of sentiment beneath every story that allows it to work on multiple levels. Many of them are deeply synecdochal – often, characters do not encounter each other for more than the duration of a ride or a conversation, yet their entire personalities stand revealed by the exchange or event that occurs. So I ask you as the writer: at what point does your own observation of a narrative begin – on the level of ethical notice, or on the level of subterranean feeling?
I think life is synecdochal and there is no other way one can write stories. For me a narrative always begins at the subterranean level and not just at the level of a physical happening or event. I have always maintained that stories are not about truths but about our relationship with what we consider as truth at a given point of time. It is at that relational level that stories happen. And the way we relate is always political whether we say so or not. Even saying that one is not political is a political stand.

Music is a recurrent theme through this book; not only do several characters sing for pleasure or professionally, they do so with an awareness of ragas and musicology. I recall hearing you give a lecture once in which you shared the story of how you came to stop singing. What has your relationship with singing been in the past, and why does it emerge so often in these pages?
Music and dance are a very big part of my life. Like all middle-class girls I also learnt music and dance and I had a very resonant voice like my mother. I was not a great singer or dancer but my mother comes from an extremely musical family of 10 children. She was the eldest and all my uncles and aunts sing or play an instrument and are great connoisseurs of music. So music has been coursing through my life like a perennial river and I relate almost everything including stories to music and the way it is rendered. And dance is a kind of an extension of it. I lost my voice in 1975, and now there is a tremor in my voice when I speak and of course, I can’t sing anymore. I used to enjoy singing lullabies to kids in the family. But now my foster kids tell me to please shut up when I try to sing a lullaby!

The passing of Lakshmi Holmström seems to have left a void in the field of Tamil-to-English translation. She was your long-term collaborator and friend. Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who has translated A Night With A Black Spider as well as Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, may be said to be at the new vanguard of Tamil-to-English translation, but what does the future of the field look like in general?
Yes, Lakshmi Holmström has been translating me and several others for a long time and really did some pioneering work in translation. We had our differences but we were also good friends. I do miss her. But I see Aniruddhan as someone who is going to bring an entirely different facet to Tamil-English translation for he is a creative writer himself. Even before Aniruddhan there was Kalyan Raman, who is still translating, and he is an excellent translator who makes the original work accessible in what seems like an almost effortless manner. He has translated Asokamitran and now Devibharathi. Kalyan Raman also has the advantage of having been a creative writer himself. Vasantha Surya is also a good translator who has translated Vaasanthi and R Chudamani. Tamil writer Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy have also collaborated on translations and brought out books. I think with translators, writers and editors collaborating on translation many more translated works would emerge and the future of translation does not look so gloomy.