I remember the first time I read Ambai.

I was at the airport in Delhi, waiting for my flight to start boarding. Our gate had shaped up to be an odd one– – filled with a motley group of people tapping away at their phones. Half the crowd spoke in Hindi. The rest of us screamed in Tamil. It feels significant, somehow, that I had come to her in a place as suspended as this.

Nothing screams “Ambai” to me more than the waiting area of a flight from Delhi to Chennai. Aside from this small allowance of fate, her writing anchored me at a time when my own words felt dry. Ambai, with her firm derision for aggressive male pride and impassioned love for the body in its variable forms, instilled in me a desire to re-engage with questions of language and survival.

In this collection, A Red-necked Green Bird, translated from Thamizh by retired JNU professor GJV Prasad, she does something similar.

A quivering thread

It begins with Appa’s illness – a scattering of memories lost to the wind like ashes. Urmila sets herself on fire. Kamala commits suicide. Vasanthan’s family considers the possibility of his departure. The pond throws open a window for drowning. Harpreet’s body is a site of abuse. Mami’s hair does not regrow. Madhura’s parents and brother are involved in a fatal accident. Chairs at a concert are left empty in expectation of spirits.

Death is the first thread I notice quivering in these stories. Of all the rills and valleys of meaning and metaphor, it is a stark reality that underlies her characters’ lives. Set against the backdrop of family, death takes on new forms, contorting, shifting and mutating throughout the book. We see it highlighted in “The Lion’s Tail” when Madhura, the narrator, asks her grandmother why everything dies.

“The deaths, wars, calamaties, ethnic cleansings, murder, violent deaths – the answers to these come in the form of disease, ageing, dictatorship, power, religious bigotry, racial prejudice and patriarchy in the very world in which we struggle. But the basic question still remained with many a knot. Why birth, why death? What was birth, what was death? How and where does birth end in death? How and where does death end in birth?”

These are fundamental queries in Ambai’s works. Spanning a wide range of geographies and traversing a multitude of languages, her prose does something I find reflective of its contents: it sings. Perhaps there is a question to be posed here about the relationship between song and death. Ambai is certainly able to allude to it through her fiction.

Music, she writes, opens paths; it offers one the resolve and determination to take on anything. It seems to me that despite death, or rather in spite of it, there is a wild, unbounded energy to her writing that holds these narratives together. What initially appears to be disjointed is, in fact, a series of protracted events with no distinctive beginning or end.

Does it help us, then, to think of ourselves as raagams– – each with our own sound, played upon indefinitely and open to improvisation? Who can actually calculate the length of your life, Kamala muses in “Falling” (my favourite story in the collection). Song and death move in tandem here, creating a lynchpin for life itself.

Beyond interpretation

If one is at all familiar with Ambai’s oevre, it will come as no surprise to note the feminist angles from which her work may be read. She has mentioned, on occasion, that it can get irritating being boxed into the category of a “woman writer” or “feminist writer”, especially when her stories are of entirely inventive temperaments.

In this collection alone we are confronted with Ottagam, a non-human cyborg from the eleventh dimension, a ravenous crow that is reminiscent of a dead family member, a cure to hair loss that requires the use of horse urine. There is also the Ambai staple, Journey 22 and Journey 23, where she deftly captures moments in time that haunt us. In the latter, she writes: “I need just one non-symbolic cup of tea”.

At this juncture, it only seems right that I lower my head in shame. I have always maintained that there is something inherently enticing about Ambai’s writing that demands the need to interpret. But beyond this, beyond the veil of meaning she stretches out to us, this collection of short stories is a timely reminder of the ways in which we might understand language, culture, and the importance of people in our lives. Stagnated journeys, fragmented ones, ones that disappear into a fog ahead of us and require high powered flashlights to navigate: they are without beginning or end, and resultantly, cannot make crime of missteps.

All the talk of song and death in these stories seem to point towards this.

“When conversing with Thambi, they had talked very often about death. He would say, the dead do not die. They are alive in a different way in a parallel universe, a mirror reflection of ours. How to reach it? What does it mean to live then? How can one live after death?”

Ambai does not offer answers so much as she creates a space for questions. For her, journeys do not come with finality. “The Lion’s Tale”, for example, is a story deeply entrenched in loss. It is about a woman whose mind cannot settle after the death of her family. She is in the grips of a hallucination and forced to reckon with the very questions she seeks to avoid.

Style and translation

The style of writing Ambai uses often turns to rhetoric. She turns the mirror back to us, as readers, to identify and untangle the complexities of her characters. It is easy to miss the way in which her words incorporate thematic elements, largely because of the effortlessness that accompanies it.

In the titular story, “A Red Necked Green Bird”, Thenmozhi and Mythili embark on a journey to find Vasanthan. The cryptic note that the story opens with reads: “I am leaving. This house and the life around it no longer interest me. Thenmozhi who looks unblinkingly at my lips when I speak. The question mark evident in her face. Why, you smile as if nothing is the matter. I can’t stand anything. I don’t need to. I am a free man. I hate all bonds. You know it. So, I am going.”

Thenmozhi, upon reading her father’s letter, immediately breaks down. What is interesting about this piece is the way Ambai draws upon Thenmozhi’s deafness to discuss language. By mediating the question through the private context of family, she draws our attention to aspects of living that require re-visiting. In their journey, Thenmozhi and her mother travel through a list of places Vasanthan may have fled to. The elements of understanding, mutation of spirit and transformation through travel form the bedrock of Ambai’s brilliance.

Ambai and Prasad appear to have arrived at a collaborative process of translating – one which acknowledges that despite the arguments and quarrels about word choices, the original story will always remain “a different experience of writing and reading”. With respect to the translation, I am inclined to point out that it is reminiscent of a raagam.

There are riffs and disruptions, as translations are bound to generate, but what emerges at the “end” does seem to be a song. I have been thinking about reading, particularly in the context of pleasure and joy; what Zadie Smith has deemed “that strange mixture of terror, pain, and delight”. If one were to find a way to summarise this collection, it would not be far-off from this working definition of joy. Mostly, I am just grateful to Ambai for allowing us to accompany her on this journey.

A Red-necked Green Bird, Ambai, translated from the Tamil by GJV Prasad, Simon & Schuster India.