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Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Fish in a dwindling lake

( This was a review commissioned last year, but never published. So I am uploading it today on my blog. 26 June 2013)

Fish in a Dwindling Lake is a collection of short stories written by well-known Tamil writer, Ambai. It consists of short stories and four long stories. Interestingly the short stories are merely titled as “Journey”, but the longer stories stick to the motif of the journey. The narrator is usually a universal “she”, who is never given a name, probably making it easier to discuss various positions and responsibilities of women. To bracket them as merely as a wife, mistress or a reliable widowed aunt would be doing injustice to the characters created. They do occupy these socially defined and recognized spaces, but Ambai’s strength as a storyteller shines when she is able to describe their lives or an incident or a conversation or a journey that they undertake, but in a manner that shows these strong women have the quiet ability to question and make their choices and be at peace with them. For Bimla in the title story, “Journeys had become the symbols of her life. Journeys with objectives, journeys without; meaningful journeys, journeys made of necessity; journeys which were planned, but never happened; journeys which broke all decisions; journeys which had become rituals.” The stories raise questions about human relationships, sexuality of a woman and the fact that there is nothing wrong in discussing it or being aware of it. In “Journey 5”, Gomati Ammal invites her childhood friend, now a renowned professor, to move in with her after she is widowed. They belonged to the same village near Tirunelveli, but belonged to different castes. Plus, her family was paying for his education. She pleaded with him when they were young to elope and get married, but he refused and married a classmate of hers. But once she was widowed and her children were settled abroad, she wrote to the professor, “I have lived all these years in accordance with your wish. Now at least let me be with you?” So they worked out a convenient arrangement where he visits her twice a month. “He is never asked at home, why and where he is going. Neither does she say anything when she sees me. After all she is a woman who studied with me, isn’t she? Isn’t she my friend?” Using the personal pronoun or naming the protagonist instantly distances the reader from the experiences of the character, although there is an instant recognition and empathy with her. But with a character in the third person it is possible to share minute details that usually remain confined to a woman’s domain, but strike a universal chord, as the pregnant girl in “Journey 4” says ironically, “only a wife knows what goes on inside a house”.

These stories were first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu. The publisher, Kannan Sundaram says that the English edition has “translated and published all the stories in the Kalachuvadu edition in the same order of stories with the same title. The first story in the Kalachuvadu edition has not been included as it was included in another collection of Ambai stories in English earlier –In the Forest a Deer.” For the translator Lakshmi Holmstrom, “The current collection of eleven short stories translated from Tamil; it showcases Ambai’s technical skills at her mature best. Her style can be elegant, witty and lyrical by turns. … Some of her short stories work through ironic juxtaposition of incidents, or through repetition of images, as in poems. The longer stories, on the other hand, while still using the repeated symbol or motif, are intricately constructed, moving back and forth in time almost cinematically, interweaving different kind of texts and narratives.”

Ambai is the nom de plume of C. S. Lakshmi, a renowned feminist, who established SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). So it is probably possible for Ambai to jot down these varied instances in a woman’s life since she is immersed in these stories 24×7. In an email to me after the publication of this anthology, she said that for a storyteller “stories are all around one. We must just open ourselves to them.” Hence, the title story “Fish in a Dwindling Lake” is about Kumud, her relationship with her extended clan and friends. But it also works beautifully by tracking the life of Kumud, who quietly and steadily, as happens with women, adapt and survive since the instinct for self-preservation is extremely strong. So like the fish in a shrinking lake, she may have to struggle to survive but will always find sufficient oxygen to live. This is an anthology worth reading.

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 250 pp. 150

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007

( As the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been the patron of Sahitya Akademi. The following are extracts from a speech he delivered extempore at the awards for 1962. These are given to books of outstanding literary merit published in the Indian languages during the preceding years. This has been reproduced in the Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Editors are Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas. They have edited four volumes of stories, essays, speeches published in the institute’s journal, Indian Literature for fifty years. Many of these have been translated into the English language. A pleasant surprise was to discover this wonderful speech by Nehru and another one by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Modern Life”, delivered in 1961.)

“…Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. ….

Really the growth of the Indian languages took place afresh about a hundred or hundred or twenty years ago. That period coincided with the introduction of printing, etc. in India and it was influenced naturally by ideas which had come to India through the English language mostly, through other languages too. The modern world gradually crept into India and that influenced our languages. And the modern literature in these languages is naturally much affected by the modern world, modern problems. That is as it should be. And so we find an interesting aspect of this questions, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas, modern concepts began to enrich our languages through English or because of our knowledge of English, and our languages grew. I have no doubt they will grow. Even now they are strong and very effective languages and a large number of books are being published, books of merit. I have no doubt this will grow. But to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” ( p.319-320)