First Poems

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Ambai, the author of this story, is the pseudonym of C.S. Lakshmi, one of the foremost writers of Tamil fiction. Her stories have appeared in English translation in four collections. She is Director, SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women), Mumbai. Photo: The Hindu

Lakshmi Holmstrom (1935-2016), the translator of this story, is widely recognised as one of India’s most successful translators of poetry and fiction. She won the Crossword Award for the best translation three times and was a co-founder of the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive.

The selected story is from “In a Forest, A Deer: Stories by Ambai” Translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom (Oxford University Press, 2006) and was carried in Tamil in “Kizhakkum Merkkum” (1997).

SHE had made every possible effort to achieve wisdom. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa once said that those who wept continuously for three days would see God. So, although it was impossible for her to weep incessantly (for how could anything be pursued continuously in a house where they did not have a separate room each, a house where either her mother’s rules or her father’s voice drove her the moment she woke up until she fell asleep at night?), she had wept intermittently for six days. Yet no God had granted her a vision. Of course, she was disappointed. She didn’t know what else a sixteen-year-old girl, who went about seeking wisdom, could do. She didn’t understand anything clearly anymore.

She believed she had not committed a single sin. But then she wasn’t sure whether some of her actions could perhaps be identified as sins. Once, when they were little, when she and her elder sister were given a slice of watermelon each, she hadn’t eaten hers immediately. She had waited until Padma finished and only then begun to lick her own piece of fruit. Then, when Padma pleaded, “Ei, give me some, di,” she had retorted, “Won’t!”, the fruit dripping down her face. Another time, she had scolded her mother silently, calling her “Saniyane”. Once, she imagined that her mother—who admonished her all the time to comb her hair, practise singing, drink up her milk, eat, sleep, and massage herself with oil—had suddenly dropped dead, leaving her orphaned. Once she had even read a “bad” book three times over, before thrusting it into the fire which heated water in the bathroom. She wasn’t sure how all these actions would be judged and accounted. If Chitragupta, in the attire of ancient kings, still kept the record of good and evil deeds for Yama, the God of death, was there some other trustworthy individual who advised him about changing times? Especially about how greatly women had changed? Such questions often arose in her mind.

It was during this time, when she was seeking wisdom in this way, and making every effort to redeem herself and the world, that the large-sized blue diary arrived at their house. Someone had given it to their family doctor, who passed it on to them. A diary produced by Nestle and Company which manufactured milk powder for babies. A diary full of photographs of mothers and infants, accompanied by notes intended for obstetricians.

She believed firmly that the arrival of a diary, which was connected with the creation of physical life, at a time when she herself was immersed in thoughts of life’s transience, was a means by which God was testing her own steadfastness. “So, stomach ache for one bhaktha, and a diary meant for obstetricians for me? Hm!” she said to herself, marvelling at the tribulations sent by God. She went into the puja room, looked directly at the Ravi Varma paintings of the gods ranged there, and smiled wisely. She had borrowed that wise smile from the actress Madhubala’s lopsided simper. It seemed to her that when that smile appeared on her face, it filled it with light. But for certain reasons, she avoided displaying it in public. One reason could be that Amma, on seeing it, had asked once: “What’s the matter, do you have a toothache?” But then, how could people who lacked a passion for wisdom recognise the true nature of such a smile?

The blue colour of the diary was particularly attractive to her. She loved blue. Because the sky is blue. The sea is blue. The two-foot-tall flute-playing image of Kannan from Panrutti was blue too. She had a pavadai of blue silk as well. But because it was so much a part of this worldly life that she never included it as a reason for loving blue. Since the blue diary lay around, unused by anyone in the family, she appropriated it for herself.

When she sat in front of it and turned over its smooth blank pages, she was suddenly filled with the desire to do what so many bhakthas had done before her. The desire to write poems of devotion. A couple of days later, she made an effort and wrote a poem with the title “Where is God?”

Ask not where God is, innocent one;

there in your own heart is God


The poem ended with these words and an exclamation mark. She wrote some more poems in pleading tones, asking that she should not be forsaken and that she should be accepted as a bhaktha. It struck her that her verses did not at all compare with the poetry of Tevaram, Tiruvasagam and Tiruppugazh. She was somewhat saddened by this. But a little angry as well. In their quest for wisdom, those poets had wandered everywhere, night and day, through forests, mountains and fields. How could a sixteen-year-old girl, living in a city beset by thieves and full of dangers, wander about the garden that surrounded their house? She didn’t have permission, anyway, to go much further on her own. Just because she had gone to see the film Pasamalar with her friends, Amma had upbraided her, saying the times were going from bad to worse, and that she did not approve of such outings.

Besides, for those bhakthas of old, God was a refuge and help at all times. He had turned fox into horse, horse into fox, carried sand on his head for a payment of pittu, and cooperated with them in all sorts of ways. But as far as she was concerned, it seemed that God wasn’t being quite fair. He hadn’t produced any miracle on her behalf. Not a single one. Couldn’t he have worked a tiny miracle, such as giving her the answer to a mathematical problem? This, for instance: a train is approaching at such and such a speed, another comes from the opposite direction at a different speed, at what distance do they cross each other? Or this: a bucket has a hole in it, and water is falling into it at a certain speed; at what rate will the water flow out, and when will the bucket be full? And not just that. When he could perfectly well feed a crying baby with the milk of wisdom so that it would write marvellous poems, why was he denying her the same milk of wisdom just because she was born in a country that was independent, in a town called Coimbatore, in a mosquito-infested hospital?

Whenever her thoughts ran in this direction, she would remind herself that a miracle had indeed happened in her life, just once. Her father believed strongly that girls could never be good at science and maths. She didn’t quite know how he contrived to plant this idea firmly in her own mind. At any rate, she was hopeless at maths. At a mid-term examination once, they had been set a really complicated sum involving fractions. Even Stella, the only person in her class who usually managed to get cent per cent marks in maths, couldn’t deal with it. The maths teacher had awarded them all zeroes, and was about to demonstrate the sum on the blackboard. At that moment, she glanced accidentally at her own paper. She had done the sum correctly! Even the maths teacher, who had checked everything twice over, had been amazed. She looked upon that incident as nothing short of a miracle ordained by Siva. She had rebuked him fondly, “All right, so you’ve done the multiple fractions sum. Tomorrow we’ll be given the science question paper. Let’s see how you deal with that.” But Siva didn’t pass the science exam on that occasion.

Just at that time, their music teacher was teaching her and her sister Padma the song “Vaaranamaayiram soozha valam vandu...Surrounded by a thousand elephants, he comes in procession”. The idea that a girl should marry no one other than God fascinated her. At that same time, they were learning about Akkamahadevi in their Kannada lessons, who, too, had renounced everything for the sake of Siva. It struck her, though, that there might be a few problems in accepting God as one’s husband when it actually came to practice. In the first place, she was scared to think in what form the gods might actually manifest themselves, even if they looked so beautiful as statues, and in the paintings by Ravi Varma. In the second place, it was N.T. Rama Rao who played the roles of Rama and Siva in the cinema in those days. Suppose, after she had given herself up to God, he then knocked on her door in the shape of Rama Rao? The thought confused her. Very well, she could become an Avvaiyar, singing “Paalum theli thenum... Milk and clear honey...” in the voice of K.P. Sundarambal. But she was reluctant to pray for the gift of old age just yet. Somewhere in the corner of her mind, that blue silk pavadai unfurled, teasing her. Besides, she had made her mother promise to buy her a parrot-green silk pavadai for the coming Deepavali.

But in spite of all this, she wasn’t prepared to forsake her quest for wisdom entirely. They had, in their house, a bound version of Kalki’s serial novel Sivakamiyin Sabadham (Sivakami’s Oath). She was extremely taken with the ending of the novel. She wrote a poem about going to Chidambaram, dancing in the presence of Siva, and marrying him. She entitled it “Truth”. Tears welled up in her eyes as she wrote the last lines:

The incantation of your ankle-bells

ringing tirelessly among the gathered sages,

when you dance in Chidambaram, having slain the


I shall come to you, seeking refuge.

There were only two with whom she shared her poems and her feeling for God. One was Mickey, their black dog. The other was Kempamma. Kempamma was employed in the handicrafts and cottage industry next door. Because she had no place to stay, she came to live in the empty motor-shed in the back of their house, bringing her tin trunk. She made herself useful to Amma in all sorts of ways.

Mickey was her friend. When she read out her poems to him, he would bury his face in his forepaws, and listen to her as he lay there, his ears drooping. Sometimes, he would lie down with his head on her lap as he listened, his eyes closed. Whenever her voice deepened with emotion, he would lift his head and look at her. It was under her bed that he slept.

She used to explain her poems in Kannada to Kempamma. Kempamma would listen patiently, and then give her certificate of approval: “It’s good.” Then she would sing Purandaradasa’s Devar Nama lyrics in a very simple style.

Then it happened. That incident, one night. One night, at about eleven, they heard a voice yelling from somewhere behind their house: “Ei, sule munde... Ei, you whore!” Within the next five minutes, Kempamma had suddenly burst open the back door which was not yet locked, flown inside the house like a whirlwind, and sought shelter under her bed.

When her parents went to the back door, they saw a man standing there, completely drunk. He shouted out, “Ei Kempamma horage baare, Ei Kempamma, come outside!” He bawled out in Kannada: “I am your husband. Out you come!”

When Appa tried to drive him off, he looked at him in fury and shrieked, “Isn’t one wife enough for you? You want mine as well, do you?”

Under her bed, Kempamma cowered like a terrified chicken. She was trembling from head to foot. But when she heard her husband’s obscene words, she came out of her hiding place, went towards him with dragging feet, and said to him in Kannada, her voice betraying just a tremor, “Don’t talk a lot of drunken nonsense.”

In reply, he gave her a kick in the stomach. When she sank down, screaming, “Amma!”, he hit her on her back.

Deva kaappaadu... O God, help me!” Kempamma called out. Then, thinking perhaps that it was wrong to summon God familiarly, in the singular, she called out again, “Devare kaappaadi!

He pushed her across the back steps and rolled her over them, tugging her by the hair. As soon as she tumbled to the bottom of the steps, he shoved her on to the lawn, parted her legs in an instant, and kicked her violently in between.

“Ha...!” screamed Kempamma, collapsing. It was paurnami at the time, the night of the full moon. The back garden was blooming on all sides with arali, tulasi, plantain, beans, snake gourd, jackfruit. Moonlight fell in flakes, scattered over all these. In that light, Kempamma lay crouched and shrunken upon the lawn, like a hunted animal. Each second she called out yet again, “Devare... Devare!” At last when he stamped hard into her ribcage, for the first time she raised the cry: “Mickey!”

From within, Mickey came streaking out at the speed of lightning. Jumping higher and higher as he ran, with leaps and bounds, Mickey came running. He cleared the back steps in one vault, and lunged at Kempamma’s husband’s throat. The man darted here and there in sheer terror, and finally hurtled across the back garden fence and fled.

Kempamma still lay face down upon the lawn, sobbing. Mickey went up to her and stood by her side, licking her head. Amma and Appa stood where they were, frozen and speechless. It had all happened within ten minutes.

Padma-akka and she were standing a little distance behind.

When her mother turned round and looked at her, she became aware of herself as a different person.

Amma looked at her and said in a low voice, “Why did you come here? These things will horrify you.”

But she stood gazing at the back garden without making a reply. For some time she wrote poems with titles such as “Loneliness”, “Yearning”, “Dream” and “Silence”, with lines like, “Loneliness until death; loneliness until the body burns away”. After that, there were no more poems recorded in the blue diary.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Oxford University Press