Book Review: ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ is Tamil writer Ambai’s many-feathered fiction in translation

Print edition : September 24, 2021

‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ by Ambai, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad (Simon & Schuster, 2021)

C.S. Lakshmi who writes fiction in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

A clutch of variegated, life-affirming stories to read and revisit as we emerge from an age of forced social isolation.

Agourmet” crow that refuses to eat leftovers arrives daily at the kitchen window just as “Sangeet Sarita” begins to play on All India Radio. A proudly atheist Bharatanatyam doyenne squares her books and papers in preparation for her impending end. A man takes a dip in a pond only to find out, quite literally, what it is like to be a woman in the 21st century. A cyborg turns soulmate in an age where communication does not always mean connection. These are but a few of the denizens of Tamil writer Ambai’s many-feathered world of fiction.

C.S. Lakshmi, founder trustee and director of Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), Mumbai who writes fiction (or as the book blurb brackets it, “about love, relationships, quests and journeys”) in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai, has had the unique distinction of almost all her short stories being translated into English over the past two decades. Introducing “A red-necked green bird”, her most recent book of fiction in translation, she likens her stories to windows through which “the world displays itself in small fragments or large scenes in various ways at many times” to her.

Fiction as window

“I have seen the world through so many windows…” she muses. “…bus windows, train windows, the world that spreads out outside plane windows… the stained glass windows in churches… the windows in small and big temples, in various geometrical shapes, that cause the sunlight to fall on the ground in the same shapes…. That world continues to fall on my mind like sunlight in geometric shapes falling on the ground.” And then she adds that she often does not know if what get written as a result are stories or various forms of herself.

What we do know is that the 13 stories in this collection seek their own fluid narrative window space. Here are sprawling meditations on love and loneliness, midlife and old age, departures and disappearances, memory and mythology. Here are confident, independent, nonconformist urban women unafraid to follow their hearts’ desires. And here is an author who leaves no detail either to chance or to the reader’s imagination. Indeed, an Ambai story is in its details.

With thumbnail sketches, elaborate backstories and detail upon impressionistic detail, Ambai conjures up whole immersive worlds within each story. The city of Mumbai is a living, breathing presence, a character almost, in as many as nine of these stories.

In “A crow with a swollen throat”, we follow an elder’s slow inexorable descent into dementia and the everyday struggle of his caregiving daughter. In “The city that rises from ashes”, we watch Girangaon, the village of textile mills metamorphose into a shiny maze of skyscrapers, wiping out lives, livelihoods and much else. (Here Ambai invokes the Mahabharata as a coda, reminding us of the razing by fire of the Khandava forest—tribes, trees, birds, beasts and all—to build the new city of Indraprastha.)

In the title story “The red-necked green bird”, we understand that language does not need sound—indeed, that a hearing aid can be less an aid and more an assault on the senses for the hearing impaired. In “1984”, we partake of the horrors of a pogrom recounted by survivors who cannot forget and will not forgive.

Many shades of love

So many of these stories centre around death and the inescapable loneliness of all urban lives, but just as insistently point to the abiding human need for connection. After the deaths of their spouses, both Kamala in “Falling” and Shanti in “Swayamvars with no bows broken” look back on the long years of love and companionship that buoyed them through sickness and health. Both go on to take their lives in their own hands, but in very different ways.

In “Journey 21”, we are told of Kamumma’s and Rajappa’s enduring love for each other, reflected in “ungendered” endearments (she calls him “athu”, “it”). In “The red-necked green bird”, Mythili decides to let go of Vasanthan, her husband of many years, without rancour, but not before a long desperate effort where she is not sure if she is searching for him or hunting him down.

The most memorable metaphor of love for this reader, though, was found in “The Lion’s Tail”. When Madhura asks her grandmother what the word “love” means to her, Paatti muses: “It was a small child who walked holding my hand. Would throw tantrums. Would pee on me. Shit. Get beaten. Hug me tight. But it would never let go of my hand.”

It is not only these minutely observed moments of intimacy, but also the little gestures of camaraderie that Ambai slips in, such as the sharing of a street-side sandwich with a stranger, or a vegetable vendor ordering an extra cup of cardamom tea for a regular customer, or the face of an Indian nun lighting up when she hears a conversation in Kannada in faraway Finland, that were oddly comforting to read in these times of social distancing.

Food and music seem not so much leitmotifs as the very life-blood of Ambai’s fiction. The pages abound with sumptuous descriptions of meals and cooking, while more than one story celebrates in fine, granular detail the everyday ritual of brewing chai.

In an interview to The Hindu, Ambai once admitted: “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.” Music is certainly more than organic to these stories. Verses from the Thiruvasagam, Kamba Ramayanam and Silappadikaram, Purandaradasa’s devarnamas, lyrics of the Mumbaichi lavani, snatches of Hindi film songs, the blazing verses of Bharathiyar and Bahinabai and Bulleh Shah, John Lennon’s “Nowhere man”—Ambai embeds them with a flourish, like a signature, at the heart of each narrative.

Confessing that the experience of having her stories translated into English has been both difficult and exhilarating, Ambai turns to gardening for a root metaphor: “[Translation] is like taking a seed from one soil and planting it in another soil.” She adds: “The only way to do it is not to change the quality of the seed but to prepare the soil that receives the seed to soften enough to let the seed take root. It is a process in which the author and translator are both involved. It takes time and patience but what comes out of it is always a surprise and a joy, like finding the first shoot in a plant one had given up for dead.”

It is a triumph of GJV Prasad’s translation that his text reflects the terse, incremental quality of Ambai’s Tamil. There is much to admire in the way he has negotiated the minefield of an exchange on the etymology of a cyborg in “The Lion’s Tail”, by simply presenting the Tamil phrases cheek by jowl with their English translations. Prasad also seems to have taken particular care to retain the bits of Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi that pepper the dialogues in many of the stories and give it their unmistakable Mumbai flavour.

Here are variegated, life-affirming stories to return to in this age of forced social isolation. Thanks to Prasad, and perhaps not unlike the protagonist of “The Pond”, this reader emerged from Ambai’s world refreshed, and at least momentarily transformed.