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Semeen Ali
A Red-necked Green Bird’ – Tamil stories by Ambai in translation
Semeen Ali

A Red-Necked Green Bird | Short Stories |
‘Ambai’ CS Lakshmi (Tamil original) | Trans. GJV Prasad |
Simon & Schuster India |
2021 | ISBN- 978-81-950571-1-5 | pp 200 | 399


Stories plunging deep inside to look at what lies beyond

Literature is about giving a language to this experience, at times explicitly and at another, holding back. Literature is a hide and seek of these twin processes of revelation and concealment.” – Ambai

It was during my graduation, English (Hons), that we as students came across a story by Dr CS Lakshmi, well known by her pseudonym Ambai, titled – The Squirrel (Titled ‘Anil’ in Tamil language) and were struck by the depth of the story and the seamless transition between dream and reality that threw light on the condition of women especially women who wrote. My fascination with her works began early on, and in the midst of life taking hold of so many circumstances that were woven around me – my connection with her writings got lost in time. After so many years, her new collection of short stories – A Red-necked Green Bird fell into my lap. One of her stories, Journey 21, in this collection reminded me of The Squirrel – the deterioration that is not limited to only a human but reaches even the words that one hopes would remain alive even after they are gone. The repositories of one’s desires and shortcomings; the annals of longing and belonging seem to mingle their selves with the dust. Either the voice is forgotten or lies ignored; stashed away in one of the dark corners of a room. Being eaten up slowly by the creatures that thrive in darkness.

The stories do not work at a surface level creating ripples but plunge deep inside to look at what lies beyond. The idea of falling not only has been explored at a literal level but also takes on a metaphorical meaning with protagonists questioning themselves at every turn of their lives. A reference to their past not only brings up a compendium of memories that haven’t been put to rest but also keeps the fresh ones from getting added to them thereby forming a sedimentation inside one’s heart. The mind can to a certain extent fight against it all and try to survive in a shape shifting reality but only to a certain extent. It remains a fight more at an internal level than an external one that Ambai looks at – where to retain and respect one’s own identity and sense of self is paramount. “Only then Aadi would realize the strength of her backbone. That as far as women were concerned, it had no expiry date.”

The feminist qualities of her writings are not limited to a specific gender. There is a facet to men that keeps turning up in her works shedding light on the sensitive side that men are forced to hide or have been raised to shelve. In the story from where the title of the book has been taken, Ambai touches upon the yearning a man would feel to have a child in his life. There are a few lines that have so beautifully touched upon these buried feelings of longing to have a child – to raise a child. And on a similar vein, are other examples strewn across the book where male characters are not just identified with certain stereotypical expectations but reach out to break them down and stand exposed to the sensitivities that surround them and are in them. That neat dividing line between feeling and being rational is scrubbed away in these stories and bring out the rawness that resides within. “The male and the female bodies were differentiated biologically. In terms of the mind they could flow into each other. Their characteristics were socially determined.” Again and again, thematically, what keeps coming up through her writings is a blurred line between thought and reality. It feels as if both the worlds are at par with each other. The imagery of water takes on a life of its own. Water is shown as taking away one’s identity and at times mirroring what lies within, to redefining what it takes to create a sense of one’s self. There is a back and forth engagement with the reader in certain stories that blur the idea of what is real and what is unreal.

Translating a work into another language carries a huge responsibility – at one level it has to do with importing not only words from the original text but also the cultural connotations that a word or a sentence carries with it. Of course, bringing it to life in another language is extremely difficult, as certain amount of connotations can get ‘lost in translation’. But on reading Dr GJV Prasad’s translation, one cannot take out any flaws in the manner in which the original finds a new life in another language. What makes this translation even more commendable is how there is no bias for a particular language but an equal exchange that has been attempted. For someone like me who is not familiar at all with Tamil language, as a reader and as a student of literature, the book gains importance as it introduces readers like me to a world that speaks to me. As a reader, one does not feel alienated but assimilated. 

In addition to the hardships that are faced by women, Ambai’s stories bring in an overall sense of being curtailed by not only the outside forces but also the voices that lie dormant within – raising their heads when a sign of rebellion seems to loom. These lines from her work – “However carefully you censored her biography, it would be impossible to ignore the seismic spikes in her life” – reverberate through this book. These ‘seismic spikes’ that lie hidden and at the same time, one cannot ignore the undercurrents that run across every story placed in this book, making Ambai’s writing bring to life all that remains to a certain extent unsaid and remains buried within.



Issue 97 (May-Jun 2021)

Book Reviews
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘Handcuffed to Love’ by Yuktha Asrani
  • Atreya Sarma U: In Conversation with Yuktha Asrani
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘Kashmir! Kashmir!’ by Deepa Agarwal
  • Atreya Sarma U: In Conversation with Deepa Agarwal
  • Chaitali Sengupta: ‘Trail of Love & Longings’ by Amita Ray
  • GSP Rao: ‘Painting in the Kangra Valley’ by Vijay Sharma
  • Namrata Pathak: ‘This Land This People – Rajbanshi Poems in translation
  • NS Murty: ‘Need a Bit of Freedom and Other Poems’ – Telugu poems by K Siva Reddy in translation
  • Semeen Ali: ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ – Tamil stories by Ambai in translation
  • Sukanya Saha: ‘Fifty-five Pillars, Red walls’ – Hindi novel by Usha Priyamvada in translation
  • Sutanuka Ghosh Roy: ‘Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets’ by Gopal Lahiri
  • Umesh Patra: ‘Sylvia – Distant Avuncular Ends’ by Maithreyi Karnoor