Austere feminist themes from Ambai’s award-winning work, Sahitya Akademi

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Women, disability and death are the main themes of the short story collection of Ambai, the fourth Tamil author to win the literary prize

Chitoor Subramaniam Lakshmi, who writes under the pseudonym Ambai, is a well-known independent feminist studies researcher.

After a 16-year hiatus, a Tamil writer won the Sahitya Akademi Prize. In the 66-year history of Akademi, Ambai is only the fourth Tamil writer to receive the prestigious literary award, the others being Rajam Krishnan (1973), Lakshmi (1984) and G Thilakavathi (2005). That says a lot about the space for feminist writing in the Tamil literary world.

The work that won Ambai the Akademi Prize is his collection of short stories titled Sivappu Kazhuththudan Oru Pachai Paravai (“A green bird with a red throat”).

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Chitoor Subramaniam Lakshmi, who writes under the pseudonym Ambai, is a well-known independent feminist studies researcher. She founded the NGO Sound and Pictures Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) in 1988, in Mumbai, which brings together oral histories and visual documents related to women.

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Ambai entered the Tamil literary world in 1962 as a teenager. She started writing stories for the children’s magazine Kannan at the age of 16 years. She won first prize for her work Nandi Malai Charaliley in the novel contest organized by the magazine. Subsequently, she began to publish her news in various magazines, including the popular Ananda Vikatan.

As a writer who focuses primarily on women and their lives, Ambai has published seven short stories so far. His news such as Siragugal Muriyum, Veettin Moolaiyil Oru Samayalarai, Kaattil Oru Maan and Andheri Membalathil Oru Sandhippu were well received.

Recurring themes in an award-winning collection

Sivappu Kazhuththudan Oru Pachai Paravai, winner of the Akademi Prize, is her seventh short story collection, published by Kalachuvadu Publications in 2018. It has been translated into English by GJV Prasad as A green bird with a red neck and published by Simon and Schuster India in 2021.

The work that won Ambai the Akademi Prize is his collection of short stories entitled Sivappu Kazhuththudan Oru Pachai Paravai (“A Green Bird with a Red Throat”).

The collection includes 13 short stories, half a dozen of which deal with disabled men and women and their families. In at least eight stories, death is a recurring theme. And all 13 stories revolve around women and their lives.

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The first story of the collection, Thondai Pudaitha Kaagam Ondru, talks about a woman’s relationship with her demented father. She believes that after her death her father was returned to prison as a crow. The second story, Saambal Mel Ezhum Nagaram, depicts a woman named Urmila, who immolates herself due to her fatigue resulting from caring for her bedridden mother-in-law. Her husband has passed away and her sister-in-law suffers from a mental illness, which makes the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law a lonely duo.

In Payanam 21, the writer depicts the stress suffered by a former dancer, now suffering from a stroke. The stress comes from the fact that she wants to know if copies of a book published about her are still available in the dusty stores of a government publishing house, or if they are reduced to ashes. The story Veezhthal is about a woman who decides to kill herself, unable to endure the separation from her husband, who died of a brain clot.

In Vil Muriyatha Suyamvarangal, the author shows the children of a widow trying to send her to a retirement home and coaxing her to choose a companion in that house; however, they did not approve of her idea of ​​living with a younger man, in his own house. The story Singathin Vaal depicts the delirium of a computer scientist, thinking he has a relationship with a cyborg.

Call of a boilermaker barbet

Of the 13 stories, the one that stands out is that of the title – something Tamil writer Sujatha would call a sattrey periya sirukathai (a slightly longer short story). The story, Sivappu Kazhuththudan Oru Pachai Paravai, was first published in the August 2017 issue of Manal Veedu magazine.

The story tells how Thaenmozhi, a hearing-impaired young woman, expresses her dissatisfaction with her father’s plans to get her a cochlear implant. Her mother encourages her to learn sign language and disapproves of her husband’s decision. What happens when Thaenmozhi does not accept his father’s decision is the rest of the plot.

The bird that the author calls “the green bird with a red throat” is a boilermaker’s barbet. She talks about this bird in the story from the point of view of the father, who equates her to Thaenmozhi. The bird’s call, “tuk, tuk, tuk,” resembles that of a coppersmith striking a metal with a hammer. Hearing the bird’s call, Thaenmozhi’s father feels that the bird’s voice has been cut off and therefore is unable to fully express himself.

On speech and language

In the end, Thaenmozhi, a fine arts student, published an article entitled Mozhi Enbathu Oli Alla (“Language is not a question of sound”) in a magazine, where she highlights the life and work of Alexander Graham Bell. Most people know Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but few know of his contributions to “visible speech,” a system of phonetic symbols to represent the position of speech organs in the articulation of sounds. He advocated this method to educate the hard of hearing and the hard of hearing. He believed that educating them by this method is more effective than sign language.

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Thaenmozhi also refers to Satish Gujral, a hearing-impaired Indian painter who underwent surgery at the age of 78 to remove the cochlear implant he had had six years earlier. She ends the article by saying, “Language is for communication. It can happen even silently.

Of the 13 stories in the collection, only four have been previously published in various magazines. By inserting some of the popular carnatic songs like Naaneke Badavanu by Purandara Dasa, Bollywood songs like Aansu Bhari Hai (Parvarish, 1958) and the poems of Bahinabai Chaudhari, Ambai takes this collection of short stories to a philosophical level.


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