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Ambai’s ‘A Purple Sea’

By Rebecca Behar

A breath – an arrow
The analemma ties a bow
In the high priest’s heart
A magnetic puff
The loop of the earth’s metronome
If you need a myth, Orpheus
Sing the song of the sacrificed wife
Trudging along the road
Wrapped in her golden veil
She roams about the space
Supple sunflower longing for light
Surrounded by heavenly hymns
The haughty chosen one
Goes alone, the design of her jewels
Like the calligraphy of the infinite
Men are nothing to her
She is nothing to men
Just the quivering of a rainbow
After the storm 

This is a story of “Serendipity”, this wonderful hazard of finding exactly what you are looking for when your research stumbles against a real problem. It applies particularly to the discovery of the book you need, at the right moment. The above poem was inspired by a classical poem[1] about a wise priest who is fighting against demons who are craving for more and more. At the end, Manu has nothing left to sacrifice, except his own wife. The God saves the life of the women and asks the priest “to let her go”.  And she goes … who knows where? I was wondering about how legendary heroines can be interpreted in modern terms. In the meantime I was looking for books about feminism outside the main Western stream. This is how I discovered the author Ambai, the name of a character in The Mahabharata. I knew that this book was what I was looking for.

I think that our stream-of-consciousness can lead us to the right person or the right book, as if there was a secret attraction in the intellectual world, floating in the air. The discovery of an author is a personal experience; teaching can help, but not replace it. In this case, it is an example of a creative way of being a feminist, beyond abstract theories.

C.S. Lakshmi writes in Tamil under the name, Ambai. Her first book of short stories, Shattered Wings, was published in 1976. She is also the author of studies about women’s literature in Tamil. As a scholar, she works on projects related to the history of the women of Tamil Nadu and is responsible for the SPARROW project, a Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women. She is involved in the feminist movement.

Ambai’s A Purple Sea is translated from the Tamil original is by Lakshmi Holmström. 

A Purple Sea is a compilation of short stories written between 1970 and 1990 that gives an idea of the broad span of Ambai’s resourceful talents. Some stories subtly emphasize small, everyday events, where an unnoticeable event can determine a whole destiny or break a life. This is the case in “My mother, her crime”, which involves the discovery of puberty by a teenager, or “Wings”, which enters into the intimacy of a women married to a stingy and egotistical husband. On the other hand, the author is adept at painting a broad fresco about women protesting against rape in the seventies, using all the formal resources of modern fiction – including cutting, flashbacks, false simplicity and an ironic imitation of an academic report. Sometimes we encounter a kind of humorous micro-sociology, sometimes poetic stories infused with rich symbolism and a colorful style. These histories take place in all kinds of social and geographical environments: the countryside, with its traditions of arranged marriages, describing simple and humble people; but also the modern upper class of the big cities. In all cases, her approach is to describe the position of women in contemporary Indian society from a deeply involved point of view.

The art of Ambai is a patient undermining of prevailing views, and, more deeply, an attempt to create a new language inspired by silent communication. As he writes in “Black Horse Square”: “People like your mother have their own special language. It seems to possess the kind of structure, the heights and depths of the language of words. Yet it is wordless. It is a language embedded in the swinging of arms, in the glance of the eye, in the pressing of a hand against the back, in laughter, in weeping, in lamentation, in the silence that does away with all words.” 

To attain her purpose, her strategy is to use all the powers of sensibility and art to overcome the deafness and blindness of characters locked into patterns of behavior, who become unconscious “innocent executioners”. 

Here is an excerpt from “Black Horse Square”:

A judge.
Opposite him, a woman in a cage.
“Are you a virgin?
“In that case you were not a victim of rape.”
“Did you scream while you were being raped?
“No, they had gagged me.”
“Did you at least try to shout out?”
“No, I had fainted.”
“In that case you were not raped. It happened with your assent.”

Ambai has a capacity to look at things through a magnifying glass and suddenly change realm using vivid images. She writes in “Gift”: “When she turned around, she caught only the tail end of that purple sari. She let that purple cloth spread out across her mind. A purple sea. Gradually it seemed to turn into a poisonous blue, rising higher and higher.” The author is able to turn the burning of a neglected collection of 1930 women’s magazines in an old library frequented only by a female scholar and a squirrel into a universal tragedy. She can also turn “clichés” into verbal clashes and satirical descriptions.

This is a sophisticated “post-modern” literature in a changing society hindered by archaic cramps. One of the most interesting resources is her use of Indian myths that are full of humor and strokes of inspiration. In the first place her name, Ambai, reminds me of the legend of the Mahabharata heroine, who was won in a tournament and subsequently abandoned by a warrior-priest because of his religious vows so she could neither be married nor go back to her family. The story says that she sacrificed herself in the fire and was reincarnated in the form of a man so that he/she could take revenge. Maybe the legendary Ambai was the first woman rebel in the history of mankind, but now it is just an ordinary first name. It is interesting that an ethical problem was solved by the breaking of the law of gender.

Several titles of short stories are names of gods like Trisanku. Ambai writes, “King of the Ikshvaku clan who wished to perform a sacrifice which would enable him to ascend bodily into heaven. The celebrated sage Vasishta refused, declaring it to be impossible, and Vasishta’s sons condemned him to become a chandala for his presumption.” This story is about a poor girl coming from a lower caste, who wishes to become a scholar, and is thrown out of the paradise of knowledge. This is something that resonates with the events unfolding in present-day India.

But the philosophical tale I prefer is “Vamanam”, the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu, who is supposed to reincarnate in the form of a computer – playing divine chess, of course. The dialogues reveal a deep wisdom:

“What shall I call you?
Don’t tease.
What’s your name?
I am Manaja
You are born of the forest, vanam; I of the mind, manam.
Don’t be difficult, I’ll get angry.
My name is Vamanam. You can call me Vaamu. In your language, you can shorten it even further. Vaa, come.”

Maybe this kind of ironical distance could be called “Indian sense of humor”, I don’t know. Anyway it helps to lighten the burden of existence for all these characters that are stricken by fate; these women who yield up to some obscure verdict. Something cosmic is at stake in these linked existences, this explosive mixture of antique traditions and a liberation that rarely succeeds in this basically ungrateful and hostile environment. And indeed it takes time for the feminist ideal to overcome so many obstacles, as in this story where transmission is symbolized by a letter in the form of an unfinished poem.

Behind the colors, the sensuous picture of life, perfumes, spices, saris floating in the wind, sacred rivers, these stories are cruel tales that form an inventory of disaster. This way of describing one’s grief with a radiant smile is more than elegant; it is true moral nobility.

I suppose that Mother Teresa could never guess that distressed beings are hidden in narrow kitchens and in elegant sitting rooms. She had no idea of this silent despair, an invisible injustice insuperable because it lies at the roots of society.

“Without the Energy that lifts mountains I cannot live,” wrote the mystical poet, Mirabai.

Maybe this is the kind of energy we need to shake obsolete, oppressive customs.

[1] French translation from the Sanskrit of Jean Varenne’s Mythes et légendes extraits des Brâmanas (The Wife of Manu).

Rebecca Behar
is a French poet, born in Paris. She started being published in French reviews in the 1990’s and was involved in alternative movements such as free radios, murals, poetry manifestoes. Currently she is active as a Slam performer in Paris.  She is the author of children’s stories (Quatre Gamins dans le Cosmos – Mon petit éditeur ; Bulle d’Ozer et l’Enchanteur – Altramenta) ; short stories (La Vie de Bohème – Edilivre) and a book of literary criticism (Conférences et articles – Altramenta). Her CDs of poetry and music are downloadable in Jamendo. She keeps a blog about traveling and her last CD is about this subject (En guise de passeport: Her book of poetry called, Poèmesurbains, is under publication.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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