Book Review: A Red-necked Green Bird, by Ambai

A shorter version of this review appeared in Deccan Herald

Book Review

A Red-necked Green Bird, by Ambai; translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; Simon & Schuster India, 2021

My introduction to CS Lakshmi or Ambai,  acclaimed writer in Tamil and  researcher in women’s studies, was with “A Purple Sea”, a 1998 translation of her short stories and I recall the sharp, observant, audacious voice that came through.

The volume under review, “A Red-necked Green Bird”, is Ambai’s seventh anthology of short stories, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad, a poet and novelist himself. Ambai’s voice is as sharp, and in the fullness of time, more contemplative.

Voicing her views on translation in the Introduction, she says,  “The process of translation is like taking a seed from one soil and planting it in another soil. 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 green shoot in a plant one has given up for dead.”

Despite these caveats, Ambai and Prasad deliver a full-grown anthology of thirteen stories; stories that ruminate on the rich and textured arc of life, yet it is the fading of the light, the sense of an ending that forms their substance. Life is wondrous, a journey of discovery, of shared ideals, yearning and fulfilment, but in no time at all infirmity and decay take over. A fall in the bathroom and “Blood had dried like honeycomb on the back of his head.”

Ambai’s characters are sentient beings, unafraid to make unconventional choices. They bear the hallmarks of breeding and culture– music and literature buoy them through life and provide meaning when the lamp begins to flicker. Snatches of classical and film music, bhajans, and recitations from the Granth Sahib are interspersed in  the narrative. The stories are scaffolded by references to historical milestones such as the Emergency, the 1984 riots or the once flourishing textile mills of Girangaon in Bombay.

Ambai’s style is clipped and economical, often bordering on the impatient. As in the first story, “The Crow with the Swollen Throat”.

“The loss of memory came slowly like dark clouds descending.

Suddenly one day he asked, ‘It is ten o’ clock. Why hasn’t your mother returned yet? Why so long to buy vegetables?’

Amma was hanging on the wall in front of him.”

Or the opening of “Falling” —

“She was standing on the twelfth-floor balcony. She had selected carefully this hotel surrounded by the hills of Shimla as the best place for suicide. The hotel where she had stayed with Sathya fifty years earlier.”

Music is never far behind, providing the liniment to the harshness.

“Behag ragam floated into the mind. Sathya loved the ragam. The ragam of Purandaradasar’s Naneke badavanu Naneke paradesi – Why would I be poor, why a mendicant, when you are with me as my greatest treasure, O Hari.”

Her characters refuse to go gentle into the night, the hold of the senses is strong. The father in the first story, diagnosed with throat cancer, can no longer swallow, yet “would ask for the eeya chatty, the tin vessel in which the rasam was prepared, to be brought near his nose. He would breathe in the smell deeply.” With tubes protruding from his body, Sathya slurs, “Kamala I want ginger tea” — tea he can no longer drink.

Some stories see a more expansive narrative, as with the title story. A  broadminded couple adopt a child. They name her Thenmozhi, one whose speech is as sweet as honey. She turns out to be hearing and speech impaired – her father is determined that she should speak, unlike the “Red-necked Green Bird”, the coppersmith barbet whose strangled call reverberates in the garden. The girl writes:

“In a world that I … live, there is no sound. Drops of sound fall on us through our hearing aids. They are hot. Hot as fire. Sound is a whip. Gives pain.  …  Language is communication. It can happen without sound.”

Yet, the stories are neither pessimistic nor sentimental; their mood can be described as sombre, as with recollections of  life lived to the full. Sometimes, the urgency in the telling leads to abrupt shifts in context and subject matter as in “The City that Rises from the Ashes”. Some stories reflect on the human experience in unexpected ways. In “The Pond” a man bathes in a miraculous pond and emerges to experience in full measure “What it meant to be a woman in this cruel period of the twenty-first century”. In “The Lion’s Tail”, a young woman who loses her family in an accident conjures up  an Ottaagam, a cyborg, with whom she proceeds to fall in love. The concluding story, “Journey 23” is a light-hearted take on the perils of interpreting symbols – is the sculpture mounted on top of a building a giant phallus or a turd?


The most unlikely heroes have emerged …

It’s going to be a three-legged race …

 As writers, we are advised to touch irony with a light hand, deal it out in small doses, but Nature is no such pussyfooter. The virus  brazenly wears its crown of knobby tiaras – the thing has a name and a structure –  we no longer tilt at windmills. (We also learnt recently that a  flower with a startling likeness to the virus blooms in the  tribal district of Bastar in central India. It belongs to the Melastoma family and is rich in medicinal properties; apparently, the locals chew on its twigs and use them as toothbrushes.)

The whole world (almost) has been in stages of lockdown and it’s getting on to two months now. It could extend indefinitely, in some form, even when the locks are opened. When our country of 1.30 billion locked down, we marvelled at our own administrative feat. Everything came to a grinding halt as we all stayed home. We were disoriented for the first few days. We mourned the empty city streets, our disrupted routines, the enforced leisure; till then confinement was a word more associated with childbirth. As recompense we had newspapers and books; there was TV and WhatsApp and Netflix.

The self-same newspapers and television brought us visions of migrant workers, many of whom had started walking back hundreds of kilometres to return to their villages. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, almost 140 million workers migrate from the villages to the cities in search of work.) What of them? Or the daily-wage earners or families confined to single sheds with asbestos roofs? “Stay home” seems a taunt then, and “social distancing” an Austenian literary conceit.

A newspaper interviewed several such migrant workers who had not gone home but were housed in shelters, surviving on subsistence rations. What they looked forward to most was the food they would have once they reached home. Their wants were simple. Parwal (pointed gourd) should be in season now, a young man mused. I will ask my wife to make me a potato-parwal curry when I reach home.

When this is over and we begin anew, perhaps we will be reminded of the dignity that each human being is entitled to, and work towards a more equitable world.

The most unlikely heroes have emerged. The word “Asha” in Hindi means “hope”; it is also an acronym for the clunkily bureaucratic Accredited Social Health Activist. The ASHA workers, women of modest means, carry on their shoulders the enormous responsibility of mobilising their local communities to be responsive to modern medicine and the health care system. They have been tireless in the present pandemic, going into crowded neighbourhoods to check on health parameters,  giving out information, coaxing people into self-quarantine  often at the risk of their own safety. Like the ASHA women there are several people, cogs in the system’s wheels – sanitation workers, delivery boys and others, who have been quietly doing their jobs.

The writing is on the wall. We will have to review what we value, and understand that our individual health and well-being are tied up with those of others, of the larger community. Going forward, it is going to be a three-legged race whether we like it or not.

The Earth has been given some breathing space, some downtime. There are reports of peacocks wandering on the streets of Mumbai and dolphins swimming off its coast. Incredulous citizens from north Indian towns post photographs of the Himalayan ranges which they can see from their rooftops for the first time in their lives, as the air has cleared up.

We can only repeat Mahatma Gandhi’s succinct if bald statement —  There is enough on Earth for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed. We will have to learn to school our appetites and marshal our resources better.

But human memory is short. We have survived wars, pestilences, disasters both man-made and natural. Each time we have been given an opportunity to begin again. This time, we must take the baton and run with it.

Usha K R

29th April 2020

Essay in 91st Meridian, an electronic publication of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa

Lockdown Diaries: A kind of grief

Lockdown Diaries: A kind of grief by Usha KR

We are feeling sadness at losing the normal tenor of life and having to grapple with the unknown

BOOKS Updated: Apr 03, 2020 15:50 IST

Usha KR

Hindustan Times

The enemy is not in sight; it is literally in thin air: A scene from Solaris (1972). (Alamy Stock Photo)

The heat is building up. It promises to be a long summer. The garden has never been so green before. I can watch the changing slant of light through the day. And listen to the birds all day long. A paddy bird visits every morning and sits patiently by the water. Yesterday there was a flock of parakeets in the mango tree. The cuckoo and the crow pheasant are commonplace now, but their call can catch you off guard.

Of course, there is a pervading sense of unreality, as if all this is a mirage and we are all suspended in time. I am reminded of a film that continues to engage me in different ways – the Russian film Solaris, particularly its opening sequence, where a scientist lingers by a pond and there is a long, beautifully filmed scene of underwater weeds undulating in the clear waters. It is his last day on earth, before he leaves for a distant space station. Weeds in a pond and the sound of running water – the familiar imbued with a melancholic beauty because of what lies ahead.

What we are feeling is a kind of grief, so says a “grief expert”, a bewilderment and anxiety, and sadness at losing the normal tenor of our life and having to grapple with the unknown. We are ready, as Winston Churchill once urged his people, to fight on the beaches, in the fields and on the streets, but the enemy is not in sight – it is literally thin air. The tools of our rational mind, the links between cause and effect, of action and retribution, of plain logical explanation do not apply here. Clichés have come to acquire new life – We are all in this together. And my new favourite – This too shall pass.

I miss the Bangalore traffic – the noise, the clog, the friendly fumes; the autorickshaws and the lumbering BTS buses. The roads, harried as they are on account of the Metro construction or white topping work, lead you to the people that you want to see, whom you have always taken for granted, to whom you said just the other day – “See you tomorrow”; the roads lead you to the park and the gym and the yoga class, and above all, the grocers and the vegetable shops. The daily wash of life has never seemed more precious; especially when you can no longer throw money at it.

There is little point in working from home when work itself has been rendered arcane and meaningless. Leisure makes no sense unless it is snatched from a busy day. (Strangely, I am spending less time now, watching shows on Netflix or its cousins.) And you are endlessly distracted by news bulletins racking up the score, WhatsApp forwards that you foreswore, and the continuous keeping track – has Italy surged past China? How is Spain doing? And Iran? The US? What new snippet of information does the greedy mind want?

The newspaper, fresh with the smell of newsprint, still comes in the morning – it is an essential good. A photograph of desperate daily-wage workers snaps its fingers at you. The lockdown means walking back to their distant homes, perhaps with nothing more than the clothes on their back, without the comforting thought of returning to their old lives and jobs. According to the said “grief expert” the pendulum swings when you accept your altered state, come to terms with it, hunker down and see what you can do. Among those WhatsApp messages were names of groups and institutions which are working with those left in the lurch. Now is the time to be part of some kind of solution. To get out of your self-indulgent fug, even as you know your fears are all not imagined.

When this is over, it will be a more circumspect world, more thoughtful and hopefully, kinder. When this is over, we will give thanks. We will learn to find beauty in starkness. We will learn to pare down our needs, to consume less, and be more self-dependent. We may discover our older, less frenetic ways of living – not in a Luddite way, but as people who have moved up the curve, enriched for instance, with technology which allows us virtual access to the world and to the people that we want to connect with, with a vaccine perhaps for the elusive virus. As a society this may give pause for us to rethink our models of development, it may be a take off point for a new blue print of growth, of the way we consume resources; we may review the ways we heal ourselves, our systems of fairness and justice. Perhaps these decisions will be taken out of our hands.

But there is no telling what fictions we will weave, what turns our stories may take. Those will take us by surprise. We are still marking time, waiting it out.

Usha KR is the author of the novels Sojourn (1998), The Chosen (2003), A Girl and a River (2007), and Monkey-man (2010). She lives in Bangalore.