Book Review: A Red-necked Green Bird, by Ambai
A shorter version of this review appeared in Deccan Herald https://www.deccanherald.com/sunday-herald/sunday-herald-books/a-textured-arc-of-life-1029314.html
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?