A Night with a Black Spider: Charming ordinariness of the people in Ambai's stories are this collection’s strength
Ambai’s stories, set in the world of women, Carnatic music, and conferences, carry a marked sense of self-awareness
In reading Ambai’s new short story collection, A Night with a Black Spider — Stories, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan from the Tamil, I’ve re-discovered the pleasures of reading translation, even when one is familiar with the original language, and the cultural milieu the work is set in. Something I felt last, when I read CS Chellappa’s Tamil novella, Vaadivasal (Arena) in Kalyan Raman’s translation.
In this collection, Ambai presents 17 stories, some completely unlike any others, some with an element of continuity — like the various ‘Journey’ stories titled Journey 11-20, interspersed with others like ‘Dawn’, ‘Tiruvalluvar Under the Tree’ etc. The first story is a re-telling of the Mahishan’s fight with Devi, where Ambai casts it as ‘A Love story With a Sad Ending’. The author helps you relate to Mahishan the ‘asura’ and his love, and the story resonates with the politics of caste and love that has gripped the state of Tamil Nadu. There are many layers to this retelling — one that is within the realms of myth, another where Ambai masterfully uses the narrative of the good man dubbed an ‘asura’ in our puranas because of his physical appearance and lineage — things he has no control over, a narrative we are all familiar with here in the land of Dravidian politics, and finally the irony of caste wars in Tamil Nadu (the land of ‘anti-caste’ agitations) that ends up taking the lives of young Dalit men who dare to marry caste Hindu women.
The charming ordinariness of the people in these stories are this collection’s big strength. With them, without your noticing Ambai draws you close. As if you are just in the company of some old acquaintances and then before you know it, something brilliant emerges. Within each story lies hidden the poetry, pain and pleasures of ordinary people. Like when a daughter takes her old father to a tailor, and an old way of friendship emerges. An intimate world of special coffee or milk from a flask, and camaraderie in unexpected spaces. Of old parents and the anxieties of children that connect many stories, and importantly, Journey 11 and Journey 12. Of a sudden joke hidden in the middle of a moving story, where the protagonist Apeeta, is embarrassed by not just the meaning of her name (breasts that had not been suckled at by any child), but also because of the taunts of other kids who call her pee taa (give sh*t). Of a woman who sits on a statue’s lap, far away from home, of a cook named Kamatchi, who crosses the boundaries of caste casually. And the powerful play of words, like when Kamatchi wonders if it was ‘Paramacharya’ (the Kanchi seer who worships the goddess Kamatchi) who came in her daughter’s mother-in-law’s dream and admonished her for taking dowry or if it was a phone call ‘Paramu Annachi’, who runs ‘everything’ in a part of Mumbai.
Through many of these stories, as if in witness, music — film and Carnatic — is present. Ambai deftly weaves them into the story, and suddenly you don’t know where the music ends and where the story begins. In 'Burdensome Days', Ambai shows us how conversations and stories about Carnatic music are deeply embedded in conversations of caste and politics in Tamil Nadu. In the same story, an anecdote about Madurai Somu singing 'Enna Kavi Paadinalum' (No matter what I sing to you…) left me so moved that I spent the next couple of days humming and listening to it.
At a time when Carnatic music is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts, because of its exclusionary ways, and even as musicians try hard to make it big, and youngsters — apart from those who perform themselves — refuse to flock to sabhas to listen to music, Ambai’s stories string together a world of nostalgia with their musical references. In the story, 'When Things Die', Ambai also shows us the death of a way of life, of a generation, that was intimately involved in the world of music. As the black veena crashes in the Godavari, in this story, the narrator’s lament take on a new meaning: “What happened to Veena Dhanammal’s veena? To Veena Balachander’s instrument? To Karaikudi Samasivayyar’s? He did not even have children to give his veena to. What had veena vidwans of today planned for their veenas once they themselves were gone? Was there an exclusive mortuary for veenas?”
Ambai also captures the violence of life through the blows that come her protagonists’ ways. Though some of it is physical — like in the story of Mahishan and in Journey 17, where two men strip the protagonist of her salwar in Delhi, many of it is also through words. In 'A Moon to Devour', the heroine is the colour of naaval pazham (black plum) and is insulted for it in a manner, and at a time, that it knocks the wind out of one. But she also avenges the insult in a manner so truly original that you can feel the fury through the pages of the book.
As a reader, I found this translation of stories from Tamil to be a delightful way to engage with emotions that are tied to a ‘place’, and one that we are able to seldom experience in fiction in Indian English. And as a writer working with music and politics in Chennai as fodder for fiction, I found the collapsing of the worlds — the Tamil world and English words — in this book alchemical. Translated fiction is also precious because of the delight of layers it brings. Gifting the reader the experience of two worlds at once — the joy of knowing the ‘original’ as well as the ‘other’. For instance, when you read about a boy named Murugan with mango-shaped head, who wore a manjal sattai, a yellow shirt, rode a mottai vandi, an open cart… you feel like you are ‘in’ as soon as the transliteration appears, even before the translation. As if the translator is offering you, a sudden clear peek at the writer’s mind. A small flash that appears, draws you in and then disappears just as soon to blend in with the rest of the story. The calls the translator takes, on when to let just the original word in Tamil stay, when to translate, and when to let both co-habit, is an interesting one to watch, and is a field of politics unto itself. Those of us who read and write about our ‘vernacular’ lives in English grapple with these questions often. And Aniruddhan (who has brought the works of Perumal Murugan to English previously) brings in Ambai’s world to life with craft that is enviable.
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