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A very fine contemporary feminist writer, Ambai's In a Forest, A Deer consists of the stories of women we all know.
Priyadarshini is a book-loving mother of one and a former finance professional who has just discovered the joys of writing. She is finally learning to let go of the messy house and the overflowing laundry and concentrate on the important things in life, like playing in the park with her son.
Reading Ambai’s In a Forest, A Deer feels like coming home. Many of the characters remind you of women you have met; those in your family or among your friends. They are familiar and yet the 18 stories in this collection, go beyond the surface to explore hidden facets, until you start to wonder about those women you thought you knew.
Like Bharathi’s mother in the story ‘Parasakthi and Others in a Plastic box’, who seems like that ‘homely’ Indian woman, from our grandmothers’ generation. When Bharathi gets divorced, her mother flies to America to stay with her for a few days, bringing with her four gods in a plastic box, although it seems as though she has brought her whole world along. Through age-old rituals and familiar food, she helps to heal Bharathi’s wounds, and shows her that life goes on.
Or Thangam Athai in the title story, ‘In a Forest, A Deer’, who is everyone’s favourite aunt. She tells the best stories, but carries a secret that only the adults know about and children cannot understand. She finally describes her position to the children through a story, about a deer caught in a forest. It may be difficult being different but it takes you to places others cannot go.
The most wonderful thing about this collection of stories, that it celebrates differences and being unconventional, something that is often admired in men but is very difficult for a woman. There are so many women here, who question the norm and turn rules on their heads. There is Chenthiru in “A Forest’, who is refused a partnership in her husband’s firm in spite of the long hours she has spent working there, and decides to do something so radical that she has her family worried. She travels alone to stay in a forest for a few days, an experience that very few of us have. This leads her on her own voyage of self discovery, and she turns to writing, imagining Sita rewriting the Ramayana from her own perspective.
‘Unpublished Manuscript’ is another story about a very brave unconventional woman, Thirumagal. She is described in three different roles – as a cherished daughter experiencing the overwhelming love of a father, as a wife to an increasingly abusive husband, and finally as a mother, who seeks to start afresh with her daughter, leaving behind traumatic memories of her marriage. It is a powerful story, beautifully told and will stay with you for a long time.
Ambai examines a gamut of relationships in this collection – husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, teachers and students, lovers and friends. With a few broad strokes of her pen, she manages to give us the essence of each one, and to find something beautiful.
The stories that I found especially touching, reminded me of my own childhood. ‘First Poems’ is about a young girl, dreamy and innocent, whose first attempts at poetry and achieving wisdom, come to an abrupt halt when she discovers the brutality of the world we live in. ‘Journey 3’ is about a girl’s discovery of worlds outside her own, when she goes with her maid Maruthayi, to give an offering to Mariamman, considered a ‘lower class’ God by her own mother. There is the feeling of excitement and pleasure in the forbidden, in doing things that her mother has expressly warned her against, something we can all relate to.
The stories of exile, have been written with such insight and sensitivity. The home-sickness and the search for some connection that can bring home just a little bit closer. And the disillusionment when the real thing does not match up to our memories. All of that has been captured perfectly in ‘A Rat, A Sparrow’. As also the tendency to cling to your roots while abroad, described in ‘ A Rose Coloured Sari Woven with Birds and Swans’
Ambai is a pseudonym under which C.S.Lakshmi writes her Tamil short stories. Her writing takes you along to all those places she describes, you can see those sights and smell those wonderful things that she talks about. But it is the women who carry the stories, many of them seem quite ordinary and yet their strength is inspiring as is their ability to stand their ground and question an unfair society.
Lakshmi Holmstrom has done a wonderful job capturing the flavours and nuances of the original stories in this collection. At no point do we feel that we are reading a translation. Like Ambai says in the foreward, “This magic of a story taking shape in another language can happen only if, like pushing a fishing boat into a sea, a translation gently nudges a story into the vast ocean of another language”. And Lakshmi has managed to do just that.
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