Writing Empathy: The Polychromatic World of Ambai’s ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’

By Basudhara Roy

What is it in a collection of short stories that instantly holds one’s attention and imagination hostage? The answer, I believe, would vary from reader to reader. But in general, one approaches the short story for a compound realization of life, a heightened awareness of the moment and a sense of epiphany that can illumine one’s world, even if briefly, summoning more meaning to it. To embark upon a reading of Ambai’s A Red-necked Green Bird, translated from the original Tamil into English by GJV Prasad and published by Simon & Schuster India this March, is to be rewarded with a fulfilment of all these expectations and assuredly, more.

Surrendering to Ambai’s charm, seriousness and commitment as a storyteller is to learn, in many ways, to witness the world anew. The topography of Ambai’s world, I will venture to offer, is both familiar and extraordinary. Here is terrain, we are ready to affirm, that we know and are intimately part of. With its families, neighbourhoods, kitchens, metros, its tug of war of priorities, interests, and relationships, and its omnipresence of age, disease, death, love and loss, we are convinced that Ambai’s landscape is the one we essentially inhabit. And yet, a few pages down the book, one pauses to reconsider, recapitulate, and reassess. Are things really the same?

It takes time to arrive at the realization that keeping the fundamental ingredients of social life unaltered, Ambai orders her fictional world in accordance with radically different coordinates. An ardent feminist, her vision rallies around a markedly inclusive ethics of respect, care, and empathy. Nourishing this feminist vision is a keen historical sense that ceaselessly draws connections between past and present, cause and effect, betrayal and vengeance, and inheritance and legacy in order to make inroads of wisdom into life’s bewildering chaos. This commitment to a larger human cause is, perhaps, the reason why Ambai’s world appears so credible to us despite the fact that she is no strict realist and easily blends the magical and the fantastic to knead the narratives in her book.

Even as her stories exhibit a crisp contemporaneity like crisply fried onions or to use an image from her own world, a crisp dosa, they return again and again to the rich mine of myths, cultural memories and historical discourses to find new ways to make sense of the present. Thus, it does not astound that while the title story of the collection, ‘A Red-necked Green Bird’ describes the bus travelling to Dehradun playing a song from the movie – Jab We Met – “Aoge jab tum sajna”, ‘The City that Rises from Ashes’ looks upon the underworld of Mumbai as a Takshaka come to avenge the fall of Khandavaprastha.

It is interesting to observe the way in which Ambai’s stories beginning from the individual and the particular, stretch relentlessly outwards into the cultural and the social so that they cease, beyond a point, to be simply the considerations of a small set of people and acquire philosophical significance as a new window into life. Though it would be an injustice to flatten the lush wealth of these stories into a single thematic thesis, each story reaches out from the home into the world to engage us in vital social encounters and reflections. While the title story examines the layered meanings of sound, silence, communication, and language in the world against a dense tissue of relationships, “Swayamvars with No Bows Broken” looks at the property and propriety issues that deeply surround widowhood even today. If “The Pond” articulates how women’s problems stem directly from their bodies, “The City that Rises from Ashes” examines economic development as a series of narratives of dispossession. “Falling” describes filial betrayal; “1984”documents the memory of the terrible riots that cast a shadow on communal relationships for ever; “The Lion’s Tail” visualizes a post-humanist utopia wherein the lion (whose tail was only what Einstein was convinced had been revealed to man) would be discovered and so on and so forth with each of the thirteen stories that comprise the book. Though these stories speak eloquently to all, they primarily locate themselves within the South Indian community in Mumbai, voicing its rhythms, aspirations, accomplishments, and disappointments with tender realism. The urban cityscape comes alive in her tales in its distinctive colours, cuisines, and linguistic inflections making these stories equally significant as chapters in the bildungsroman of the city’s growth.

Making way through A Red-necked Green Bird, it does not take one long to note that the narrative voices in all these tales are voices of women. The issues that many of the stories powerfully champion, are women’s issues. And yet, I would refuse to call these stories ‘women-centric’ in the conventional sense of the term. To me, Ambai’s stories are out with a conscious intention to meet women in the world and are fuelled by their self-appointed goal of making women more audible and visible. In fact, the portrayal of even minor characters in her fiction as full, three-dimensional women is so pervasive that one seems to register, almost for the first time, the ubiquitous and neglected presence of women in our world – not just as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends but also as neighbours, fellow travellers, academics, artists, caregivers, sweepers, vegetable sellers, horsewomen, and so on.

While establishing the socio-cultural presence of women in fiction on such a dense scale is itself revolutionary, equally laudable is Ambai’s representation of them. In “Journey 22”, the unnamed narrator states:

…it seemed to her that the image of India during colonial times that it was a country of snake charmers, street performers, elephants and tigers, had been replaced by another image now; that it was a country that oppressed and enslaved women and raped them. (190)

Ambai makes sure to recast the dynamics of the representation of her women on decolonial lines, clearly steering them away from positions of disempowerment and victimhood. In “Falling”, seventy-two-year-old Kamala who is on the brink of committing suicide in order to find a way to meet her deeply-loved husband in death, thinks:

Her jaws, teeth, shoulder blades, arms and legs, her thigh could all be fractured into pieces. But her spine shouldn’t break. Only then Aadi would realise the strength of her backbone. That as far as women were concerned, it had no expiry date. (40)

All women in A Red-necked Green Bird, across their diversity of class, age, education, and social position, emanate strength, confidence, and assurance. Almost all of them are on the path of economic self-dependence and exhibit education, common sense, good decision-making abilities, potent communication skills, high intellectual and emotional quotients, warm empathy and determined assertiveness. This is not to deflect attention from the agonies and dangers that loom large over women in a man’s world. In “The Pond”, for instance, a man’s experience of the world undergoes a seismic shift when he becomes unexpectedly transformed into a woman after taking a dip in a magic pond. Poignantly reminiscent to me of Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the story describes how being a girl is to naturally invite miseries upon one’s head. Such tragic occurrences, notwithstanding, men and women are deeply connected in Ambai’s fictional world through nourishing symbiotic relationships. In their roles as husbands, friends, and lovers particularly, her best male characters find their human fulfilment, moving fluidly across domestic and professional spaces to be both associates and admirers of their partners. It is in, through and with their relationships with each other that men and women grow into themselves in these stories and occupy valuable spaces in their families and social communities. In “Journey 21”, the deep relationship between Kamumma and Rajappa “was a love that ungendered each other”, each referring to the other as ‘It’ (26).

In her brief, disarming essay, “Stories and Me” that prefaces the book, Ambai talks of the central significance of windows to her imagination as a writer as she recalls the various windows, both stationery and moving, that she has seen the world from. Reading her stories, one is reminded metaphorically of the journey as a window. Ambai’s world, one realizes, is continually fleshed out before us through journeys – physical, temporal, emotional and philosophical. Her characters are continuously engaged in the examination of themselves and their world, their hindsight upon the past being the means through which their perspectives grow. Each journey, no matter its length, hardships and sacrifices involved, is epistemologically rewarding and it is these journeys branching out in each story that become windows to the reader to engage with a new worldview.

Philosopher Peter Goldie describes ‘empathy’ as a process by which a person centrally imagines the narrative (the thoughts, feelings, and emotions) of another person. In story after story in A Red-necked Green Bird, one is led to empathetically connect with a host of characters drawn from a wide socio-cultural cross-section. The reader travels through a host of subject-positions – betrayed parents, feminist men, memory-scarred daughters, dumb lovers, cyborg husbands – to acquire intimacy with a multiplicity of lives not physically lived, and in this potential to weld the world into an empathetic whole, the collection marks its greatest strength.

No less empathetic is the process of translation that has given these stories a new life in a new language. Much as one may endorse the idea of the androgynous creative mind, a world as nuanced with women’s thoughts and feelings as Ambai conjures in her stories, would have been challenging for a male translator to mirror with as much felicity and power as Prasad has done. Also, since no two languages can be exactly equivalent, a translator’s empathetic imagination would be called upon to fill in the linguistic gaps in the text with the loyalty of shared emotions. That these translations read rich, fluent, and fluid in the English language, steadily urging the narratives forward without linguistic self-consciousness is, in itself, a statement on the translator’s prowess. To add that these narratives will linger in the reader’s mind because of their cadence, charm and rare grace is to assert that translation has transcended from mere meaning-making to immortal art.

Bio:
Basudhara Roy has been teaching as Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Karim City College, Jamshedpur, for the last ten years. An alumnus of Banaras Hindu University, she holds a Ph.D. in diaspora women’s writing from Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her areas of academic interest are diaspora writing, cultural studies, gender studies and postmodern criticism.  She is the author of a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and two collections of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019) and Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021).

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