“In our country, archiving is not seen as part of development. The women of this nation have a history of their own. Their history is not recorded anywhere and is not part of any text book. Our aim is to archive, what we call the politics of everyday life faced by women,” said short story writer and founder of SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women) Ambai, who was in the city recently.
Born as C S Lakshmi in Coimbatore, Ambai was brought up in Mumbai and Bengaluru. After a brief stint as a teacher in a small town, she pursued her doctorate at JNU, Delhi. During her PhD, she continued writing short stories, which she had begun at an early age.
Her stories such as Siragugal Muriyum, Milechan, Veettin Oru Moolaiyil Samayalarai and Kaattil Oru Maan were much acclaimed and grabbed the attention of many.
Her involvement with a small literary magazine Pregnyai gave her the opportunity to work with a group of friends who were determined to bring about significant changes in the Tamil literary arena.
Ambai, who was in Chennai for the screening of a film made by SPARROW to mark its 25th year, spoke to City Express about her literary works.
“While doing my seminal work, I disovered that there were no libraries with exclusive records or documentaries on women’s history. We don’t see documentation as a part of our development. That’s the reason we don’t have enough material on the history of women. So, I decided to document the lives of women from all walks of life, which resulted in the setting up of SPARROW. Here we collect spoken histories of women and personal papers including diaries of women, letters penned by them, recorded speeches and published work. We also collect photographs, posters, songs and other visual material. We try and archive art work done by women at home like embroidery and so on and make them part of the public domain. We make documentary films on women who, in their own ways have been agents of change, in their respective fields,” Ambai said.
Presently, SPARROW is working on a project for publishing the works of 87 writers from 23 Indian languages in five volumes. These include stories, poems and interviews with the writers.
Speaking about her literary career, Ambai said, “At first, I wrote a novel for children at the age of 16 titled Nandimalai Saaralile and I received an award from Kannan magazine, a part of Kalaimagal magazine group. It was published under my own name C S Lakshmi. But when I started to writer short stories for adults, I searched for a pseudonym. Since, I am very interested in epics, I chose the name Ambai, one of the characters from Mahabharatha, who is androgynous,” said Ambai.
Her story Siragugal Muriyum portrays the life of Chaya, the female protagonist of her story. It talks about how Chaya managed to live with her miser husband.
“I got the idea for the story from my friend’s life. After penning the story I read it out to her. And she asked me from where I had got the idea for the story. Very often women are not able to look into their own lives,” said Ambai.
Another story Kaattil Oru Maan describes the life and feelings of a woman who does not attain puberty.
“Many think that a woman is complete only if she gives birth to a child. Not having a kid does not make her incomplete in any way. In this story, the woman finally reconciles to the fact that she is normal,” she said.
Maybe such stories make people refer to her as a feminist writer. While she does not mind being called a feminist, she certainly minds when she is called a feminist writer.
“When a man writes a story, even if the protagonist is a man, it is supposed to be generally about life. But, when a woman writes a story and if she happens to give importance to female characters, she is seen as someone who writes only about women. Though some of my stories speak about the world of women, I am also writing about life in general and its complexities,” Ambai stressed.
During her student days in JNU, she had played a part in the formation of the Students Federation of India (SFI) wing there.
Some of those experiences find a mention in some of her stories. Her stories are taken from real life, but are not “true” stories in that sense. “Stories are not about truth, but about how we relate to what we consider as truth,” she concluded.