Reading Ambai and running into oneself : Fiction never lies

“Ambai’s women come in all hues. They aren’t heroic caricatures. All of them struggle against, succumb to and overcome real pressures of everyday life,” writes Carol D’Souza.

‘Apple Tree Yard’ was a BBC One show that I could not finish watching. It was too well made.

In it, an accomplished, educated, modern woman is sexually assaulted by a male character in her social circle who does not think twice about it, considers it justified, almost an invitation, when he deduces that she is having an affair outside of marriage. The show is set in 21st century England. The disbelief and helplessness the lead character feels would resonate with women world over, no matter where they are situated. I could not finish watching the show because it had too many triggers which could potentially decimate my bubble. A bubble which reassures me that the power structure of the world is changing, that should I want, I could do anything I wanted, that the men in my life do not decide for me, a bubble which reassures me that I’m safe.

Good creative work, may it be a film or a book, penetrates like nothing else can. In Huxley’s words, “you read and you are pierced.”.

Source : Speaking Tiger Books

Ambai’s story titled, ‘A Moon to Devour’ that I read recently is such a story. I read it and it knocked the breath out of me. On most days I walk through life pretty sure of myself and with an inkling of how people may see me; reasonably comfortable with my position in the world. The protagonist of Ambai’s story is a dark-skinned woman who her father affectionately called our ‘dark plum’. She is comfortable with herself. The story has a nonlinear narrative. It starts with the lead character, old now, reminiscing. Among other things, about a college romance with a fellow artist and a music enthusiast. The man is initially introduced as charming and witty to boot. A night spent together when on a field trip in Europe is fondly narrated, till the lead character realises that she is pregnant. The reaction of the male character on hearing this news hits the reader like a kick in the stomach.

What the reaction brought home to me prominently is that one can never really know another person. We are like bats, constructing the people in front of us from limited, rebounding feedback. Another thing the reaction highlights is how we can never be sure of how we are perceived by other people, what place we occupy and purpose we serve in their life. My hamartia, if I were to self-diagnose, would be this, I assume too quickly that I matter.

Ambai’s protagonist, sometime after the above episode, receives a letter by the mother of the ex-lover. In what is one of the most powerful passages of the story, the mother writes:

“Sagu…please separate these things from each other: art-artist, night-moon, day-sun, sound-music. When you separate these things that appear unclear in terms of what lies within what, you will see there is a certain link and detachment between the two. Tease out even woman-motherhood. Yes, that too. It is a hallucination that makes them appear inseparable. Break that. Only then can you separate reality from happenstance, the experience from the pain it causes. They follow different grammars.”

The above story is part of a short story collection titled, a night with a black spider.

I am a reluctant short story reader. It is one of those things, as Kundera said, that I’ve come to believe about myself without knowing why and persist believing because of sheer inertia. This collection of stories by Ambai has been a very engaging read. I read somewhere that one critique of Ambai’s writing is that it is impressionistic in style, that Ambai uses quick, colourful strokes to capture the essence of experiences trading in a possible deeper view. To my eye, this style is an advantage. By limiting authorial heavy-handedness, it makes room for the reader. Besides, everyday life is a series of impressions after all, that are rarely unpacked.  

There’s a story in the collection titled ‘Journey 14’ that subtly comments on the exhibition, inadvertent or otherwise, privileged people make while supporting their pet causes. An educated woman with an egalitarian bent, a caste conscious upper caste man and several lower caste men share the same compartment on a train and what ensues shows the reader the delicate dynamics of power. A comment made by one of the lower caste men is very telling in this regard:

“Madam, you might feel compelled to show that you do not believe in caste. I don’t. Even though I don’t believe in it, it still stays sticking to me. I just have to keep dusting it away as I go. I should not allow it to make me, or others who are close to me, lose self-respect…”

As an outsider investigating caste oppression I’m constantly aware of my lack of first hand knowledge, the danger of appropriation, of misrepresentation; I’m yet to figure out the role authentic lived experience and objective academic scrutiny play in an investigation.

Well written fiction shows one social distance in an everyday snapshot.

It is common to believe that one is immune to destructive tendencies that may afflict other people. Other people give up successful careers, other people put up with abusive partners, other people let families run their lives etc. ‘Burdensome Days’ by Ambai presents a protagonist who gives into impulsive love that drags her into a mire compromises that last a quarter of a century. The story is a study in the role circumstances play in one’s life and how, maybe even to one’s own surprise, one can be easily lead.

For me, as an unhealthy connoisseur of control, the story brings home the point of one’s precarious position in the scheme of things, how malleable one’s values could be given the right circumstances. My abiding fear has always been of being co-opted by the ‘system’. Of suddenly one day waking up and ‘wanting’ to fall in line. The protagonist of the above story does not provide much solace in this matter. The last straw that breaks the camel’s back as it were, comes late in her life.

Ambai’s women come in all hues. They aren’t heroic caricatures. All them struggle against, succumb to and overcome real pressures of everyday life.

A lead character in a story titled ‘Journey 17’ elaborates very matter-of-factly on her life choices saying,

“She knew very clearly by then that only two kinds of running away were possible. One way was to do it like her sister: get married and leave in the traditional way. The other way was to use higher education as an excuse, argue, offer explanations, make promises and get away.”

Nuggets like these don’t let one forget that the battle one is fighting is a very old battle. I’m unable to make up my mind if I should be reassured or disheartened.

For all the (very present) problems with V. S Naipaul’s outlook, there’s one thing he said that I agree with whole heartedly, “An autobiography can distort, facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies.”

Creative fiction, whatever may be the medium, is the ultimate distiller of reality.

Source : LILA Foundation

Carol D’Souza is a research scholar and an avid reader.

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