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Review: Fish in a dwindling lake

books Updated: Apr 20, 2012 18:47 IST

Sharanya Manivannan, Hindustan Times
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Fish in a Dwindling Lake

Ambai

Penguin India

Rs 149 pp 250

On the cover of Fish in a Dwindling Lake is the image of two women, their backs turned, looking out towards a body of water. They must, we intuit, be silent. We know this because we know that in the presence of that which moves us, words come later. That same poignance imbues this collection of 11 stories.

For nearly four decades, Ambai’s writings have stirred her original Tamil readership with their forthright engagement with gender, particularly womanhood. In this, her third collection in English, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom, her protagonists are held together by the notion of a ‘journey’.

Most are aged or aging but remain traveller: pilgrims, commuters, chaperones, vacationers, passengers. As with all voyages, it is encounters with strangers that teach them both about themselves and the world. In ‘Journey 5’, two women holiday in Pondicherry with the intention of drinking wine, and find themselves partaking of a feast in the home of elderly strangers in a de facto relationship. In ‘Journey 7’, an unsuspecting nani-mausi finds herself escorting a runaway for whom leaving her husband may or may not be a kind of theatrical ritual.

Though some stories are set in places like Mumbai and Imphal, the most memorable ones evoke a deeply Tamil milieu, both through description and identifiable moral codes. One returns again and again to the stunning opening piece, ‘Journey 4’, in which a pregnant woman tells a stranger a shocking family secret, standing by the Kanyakumari shore. In ‘One Thousand Words, A Life’, pregnant women are again the central characters. In ‘The Calf That Frolicked In The Hall’, the collection’s third outstanding piece, the literary culture of Tamil Nadu in the 70s, when the anger of young men was considered glamorous, is both nostalgised and taken to task.

The author’s compassion extends to men, particularly in ‘Kailasam’, in which thwarted male desire is treated with a complexity that only a feminism steeped in actual human engagement, not just political rhetoric, would allow. Similarly in ‘Journey 9’, in which a gigolo subjected to brutality by a group of female clients washes his wounds in the home of a woman who once declined his services.

The motif of water — still and flowing — emerges often, evincing a series of nuanced tellings of what it means to inhabit a body that will return to the elements. A man falls or drowns himself in a well, another in a lake, a woman imagines carrying the tides home in a pot to her beloved, another has a refrigerator that forms mysterious shivalingam ice stalagmites.

Ambai’s work is neither sterile nor sensationalist, a danger inherent in writing that has the body as an axis. In Fish in a Dwindling Lake there is a profundity that could be attributed to age, but more importantly and less facetiously, to empathy. Like the women on the cover, we simply watch for a long time, too stirred to speak.

Sharanya Manivannan is a Chennai-based writer