The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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TWO NOVELLAS AND A STORY, By Ambai, Katha, Rs 120

The nationalist discourse in 19th century colonial India, writes Partha Chatterjee in The Nation and its Fragments, addressed the women’s question by dividing the social space into the outer and the inner sphere. While the outer sphere, inhabited by the male, was a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material interest, the inner sphere was one of peace and spiritual activities symbolized by women. Women’s role in society was to strengthen familial ties and to keep the home intact. In Nationalist Iconography, Tanika Sarkar also writes that nationalism sought to confirm that women have a specific and limited role and that there is no final and absolute transgression.

In post-colonial India, the distinction of the spheres is much more complicated. The break-down of joint families, the proliferation of professions and the ever-increasing need to be economically affluent have already blurred the strict division between the “outer” and the “inner”. But patriarchy has created myriad other means of subversion which a woman has to constantly negotiate in her private as well as professional life. At times, her professional obligations impinge on her personal life and sometimes her personal life puts her professional life under stress. More often than not, she has to inhabit a highly ambiguous space which accommodates an unstable and self-contradictory gender ideology.

Two Novellas and a Story by C. S. Lakshmi, written under the nom de plume Ambai, explores this space occupied by the “gendered body” of the postcolonial woman and examines the silencing processes that go into its making. Lakshmi is a well- known Tamil writer and a celebrated crusader of the women’s cause.

The first novella, “Wrestling”, is about a woman called Shenbagam, who had to sacrifice her career in music in favour of her less talented husband, Shanmugam. Shenbagam, however, grows out of her meek role as a wife and triumphs in the end when she suddenly breaks into a song at a concert, much to Shanmugam’s consternation.

While “Wrestling” unravels the gender politics implicit in the institution of marriage, “Unpublished Manuscript” deals with a woman who, having fallen out with her poet husband over the publication of an anthology of poems, now lives with her only daughter, Chentamarai. The daughter chances upon the unpublished manuscript of her mother which documents the tough struggle in her conjugal life. The reading and re-reading of the manuscript brings the daughter and the mother closer and improves their mutual understanding. But the novella ends with a blinkered vision, suggesting the reordering of a relationship gone awry. Chentamarai, on receiving the news of her father’s death, starts to consider attending the function that is to be held in her father’s memory, and begins to feel that only by doing so, could she “face that anthology of poems in the right spirit.”

“A deer in the Forest” is a short-story about a barren woman, Thangam Athai, who lives peacefully with her husband’s second wife who bore him six children. She carves out her own space by telling strangely mystical stories to the children who listen to her spell-bound. This is a symbolic retrieval of self through never-ending narratives.

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