A night with a black spider: Stories by Ambai (Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)
Published by: Speaking Tiger, Paperback Edition
Fiction: Short story, 220p
My Rating: 4/5
Book Jacket summary:
Setting the stage with the Asura Mahishan’s doomed love for the beautiful Devi, Ambai deftly combines myth and tradition with contemporary situations. In the title story, the woman who is mother, daughter, solver of all problems for her family, finds that it is only a black spider on a wall in a deserted guesthouse with whom she can share her own pain and suffering; in Burdensome Days, Bhramara enters a world of politics that turns her music into a commodity; while in A Moon to Devour, it is through her lover’s mother that Sagu learns that marriage is not a necessity for motherhood.
Like the strains of the veena that play again and again in this masterful concert of stories, journeys too weave in and out. By train or bus or autorickshaws, each journey takes one into a different facet of human nature: the power of caste over the most basic of bodily needs like thirst; the simple generosity of a mentally afflicted child who loves the colour blue; the loneliness of dying amongst strangers, and the final journey of a veena whose owner herself had gone before it into another world. As in most of her writing, women are central to Ambai’s stories, but so too is her deep understanding of, as she puts it, ‘the pulls and tensions’ between the many different things that make up life and ultimately, create a story.
For me, short stories mean quick readings but ‘A night with a black spider: stories’ by Ambai (pseudonym of Dr. C.S. Lakshmi, a writer of Tamil fiction) wove quite a spell over me that I ended up taking more time in re reading portions or to simply pause and take in the beauty of words strung together. The 17 short stories in this collection have the motifs of music, art, journeys and musings over social and cultural practices threading through them. The characters and their ethos pulls in the reader into the vivid world that the author literally paints in evocative words and feelings.
The first story in the collection: ‘A love story with a sad ending’ is sensuously written even as the whole Asura-Deva conflict is given another connotation with the Asura Mahishan desiring Devi/Chandi. The story culminates in the death of Mahishan but not before he has raised the question of why Asuras are always feared and shunned while Devas are worshipped despite doing ill.
Many of the stories in the collection feature journeys and Journey 12 is about a girl travelling in a train who is requested to aid an elderly fellow passenger who dies during the course of a night. The girl stays with the dead body keeping a lonely vigil over a stranger she does not know but with whom she feels a connection. This theme of connections and journeys are repeated through many of the stories in the collection. ‘Dawn’ tells a story of grieving while reliving the memories of a relative whose death is relayed over a telegram across continents. In Journey 14 which is again set in a train compartment, the dynamics of caste where people from the upper castes won’t have anything to do with people from lower castes is brought out through a sense of seething anger through a protagonist even as another accepts the status quo with graceful submission. Journey 15 about a family travelling for a wedding losing a suitcase filled with the entire life savings kept for wedding costs leaves the reader with a smile with the way things play out after despairing over the loss.
I can quite go on about many other stories from this book but will leave it up to each one of you to read this collection of short stories. Not so long ago, I had decided that I would not read short stories as they leave me with the disquiet of not being able to engage with the story or the characters. But the beauty and depth of Indian literature is such that I have found myself taking up short stories from writers across the country time and again. Do read up this gem of a collection.