Exposure – Ambai

Couple of months back, I was standing at the gate of a paper mill. I saw a group of college students, perhaps  eighteen or nineteen years old, talking amongst themselves. In the group of about eight people, there was only one girl and she was talking with lot of confidence, conviction and composure. Though I could not hear a word that was spoken, it gave me immense pleasure to see a young girl taking control.

The students at the gate were from a nearby Technical School and they were visiting the plant for a training program.

It was heartening to see this happening in a rural town in India. I began to believe that India has really changed. Or so I thought.

Last week, a staff nurse working with us told me that she is quitting the job to go home to get married. I was trying to convince her to take a break for the marriage and come back to work, not necessarily with us but for having a career. She is an intelligent, hard working and smart woman and she definitely has a bright future. And yes. She has graduated from a Nursing College.

What she told me really shook me to the core.

When asked if she had met the groom and talked to him, she replied, “I have not seen even the photo of him.” She will see him only on the day of betrothal. I told her to talk to her parents to get out of this proposal as she is very young. She said, “if it is only parents I can probably manage this. But there are a dozen elders from my father and mother’s side and they won’t even listen to me. All they will say is, ‘We know what is good for you.’ And that’s it.”

India is a complex mixture of contradicting cultures. We have a woman who is the director of our most advance space program. Every day, I see hundreds of women who take early or late night flights, check in to hotels or take an Uber at odd hours after an exhausting twelve hour day at work.

And then you meet women like the protagonists in the short story or our staff nurse. Contrasting Indeed.

C S Lakshimi, or Ambai as she is known is one of the best known feminist thinkers in India and a novelist. வெளிப்பாடு – Exposure is one of my favorite stories.

Read on

Exposure – வெளிப்பாடு – Ambai

That bus stand should be in my thoughts for ever. Its noises and images should be frozen in mind to recall at a later date. A song was being belted out with lot of grunting, groaning and deep sighs; a call for boarding video coaches and other announcements. In the throbbing background music, a nipple coming out of a folded blouse to feed an infant and his curved brownish lips. Sweat formed at the back of the neck by a blinding blue and red saree. Fingers inserting jasmine flower in oil filled hair. A man taking a leak on the outside wall of ‘pay & use’ toilet. A crying malnourished girl.

He, Chidambaram, was amongst the crowed that was mobbing the conductor to get to her. It looked as if he would not unfold his dhoti ever. It was folded since she saw him first in the morning. An half sleeved shirt and a worn out footwear. He came to the station in the same attire in the morning and identified her in a second. First, he took the small suitcase from her hand. It looked as if he had already determined that she was not capable of carrying her bag nor buy her tickets. When she started walking at a brisk pace after coming out of the station, he exclaimed, “Oh, you are walking so fast!”

“Where are we going?”

“Just to the corner of the street; we will take bath in the Thamirabarani river.”

“I can’t take bath in those places.”

“No mam, look how many people are taking bath here.”

A saree, half across the chest and half being banged on the washing stone with a ‘put-put’ sound which splashed water. Turmeric powder applied yellow faces, wet feet and thighs, wet hair on shoulders. A woman was holding the edge of the saree in her teeth while putting on her blouse. Slim hips, bare backs and sarees clinging to the bodies like magic.

She could not get in there to bathe. She had a lot to wear and they could not be untied and tied again here.

“You can’t take bath here?”

“No. I can’t”

He was taken aback a bit by her refusal and murmured, “what is so difficult bathing in a river?” and told her, “OK then. let us go.”

He stood before a wooden door and shouted “Anni – Anni” (Sister in law).

He informed the man who opened the door, “She is the one I told you about. She has to write a report. Krishnamurti has sent a letter asking us to help her. Ganapathy sir is not in town. She said she did not want to go to a hotel. Just for half a day. That’s why I brought her here.”

“Why hotel when when our house is there. Please come inside.”

From inside the kitchen a head popped out.

“She wants to take bath.” He announced as if it was a news item.

“Did you not come by the river?”

“Yes we did. But she said she is not used to.”

She said, “OK I can take bath here.”

Coffee came and the lady said, “Welcome.”

She showed a corner in the kitchen. “Water is there in the bucket. You can bathe there. No need to shut the door. No one will come.”

In one of the stoves lentil was boiling with turmeric smell. On the other, a pan was getting hot for making dosa.

“Turmeric piece is in the shelf.” Before she could get over the shock of someone walking in, the woman sat in front of the stove and poured the dosa batter on the pan.

Hunger rose form inside her stomach. The aroma of chili being crushed in the grinding stone hit her head.

“Should I scrub your back?”

“No No. Not necessary.”

“Why are you feeling shy with another woman?”

First dosai, roasted and in golden brown colour was placed on the banana leaf. She poured more batter on the pan and it expanded into a big circle.

“You won’t apply oil to your hair?”

“Oh Yes I do.”

“Why is it so dry and falling? If you apply oil and wash it with sikakai powder in the Tamirabarani river, hair will always grow.”

She looked at the woman’s hair. It was utter black and knotted which was as big as a cooking pot.

“Look at my hair. I am fifty years old. Not a strand of silver hair. Periods have not stopped.”

She thought to herself, ‘don’t you have anything to hide. You must have also had a controlled upbringing like mine. Why your duppatta is falling all over the place? Insert it here. What are you doing outside the house? Keep quiet. Shut your mouth. You can study later. First cut these vegetables. Make curd – all these and more. How do you talk so innocently and keep laughing?’

“I got married when I was fourteen. He was twenty. He is my uncle’s son. Life is only in the kitchen afterwards. Two daughters and a son. All are married now. I am a grandma now.”

‘Is this the story of your life? In four lines?’

She was wondering how could she wear her undergarments in privacy.

“I will serve the dosa to him first. He always wants dosa straight from the pan piping hot. Otherwise he would get so angry. When he gives a hard slap….” she laughed and went out with dosai on banana leaf.

She wore her dress in a hurry. Since she could not dry herself properly the blouse was hugging her elbow.

“Come let us eat. I am hungry.”

“Can I make dosai for us?”

“Ah. Do you know how to make dosai?”

“Do you think I can’t make? Not as good as you, but I can make.”

“Like me? What’s my age and what is yours? I am making dosai since I was ten. Twenty dosas a day for forty years, oh god.”

Seven thousand three hundred dosas in a year, two hundred and ninety two thousand dosas in forty years; apart from this, Idlis and aapams, vada and currys. How many tons of rice she must have cooked and she is laughing about it.

‘What report you have to write?”

“About women?”

“What is there to write about women?”

“That is, how do they live? What are the jobs they do and what do they think about their lives”

“What do we think? We deliver babies and cook food.”

“You were not delivering babies all the time. You must have thought about something in between.”

“Oh we thought. Just leave it.”

They ate in silence.

She took a piece of dosai, dipped it in chutney, before putting it in her mouth, looked at her.

“There was a book in my house when I was young & I used to keep looking at it. There was a photo of the sea. Foaming waves. In some photos the sea would look like mirror, clear water. I have seen it in Tiruchendur temple festival. Once I had a fever and kept lamenting, I want to go the beach. I was mad about the ocean. ‘Idiot – Idiot, he was yelling at me’ and he was getting angry. When I kept crying, he would give me a hard slap. I would fall into the bed and become quiet. He is a devotee of Lord Muruga.”

She recalled her own childhood days, a small girl in a city. There was a book store at the end of her street with huge glass windows. If she stretched herself, only her eyes and nose would reach the window sill and she could see a photo. A corner of the blue ocean. Piercing moon rays would fall on that corner. And a boat. The ocean, the moon and the boat all entwined in one frame to make a magic. She loved blue colour. Every time, she crossed the store, she would jump, rest her chin on the window and look at the photo. And then one day,

“Hey kid what are you looking at?”

“The ocean.”

The store owner called her inside. He removed the photo and gave it to her. Years later she understood it was a copy of the painting done by European artist ‘Monet.’ A soft memory of her childhood days.

The woman’s husband came in and said, “Teacher? Why are you talking to her. She does n’t know about anything. She can make only good fish curry.”

Her reverie was broken. She looked at the woman for a fraction of a second and she at her. Quietly she got up with the banana leaf and walked past her husband.

When she was leaving the woman told her, “Next time, stay with us for a couple of days. We will go Tiruchendur.”

Her husband joined her, “Yes teacher. We will pack food and go there. The Murugan temple is beautiful. You will like it.”

She wanted to rub the woman’s cheeks. Untie her hair and see how long and thick it was. She wanted to touch the black mark let on the backside of neck by her heavy gold chain. But she could share only the dosa with her. So she said, “Yes I will come again, at least for eating your dosas.”

The man who brought her to this house came back with the bus ticket.

The woman’s husband asked her, “Will you be able to go alone? Mr. Ganapathy will come there. Once you finish your work you can go with him to his place.”

“Why can’t I manage? Have I not come from Delhi here, alone?”

He hesitated and said, “No it’s just that you are alone.”

“Don’t worry. I will manage.”

Before the bus started, the man who came to the bus stand with her told the conductor, “She is new to the place. Please drop her at the correct bus stop.”

She sighed. Even this protection is a kind of control. I can protect you only if you are inside the house. Once you come out and breathe the air I breathe, danger surrounds you. It expands in all eight directions to swallow you. She wanted to be the ocean. The ocean which throws the waves and keeps a nonchalant look.

Mr. Ganapathy came to meet her. When they finished the work and went to his house it was well past mid night. When they reached the house, he crossed the portico and stood near the door. He did not knock but just said in a low voice, “Chandra – Chandra.” A girl, about twenty years of age opened the iron bars filled door with a smiling face. She straightened her dis-shelved hair and welcomed her, “Come in.”

The young woman told him, “Sister in law is sleeping in the terrace.”

Ganapathy introduced the young woman, “My Sister.”

She smiled again. In the hall near the kitchen, she rolled out a mat. “Please sit down.”

She lit the stove and placed the pan on it. Embers in the stove was making an impression of rangoli.

She laid down two small banana leaves.

Dosas kept falling on the leaves, chutney powder and ghee. Before she could finish the dinner the young lady served her hot milk.

Next morning, the young woman woke her up with hot tea.

“How do you know I drink tea?”

“Brother told me, people from Delhi prefer tea.”

“Then?”

“That you walk very fast. You go alone to all the places.

“Will you come with me?”

“How? Not possible. They won’t let me go out.”

“You won’t go out at all?”

“Rarely. To temple and festivals. If sister in law takes me, to a cinema.”

“Then what do you do all day?”

“There is lot of work. How can sister in law do everything alone? Need to feed the cows. Grind batter for dosai. Make chutney and curry. Wash cloths. My other brother always wants to wear starched and pressed dresses. Else he will get angry. Afternoon, if I get time, I read magazines. Mostly serial stories.”

“Tea is very good.”

“You see in the ‘Surabhi’ magazine, there is a serial story. A girl is going out with a guy. They have put ‘will continue next week.’ I am worried that something will happen to her because of that guy. She should not have gone no?”

“Don’t you fell like going out?”

“Oh Yes. Once I am married. We will go to market, to nearby towns, to cinema and all other places. They are looking for a guy for me. Nothing has materialized.”

“What kind of husband you want?”

“Why will you get me one?” she asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Why? I can get you a groom in Delhi. Very fair looking Punjabi.”

“You are teasing me.”

“No I’m serious. Tell me.”

“What do you mean by type? He should be a good person.”

“Good person means? Non smoking, non alcoholic?”

“He should not be short tempered. He should not raise his hands.”

“Poor or rich?”

“His character should be good. If he is educated he will get good salary no? He should treat me well.”

She took a piece of paper and said, “OK tell me. What all you want to do once you get married. I will write them down.”

“Don’t tease me again.”

“No I am serious.”

She rested her head on the chain of the swing. Rested her knee on the swing. Her hair fell like a wave on to her forehead. Her beautiful eye lashes rose up. Eyes were gleaming. She had a list.

I should walk on the street every day.

Should be able to eat snacks in restaurants.

Should to shops and buy sarees.

Should watch movies.

I should visit many places.

Then she went back to her real world. She fed the buffalo. Showed her a dark bathroom. Whenever she looked her at the kitchen she asked, ‘can I get you some dosas or do you want idli?’ In the night she slept, folding her legs tightly, carefully tucking her saree. Whenever someone sneezed she woke up and make a concoction of pepper, jeera and hot water. She was like a robot, just reacting to a switch. She took the young woman’s hands and kept it on her cheeks. There was a smell of food. Food smell coming from eons of cooking.

When she was packing to leave, she told her, “After you go, I will keep looking  for you.”

“You will send me your marriage invitation no?”

“Definitely yes.”

Ganapathy picked her suitcase. The young girl came with her up to the door. She signaled to her to come to the end of the road. But she said ‘no’ by raising her eye brows. She was wearing a purple colour saree. When they stepped on the street she could hear her voice, “don’t forget to get our Halwa (sweet) for the teacher.” She turned back but could see only the top of her purple colour saree.

She let the purple colour spread her thoughts. It expanded and filled her mind. Purple colour sea. It slowly but slowly boiled over as poison. A slap on the face. A slap given by the Lord Muruga devotee.

At the bus stand, Chidambaram held out a packet.

“What is this?”

“I told sister in law (the first woman we met in the story) that you are leaving. She made some dosas for you.”

As per Chandra’s request, Ganapathy came with a packet of Halwa (sweet). Ghee dripping, packed in banana leaf – Halwa.

***********************                                                                                            1970s?

Featured Image: Tiruchendur Murugan Tample.

C S Lakshmi Ambai

C. S. Lakshmi – Ambai

C. S. Lakshmi (born 1944) is an Indian feminist writer and independent researcher in women’s studies from India. She writes under the pseudonym Ambai.

Lakshmi was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu in 1944. She grew up in Mumbai and Bangalore. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts from Madras Christian College and M.A in Bangalore and her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her dissertation was on American policy towards refugees fleeing Hungary due to the failed revolution of 1956. After completing her education, she worked as a school teacher and college lecturer in Tamil Nadu. She is married to Vishnu Mathur, a film maker, and lives in Mumbai.

In 1962, Lakshmi published her first work Nandimalai Charalilae (lit. At Nandi Hills) – written when she was still a teenager. Her first serious work of fiction was the Tamil novel Andhi Maalai (lit.Twilight) which came out in 1966. It received the “Kalaimagal Narayanaswamy Aiyar” Prize. She received critical acclaim with the short story Siragukal muriyum (lit. Wings will be broken) (1967) published in the literary magazine Kanaiyazhi. This story was later published in book form as a part of short story collection under the same name in 1976. The same year she was awarded a two-year fellowship to study the work of Tamil women writers. The research work was published as The Face behind the mask (Advent Books) in 1984. In 1988, her second Tamil short story collection titled Veetin mulaiyil oru samaiyalarai (lit. A kitchen in the corner of the house) was published. This established her reputation as a major short story writer. Her work is characterised by her feminism, an eye for detail, and a sense of irony.[2][3][4][5][6] Some of her works – A Purple Sea (1992) and In A Forest, A Deer (2006) – have been translated English by Lakshmi Holmström.[7][8] In 2006, she (along with Lakshmi Holmström) won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award (in the Indian language fiction translation category) for In a Forest, A Deer.[9] For her contributions to Tamil literature, she received the 2008 Iyal Virudhu (Lifetime Achievement Award) awarded by the Canada-based Tamil Literary Garden.[10][11]

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