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No Extraordinary Space: On Ambai’s A Kitchen in the Corner of the House

By Bailey Trela.

Ambai, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, Translated by Lakshmi Holmström (Archipelago, 2019)

From that dimly lit, narrow-windowed kitchen, there were hands reaching out to control, like the eight tentacles of the octopus which lives in the sea. They reached out to bind them, tightly, tightly; and the women accepted their bonds with joy.

The central themes of the Tamil writer Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) are fairly easy to discern; they leap out from the page, silvery as fish disembarking from their river-home and assuming momentarily a pose of flight, their glyptic scales flashing in the sun. Her stories—rich and synoptic commixtures of contemporary politics and tradition—return again and again to the concept of space, the writtenness of the female body, and the stubborn molds of traditional social arrangements. Social pressures are a solvent that erodes the psyches of her female characters, and as a consequence, many of her stories have the feel of autopsies, of retroactive attempts to divine the manifold threads of a causa di morte. So often, her stories are a probing of subtle enslavements, of the trace chains, formed day by day, that shackle the mind and body; subjugation becomes a rain of minor pressures, a caul of mercurial droplets collecting on the skin and only, after many years, assuming an appreciable weight.

Although Lakshmi Holmström’s translations of these stories have all previously appeared in English (largely starting in the early 2000s), Archipelago’s new collection represents the first attempt to bring a representative selection of Ambai’s work to a wide audience. The reasoning behind this tardy transfiguration isn’t difficult to surmise. Ambai herself—a shrewd, incisive, but not vituperative critic—has often sounded the alarm about the perils of translation, criticizing, in a 2017 interview with The Indian Express, the tendency of translators from Indian languages to reprogram stories to “serve a Western audience,” reducing Indian culture, in the process, to a series of pasteboard representations. Vocabulary is one of the greatest casualties in this conflict, so it’s no surprise that Ambai’s stories, when they reach us in English, are studded with unglossed words and phrases. Compounding authorial reluctance is the fact that Ambai’s fiction—folding and loopful in its structure, and rich with allusions—is naturally resistant to flattening.

In the age of globalized literature, when even high masters of storytelling kowtow to the pressure to self-annotate, Ambai’s stories are a refreshing bolt of Deleuzian différence. Unglossed and unrepentant, they range over rakshasis and the Ramayana, over the film music of S.D. Burman and the Hindi songs of Pankaj Mullick; they dip into the intricacies of Carnatic singing, with its varnams and arangetrams, and are notably partial to the sound of various traditional drums. Ambai’s style is efficient and fluid, with a quick poetry about it that gracefully lays the world down. Her prose can be fragile and quiet, or striking and oddly, icily beautiful, as when a woman’s fingers playing an old harmonium resemble “the dark beaks of birds,” or a storm of “black butterflies” in flight above the keys. Material reality is strung up like a festoon of festive lights, so that the actual drifts up piquantly from the page like a fleet of amber bubbles. Jamukkalams and coconut-frond brooms stipple the rooms of her stories, while the florid haze of cooking—of sweetcorn pakoras and methi parathas—drifts over her writing.

Most notably, many of Ambai’s stories are characterized by a reinjection of physicality into the process of love. The female body is typically the source and subject of her sharpest, most lacerating descriptions—a harsh realism coupled with extravagant imagery at once depicts the body as mercilessly flesh-bound, beset by the termite-gnaw of time, and markedly discarnate, a locus of rhapsodic and ethereal sensations. In her relentless investigations of the physical forms of her female characters, Ambai effortlessly annotates the prismatic nature of the female body, which is at once a node of suffering and a tool of liberation; a record of time and the imprint of the distaff and the sovereign engine of domestic life; a source of quiet sorrows and ecstatic longings; a thing both persistently public and achingly private. If a work like The Handmaid’s Tale can feel at times loftily sociological and theory-infused, Ambai’s stories shy away from this trend; theory, in her stories, plays second fiddle to precise observation.

“In a Forest, a Deer,” the collection’s first story, takes as its subject a woman manqué. Athai is struck with a curious disease that leaves her barren, her body disfigured in some indescribable way. “We couldn’t understand in what way her body wasn’t complete,” the story’s narrator notes. “Athai looked just like everyone else when she appeared in her wet clothes, after her bath.” The uxorious ministrations of her husband, Ekambaram, take the form of manifold medicinal cures, poultices and cataplasms meant to draw out the essential power of the female body: “It seems that for a few months they made puja with neem leaves and the sound of the udukku drum.” With time, the cures turn violent—a “dark figure wrapped in a black cloth” is encouraged to pounce on Athai as she works alone in the backyard, in the hope that startling her might effect some change. When these efforts fail, Athai swallows a mixture of ground arali seeds, but is revived before her suicide attempt is completed.

Ambai’s limning of this vulnerary gauntlet is clear-eyed and haunting. Athai’s body becomes a site of experimentation, a testing-ground of sorts, human only as an afterthought, and while the violence of the “dark figure” gambit may seem more aggressive than the individual treatments, the ceaseless repetition of the latter approximates a form of control that is, in its own way, a perpetual violence. The story ends, however, on a less vindictive note, revealing itself as a meditation on strangeness and the innate foreignness of bodies. To a group of children gathered around her, Athai tells a story about a deer who finds itself lost in a strange forest, to which it only acclimates when the woods are bathed in moonlight. Figured as a forest (the mythological figure Sita, who was exiled to a forest, is a key touchstone here), the female body expands outward; Athai is the puzzled deer lost in the unfamiliar terrain of her body, which fails to act as other bodies do.

“Once Again” introduces a harsher bodily language. We read of an old woman whose “drooping wrinkled breasts covered with green veins” glare through the confines of her sari, and when one of the story’s protagonists receives an abortion, Ambai’s description of the experience comes on like a brassy, clinical trombone-blast: “A fork was scraping inside her. Roughly. Blindly. An extreme pain throbbed through her veins and shot to the very top of her head. The fine walls of her vagina began to break down.” Later, when there are complications from her abortion, the woman feels a “sharp pain, as if a nail had been rammed through her vagina,” and later still she describes the sensation of her “womb filled with scorpion stings.” The unsettling honesty of these descriptions is partly responsible for Ambai’s revolutionary appeal; though they may read, today, as de rigueur depictions of womanly pain, many of these stories were written decades ago, when such a replete and vociferous representation of female agony was trailblazing. Pain, an experience often denied poor and female bodies alike, is elevated to the sphere of subject, suddenly deserving of all the artifice of language, which, pent for so long, falls in a rich, abundant shower.

Space is also an important feature in Ambai’s stories, one she returns to again and again as both an explicit and implicit subject. “Once Again,” for the most part, takes place in no discernible narrative space, instead unfolding largely in the form of cryptic interior monologues, a good example of her oft-employed experimental polyphony. In a way, this technique is a method for eluding space, for telling stories that have no home in public or private locales, histories that have been swept aside like piles of mute insensate dust into the corners of homes and offices and universities. It’s possible as well to read Ambai’s emphasis on the body as an offshoot of this concept—in the absence of clearly delineated space, her stories often organize themselves around the bodies of her female characters; flesh becomes the site of fiction-making.

In a much more literal sense, though, Ambai’s stories are frequently concerned with proxemics, with the laying-out of space and its organization. The collection’s titular story, for instance, is a minor epic of placemaking à la A House for Mr Biswas or Independent People, though where Naipaul and Laxness spend roughly five-hundred pages a piece expounding the travails of their bumbling protagonists, Ambai does it all in less than thirty, with a captivating, quicksilver legerity. Stories, as Ambai knows, need space to unfold, and through her persistence on this point she ends up offering a critique of a classic of feminist spatial theorizing: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Part of the power of A Room of One’s Own stems from the bluntness and simplicity of Woolf’s central proposition, and in a funny form of tribute, Ambai brings a similar puggishness to her fault-finding, indicting the oft-noted elitism that pervades Woolf’s text.

Tamil author C.S. Lakshmi, who writes under the pseudonym Ambai

In a 2016 interview with The Hindu, Ambai expounded her objections to Woolf’s argument: “I like to think that no extraordinary space is needed to do what you want. A woman who knows what she wants will know how to extract the space for that from within the family. ‘A room of one’s own’ is a kind of a dream for both women and men, at least, in India.” The privilege of space—of expansive, unpeopled, non-urban space—is one that’s consistently denied Ambai’s characters, and, since the fulfillment of their desires often requires a rearrangement of space, they go about carving out what they need. In the absence of openness, Ambai figures liberation not as a setting-aside of otherwise fallow space, but as an active excavatory process—her characters are burdened with a double labor, that of their primary work (cooking, cleaning, mending, etc.) and that of reordering and refurbishing the sites where this primary labor takes place.

“A Kitchen in the Corner of the House” opens with a description of a woefully designed kitchen, slapped onto the rest of the house “in a careless manner.” It only has two windows, and the drainage is terrible and prone to flooding, which causes the feet of the cooks to “start cracking from that constant wetness.” Jiji, the matriarch of the family, gives canisters of medicinal balms to girls starting to work in the kitchen. The absurdity of the workaround is only heightened by the fact that food isn’t exactly an afterthought for Jiji’s family. As the narrator asserts, it’s an integral part of the family’s culture and self-image. Despite this, “the actual details, the concrete facts of the kitchen and its space didn’t seem to matter to them. It was almost as if such things didn’t actually exist.”

In the prototypical house, the narrator explains, “one crossed the wide stone-paved front courtyard and the main room before reaching the kitchen in a dark corner.” Beneath the non-light of a zero watt bulb the women appear “like shadows, their heads covered, their deep colored skirts melting into the darkness of the room.” Disembodied as they are, the women need no real space to perform their tasks: “The kitchen was not a place; it was essentially a set of beliefs. It was really as if all that delicious food which enslaved the tongue appeared as from a magic carpet.” The erasure of women’s labor is here inextricably tied to space. Later on in the story, the family’s daughter-in-law, Minakshi, begins to recommend changes to the kitchen—the basin should be enlarged, the drainage improved, and the practice of hanging clothes to dry outside the kitchen’s window should be foregone, since it has the unfortunate side effect of occluding a lovely view of the nearby mountains. The story’s great charm derives from Ambai’s treating the kitchen as a solemn battleground—the give-and-take of proxemics is treated as a foundational myth.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “Parasakti and Others in a Plastic Box,” Ambai envisions an aging matriarch forced to discard a lifetime’s accretion of items in preparation for a move:

Everything that Amma possessed had a story: the shiny, dark red stone with stripes which she had picked up in Hardware before Bharathi was born, the frying-pan that she had bought for eight annas when Bharathi was just one year old… She went round and round the house in vain, unable to decide what to keep and what to throw away. … Like the rakshasa who would die if you crushed the bee that was hidden in a small box and placed in the hollow of a tree across the seven seas, Amma’s very life was buried in each and every one of these things.

Embeddedness is a cardinal virtue in Ambai’s world, one that appears in her female characters’ ability to store life in the smallest of spaces, and to infuse ordinary objects with a significant history.

The collection as a whole is roughly divided into two sets of stories, with the first half focusing on domestic and bodily themes, while the second half dwells on politics, investigating the legacy of female activism in India. In “Wheelchair,” a lower class young woman named Hitha dates a wealthier activist. The story charts her irritation with the latent hypocrisy of the activist’s upper crust roistering, the radical chic his friends and comrades indulge in. Hitha feels herself reduced to “a much-used legal file, the edges bent and crumbling with much fingering,” a stand-in and “representative of the lower middle class.” She bemoans her male companions dabbling in politics, their immersion in theory, their armchair activism and the “frightful cultural island” where they seem to reside, a safe and confected solitude from which the ideologies of American democracy and the Russian and Chinese revolutions can be examined, palpated, embraced or scorned with little consequence either way; her lovers in the movement, she suspects, make a fetish of her class experience. And yet, while the story is essentially one of political disillusionment, it ends on an uptick, with Hitha’s backbone “stiffened” despite her qualms.

The figure of the alienated, or sidelined, female social critic takes center stage in the collection’s later stories, allowing Ambai to exercise an acerbic comic wit. “The Calf That Frolicked in the Hall,” for instance, mocks the fact that in the 1970s, as a female scholar observes, “only an alienated middle-class young man stands as the symbol of Tamil youth,” an archetype “present in every story or poem which appeared in Thedal.” The scholar lists the young man’s traits, in one of the book’s most excoriating satirical passages—he is “unemployed, scorned by his own family,” returns home late at night “to eat the cold buttermilk-rice and lime pickle left for him in the corner of the kitchen.” He lives with “the sorrow of Being, and other such sorrows.” Eventually he publishes a book, and “proclaim[s] his life of detachment.” His attempts pour epater les bourgeois, we’re to understand, are dead on arrival, predicated into stone-dry modes that fall hollowly into a well of self-centered reflection. Set against this falsely revolutionary temperament is the scorned vivacity of Ambai’s female activists—mansuetude is reserved for the men, whereas the actions of women, with their stakes buried in the flesh of bodies, are supercharged, brimming with force.

Many of Ambai’s stories are stamped with an odd discontinuity, bearing down, in their initial pages, on characters that later disappear entirely, or leaping so zealously through time that for the reader, awash in the circular unfolding of events, the occasional proper name becomes a life-preserver. This farraginous feel, though, is never forced, and hardly counts as a flaw—instead it seems the product of a supremely confident story-teller barreling on, writing as she will and fully embracing the accidental. In fact, Ambai’s plots often feel so strange and fractured primarily because she’s interested in character; event, as a concept, slumps along, trailing the development of her psychologies like a lumpy, vestigial limb. A Kitchen in the Corner of the House bodies forth a full roster of psychologically rich characters, glittering and wearied souls that breathe upon the page like the last flickering light of a candle. At the end of the collection, you’re left with the impression that Ambai is a dreamer of imperfect dreams, and a writer of perfect sorrows.


Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Hyperallergic, and Tablet Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019.