“Ambai is the name of Devi. But in my case it is the name that has the Mahabharata connection. Ambai is the one who is reborn as Sikandi—a man—and takes revenge on Bhishma. I like the androgynous quality of the name,” says the 1944-born writer. One of the most prominent Tamil writers, Lakshmi gives more reasons for leading this dual literary life. “My primary education was in Tamil. I think in Tamil and not in English. It will be difficult for me to do creative work in English as it is not my first language,” she says.
Lakshmi, the feisty feminist that students of literature adore, comes out of her shell rarely, this time it’s to read from the re-launch of contemporary Anita Desai’s books.
Lakshmi’s fictional works in Tamil are characterised by her passionate championing of the cause of women. They contain her characteristic humour, a lucid and profound style, and a touch of realism. This probably makes her the only Tamil writer to have been included in the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature edited by Amit Chaudhuri. Her translated stories have been published in a collection entitled A Purple Sea.
The Tamil writer as usual is dividing her time between giving shape to a new collection of short stories in Tamil and her responsibilities as the director of Sparrow, a trust set up in 1988 in Maharashtra to build a national archive for women with print, oral history and pictorial material. She is also an independent researcher in Women’s Studies for the past 30 years and has several publications to her credit.
Though the Bhasa writers have always been sidelined with Indian English writing stealing march over them, Lakshmi sound optimistic even as she agrees that English writing gets the larger chunk of the publishing pie.
“Bhasa writing is getting recognition in the sense that now people other than Tamil readers know that there is a writer called Ambai. But I have known journalists who have come to me to talk about my writing without having read a word written by me because they feel they don’t have to do that with a Tamil writer,” says the renowned language writer.
However, the bitterness within her is unmistakable as she narrates an incident when a journalist approached her for an interview without reading her work. “I don’t think you will do this to an Anita Desai or a Salman Rushdie. And I am also sure that you will delete this part of my answer,” adds the writer.