‘For many feminists today, feminism is a concept outside their lives’

Arwa Janjali
Wednesday, 14 February 2018

We chatted up Dr C S Lakshmi, author and founder of India’s first archives for women who was in the city recently

As a celebrated Tamil author and someone who has brought into existence India’s first archives for women, 
Dr C S Lakshmi is every bit the storyteller that we expected her to be. When we caught up with her at FLAME University’s symposium ‘On Reading’, she was full of stories. Stories that inspire, enthral and bring alive lives of extraordinary women. 

The sprightly 73-year-old, who writes under the pen name ‘Ambai’, gave an interesting insight on how reading isn’t merely about reading books. It extends to oral history, personal observations and much more. Stories emerging from these different forms of reading have been an integral part of Ambai’s writings. “As we grew up in the ’50s, immediately after Independence, there were books in the house, but there were so many other things that we read. Like the newspapers that the groceries came wrapped in, film posters and as we travelled sometimes, we saw the names of many different villages. I recall using one such name of a village that I came across while travelling from Puducherry to Chennai. The Tamil name referred to low-lying area in English. But in my mind, it brought the image of Taramboorat — the cactus flower that South Indian girls use in their hair. So I thought that’s a good name to write in my story,” the Mumbai-based author narrates. 

She also recollected writing a story about a pregnant lady that she met in the bus first and later, near the sea in Kanyakumari. The lady was standing with a tiffin box the second time. When she saw Ambai, she recognised her. Coming up to her, she asked, “If I take the seawater in this tiffin and show it to my husband, will it have waves?” Ambai was so touched that she wrote a story on that, with those words. “Words keep translating themselves into stories or into the way we express ourselves. They are not isolated acts and are constantly in harmony. And this harmony has been a part of people’s lives. When they act out, express or write their lives, they are constantly accepting and flouting words. They flout the words of the shastras, they flout the words that are uttered around them. These words surround us like some unused atomic weapons, but they are there. We have to deal with them,” the wordsmith tells us. 

Known as a feminist writer, Ambai has also been tirelessly working as a researcher and archivist for SPARROW — Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, which she founded in 1988. Nesting in a northern Mumbai suburb, SPARROW is not only preserving writings of and by women, but has also made more than 25 films on oral history documentaries of women. It also conducts workshops on ‘Women in Indian History and Culture’ at universities. 

Despite the significance of its work, however, SPARROW is struggling to find funds. “The trouble is that archiving is not seen as a part of development. Development uses words like empowerment. And what they want to do is encourage quantifiable things like water conservation. Archiving is not a quantifiable activity. It depends on the quality of work. If they ask me how many women’s consciousness has been erased, I won’t be able to tell. I am hoping some private university will adopt us and see to it that our work is continued without any interference. I am still trying,” smiles the 73-year-old, with a glint of determination in her eyes.

Talking about feminism, Ambai recounts how her mother encouraged and supported her decision to move out of home and do her MA in Chennai, against her father’s wishes. “She asked me whether going to Chennai would make a difference to my life and I said ‘yes’. So she quietly gathered money by putting her jewels in the bank, bought material to stitch four saris for me at home and travelled to the then Madras with me. My college was in this place called Tambaram. As the train was nearing Tambaram, my mother leaned towards me and whispered in my ears, ‘All Lakshmi’s dreams are going to come true.’ It was a very poignant moment of my life and I never forgot it,” she says, adding, “Like my mother’s, there are many stories which directly talk about how these women, who belong to a different generation, have uttered such words. They have broken so many rules and still, lived a life of dignity. They are the real feminists. They may not know of feminism but they have acted out feminism. For them, feminism is an experience, not just a concept.” 

Does she think this concept is transitioning into somewhat of a male-bashing propaganda today? “For many feminists today, feminism is a concept outside their lives. They may be talking about it academically or may be doing it actively but it has not become so much about themselves. I think it has also brought about a situation which has destroyed the early kind of sisterhood we felt. Earlier, many kinds of different women could come together for a cause. Now there is so much conflict as to ‘you have understood it differently and I have understood it differently’. Earlier, women had different experiences from different castes and classes but, we felt together. I feel that is lost now. It also reflects the political situation of the country. It’s very sad,” replies Ambai, who is currently bringing together 87 writers from 23 Indian languages in five volumes. “Four volumes are already out. I am working on the fifth one,” she informs.

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