A web of tales

A Night with a Black Spider is a collection of short stories by Ambai (the pseudonym of C S Lakshmi). Originally written in Tamil, the stories in this anthology are translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, and they cover a range of themes, from mythology to travel and loneliness.

The protagonists are women; there are threads of music and poetry stringing events together; family and conflicts; and an exploration of the human psyche through various viewpoints.

The translation reads smoothly, retaining the cadence of the Tamil language in English.

A Night with a Black Spider begins with a reinterpretation of a tale from mythology — that of Mahishan’s defeat by Devi in A Love Story with a Sad Ending. In Ambai’s retelling, Mahishan is shown to be a love-struck, ambitious soul who wants to be romanced by Devi. And Devi, in this story, uses strong language, has a particularly violent worldview, and sees herself as racially superior.

Ravana’s Fortress has its protagonist visiting Paris for a talk that did not go as she intended. For, she sought to talk about culture, and her words did not resonate as well as she’d hoped with her listeners. And, and they didn’t agree with her. Journey 11 follows the main character as she purchases shirt-fabric for her father, and then tries to convince him to have the shirts stitched.

Lochani of Journey 12 meets an elderly woman on a train. Music, old memories and a sense of nostalgia for what has passed dominate this story. Journey 13 is another travel story, this time on a bus, where the protagonist encounters a lively little girl called Dariya. Travel forms a major theme in the book, with Journey 14, Journey 15, Journey 16, Journey 17 and Journey 20 ­ all featuring some sort of journey, as evident from the titles.

Dawn follows the lead character’s encounter with the sunrise in Paris, and, like the stories Tiruvalluvar Under the Tree, the titular story A Night with a Black Spider, Saluki and A Moon to Devour, all have the lead character preparing for a talk. Or she’s just finished one, and this is a repetitive element that is hardly subtle. Burdensome Days and When Things Die look at, again, memories, lives lived but not really fulfilled as in the case of the former, and the memory of old objects in the latter.

All of these stories have women as protagonists, except for Mahishan in A Love Story with a Sad Ending.

None of them is perfect. Some of them are young, some are elderly. All of them try, in their own way, to figure out the complexities of the world around them, to analyse the situations they’re in, given the constraints that bind them. And those constraints may be in the form of gender inequality, or illness, or the colour of their skin. These characters are simply referred to as ‘she’ a lot of the time, which is a little confusing, given the many characters that appear in each story.

There are a lot of ‘shes’, and at times it becomes hard picking out who’s who, especially because the protagonists are rarely, if ever, named. And even if they are, they’re still simply called ‘she’. It’s easy to mix up the cast as the stories progress.

Some of the tales also try a bit too hard to highlight social issues. Or reimagined mythology, as in the case of A Love Story with a Sad Ending. Mahishan in this story is slighted, insulted and made a martyr of, and Devi is shown here as a vicious being who minces no words in calling Mahishan derogatory names.

In other stories, there are references to communal clashes, the Gujarat riots, caste again,corruption, patriarchy, abortion, racism and cultural pride.

Saluki speaks of a North-South divide, where the South Indian character is humiliated because of skin colour to the point where the only person she can talk to is a little puppy. Talking to a non-human entity is further explored in A Night with a Black Spider — but here, the one-sided conversation takes place with a huge black spider.

The old objects in When Things Die play a significant role in the story as they contain the memories, hopes and dreams of their owners. That life is fleeting and people die is also a theme in Journey 11 — where the elderly father of the main character discovers that most of his acquaintances have passed away.

Corruption, a strained marriage, and a culture clash make up the characters’ lives in Burdensome Days, where a musician is thrown into a wedding and a new life she does not expect. Bhramara’s struggle here goes back and forth, and throws her deeper into depression as she discovers her new life is nothing like what she’d imagined. And then there’s A Moon to Devour where Sagu pursues a relationship that goes horribly wrong, only to discover support from unlikely sources.

All in all, A Night with a Black Spider is a collection of stories on a wide range of topics that could be considered relevant today.

A Night with a Black Spider
Speaking Tiger
2017, pp 220 
Rs 299


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