A Kitchen in the Corner of the House

Ambai

translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström
Archipelago Books 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019 http://dannyreviews.com/
The twenty odd short stories in A Kitchen in the Corner of the House are a celebration of the lives of Indian women, of their strength and resilience and achievements. They centre relationships between women, between mothers and daughters and with broader family, but also between friends; with a few exceptions, men remain on the periphery. (It is also notable that none of the stories involve domestic violence or coercion.)

Some of the pieces are short, just three or four pages: some surreal dream sequences and some realist vignettes. Others are much longer. And there is a lot of diversity in the subject material.

Some stories feature large households and traditional families. "In a Forest, a Deer", the child narrator describes a young woman coming to terms with childlessness. The title story "A Kitchen in the Corner of the House" depicts several generations of women in a traditional Rajasthani household, centering on the struggle over control of the kitchen and the spices. And music and songs feature in many of the stories, but they are central in "Wrestling", about a girl studying to be a singer.

Others feature smaller, more nuclear families and more isolated characters; in several family members have moved to the United States. In "Forest", a woman goes to a bungalow in the forest to write; her story is interspersed with episodes from the life of Sita, retold from the perspective of the women. In "My Mother, Her Crime" a teenage girl faces menarche while her beloved mother is away. In "Parasakti and Others in a Plastic Box" the narrator's ageing mother needs more space than just enough for the plastic box in which she keeps her gods.

A few of the stories touch on the political, but even in these personal relationships remain central. In "Wheelchair" a young woman rejects the rigid certainties and patriarchal assumptions of the Marxist group she is involved with. In "Fish in a Dwindling Lake" the narrator travels into the countryside to visit a university friend who has become a kind of guru, working with a group building schools and hospitals. And communal violence has a key part in "A Movement, A Folder, Some Tears", about women working in a human rights centre, but even here it remains "off-stage" and it is the effects of that on the narrator's network of family and friends that are central.

All of Ambai's stories end on an upbeat, with a positive feel even if that results from a coming to terms with something sad or unpleasant. A Kitchen in the Corner of the House is an easy read, but one that offers some fascinating glimpses of other worlds.

Note: The only information about the author provided is a paragraph on the inside back cover paragraph, which gives her date of birth (1944) but not her real name (C.S. Lakshmi). And the copyright statements reveal that these translations are taken from previous collections — In A Purple Sea (1992), In a Forest, A Deer (2006) and Fish in a Dwindling Lake (2012) — but there's no information about when the original stories were written.

November 2019

Related reviews:
- more South Asian literature
- more short fiction
- books published by Archipelago Books
%T A Kitchen in the Corner of the House
%A Ambai
%M Tamil
%F Holmström, Lakshmi
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2019
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781939810441
%P 363pp