A mysterious Mumbai
A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge
Publisher- Juggernaut, Rs299
Celebrated writer CS Lakshmi, more popularly known as Ambai, talks to ANANYA BORGOHAIN about her latest work, A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge — a collection of three mysteries translated by Gita Subramaniam
My pseudonym Ambai is one of the three sisters — Amba, Ambalika and Ambika from Mahabharatham. Amba is known as Ambai in Tamil. She becomes Sikandi later and takes revenge on Bhishma. She is neither a woman nor a man and she is both. I like the androgynous nature of Ambai”, says the much loved author CS Lakshmi, who is widely loved and read across the country as Ambai.
This time for her English readers, Ambai returns with yet another simple yet engaging book titled A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge (AMOTAO). The 72 year old feminist writer, whose works are taught to students of literature in some of the premier institutions of the country, has also been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to Tamil literature (2008) by the Tamil Literary Garden (Canada). AMOTAO has been translated by Gita Subramaniam from Tamil.
This book contains three short mysteries that are thrown at the protagonist Sudha Gupta, a private detective based in Mumbai, just like the author herself. The other recurring characters in all of the stories are Sudha’s daughter Aruna, husband Narendra, mentor Vidyasagar Rawte, and assistant Stella.
In these mysteries, the city of Mumbai comes alive with all its complications and mysteries. In ‘As the Day Darkens’ cop Govind Shelke asks for Sudha’s help regarding the case of three young sisters that are missing. Their distraught mother takes shelter at Sudha’s home and explains how her daughters disappeared untraceably at Madh Island, which consequently sent her traumatised husband to the hospital. Besides the ordeal of the family, the story also offers flashbacks to the phase when Sudha turned an accidental detective herself.
The second story, ‘The Paperboat Maker’, is where Sudha checks the background of a prospective groom for the daughter of Chellemmal, who works at Sudha’s home. Chellemmal is suspicious that there is much more about the boy than what meets the eye and Sudha decides to take it as her personal matter as well. After all, Chellemmal is her daughter Aruna’s nanny too.
In the final and titular story, ‘A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge’, the mysterious and lonely Sandhyabai, seen on a platform at the Andheri railway station grabs the attention of Sudha. The detective, as well as the well meaning human being in her does not rest until she digs out all the information about the stranger. She approaches Sandhyabai and persuades her to reveal everything about herself. Subsequently, Sudha sets out to find more about the woman and to intervene where she feels is right.
These tales are not the traditional thrillers with gory crimes, curious suspects, unsettling twists and unnerving exposés. They, in fact, furnish the reader with a social commentary on contemporary India and the interpersonal relationships of its people, both blissful and dysfunctional. In this case, Mumbai and its mysterious aura offer a space to several cultural manifestations and interrogation.
Ambai says, “I never write with a target group in mind that I have to reach out to. These stories are not “crime stories” in the sense that they are more about complexities of relationships and how crime becomes a part of that. Actually I had written these stories to be part of a collection that was coming out and my publisher suggested that I bring out one book with just these stories.”
The stories maintain their mutual tone and tenor. They are simple, narrated in a reader friendly way, humorous and delightful. Yet, in a more technical sense, the final story, which is also the titular one, re-introduces the characters, almost as if the readers get a glimpse into their work and life for the first time. It’s surprising because the readers by then are already familiar with the inner worlds of all the characters.
The author clarifies, “The three long stories were written at different times and published in different magazines and one cannot expect a reader to have read the previous stories. So every time the same characters are repeated, they have to be reintroduced. It happens in novels also where particular characters are repeated for it may be the first novel with those characters that someone may be reading.”
That, however, may also be a challenge associated with translation. Translators consistently face the challenge of sustaining the aura of characters, plot twists as well as the vivid depictions of the same. This translation — although at times tends to be overly simplistic — still justifies the charm of originality.
Sudha Gupta is brave, helpful and inquisitive. She is a thoughtful learner too, but at times she is confined by her own unidimensional nature. It is as if, perhaps, she could be more humorous, flamboyant and interactive. Yet, the simple book is still pleasant and fun.
About her own choice of favourite crime writers in India, Ambai says, “I like old fashioned crime thrillers and I don’t think if I recommend Agatha Christie anybody would appreciate that. But Kalpana Swaminathan is someone I would happily recommend. Sometime back I met Usha Rajagopalan and read her Tracking Purnima and enjoyed it thoroughly.”
Ambai has been compared with Agatha Christie herself. Although she is also the first to dismiss the claims, “I am happy that Christie is not alive! My stories are not really crime stories the way she wrote. I can take it as a great compliment but she would have thought of it as an insult had she been alive!”
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