‘In a Forest, a Deer’ by Ambai: Short Story Analysis
‘In a Forest, a Deer’ is a Feminist realistic short story originally written in Tamil by Indian feminist writer and independent researcher Dr. C.S. Lakshmi, who writes under the pen name of Ambai. Ambai is a well-known Indian writer of great repute who writes short stories championing women’s causes. In this short story, Ambai brings out the sad plight of Thangam Athai, who did not get her menstruation or did not have a functioning womb. She was abused by her in-laws and given many medicines to start her periods or get the womb to begin functioning. However, she rebels like most of Ambai’s strong women characters and even goes to the extent of finding another wife for her husband to sire children from her. At first, on hearing that her husband Ekambaram was looking for a second wife, Athai tries committing suicide by swallowing a mixture of arali seeds and poisonous oleander seeds. She is saved and decides to give in to the dictates of a harsh patriarchal society in Tamil Nadu that only acknowledges those women who have proper reproductive functioning parts. Using veiled language and the medium of a parable-like bedtime story Athai conveys to her young children and her cousins’ children the plight of a woman who cannot ‘mature’ into a woman.
Ambai uses the innocence and the precociousness of a little young child who, along with her cousins, tries to find out what Valli, her older cousin meant when she said her favorite storytelling Athai had never ‘blossomed’. The narrator is told several times by this Valli and other sisters that Athai was ‘hollow’ from within, an empty vessel with no reproductive use. This is in stark difference to Athai herself, a wonderful mother figure in the short story titled ‘In a Forest, a Deer’. Note that Athai has all the other outward sexual characteristics like well-rounded breasts, voluptuous curves, and warmth that assisted all and sundry, even those family members like the narrator’s own mother who directly mocked Athai because she would never be able to feel the instructing pain of giving birth. Ironically, however, this same mother of the narrator allowed no one around her while giving birth other than Athai.
Athai is warm, generous, and yet mysterious. Her ‘hollowness’ to the narrator and some of her cousins are the most tantalizing and mysterious parts about her. As little girls on the verge of womanhood, they are curious and eager to know what it takes to truly be a woman other than external sexual characteristics. The descriptions used in the text, especially that of pillows covered with dark cloths filled with cotton wool, with knots and lumps in the cotton wool, indicate that the story concerns itself with Athai who had never got her periods (menstruated). This description is also a preparation for the following:
- Athai to give a sort of introduction to the reason why she was not a complete woman.
- A hint that soon all the girls present listening to the story about the forest and the deer were on the verge of puberty and would get their periods soon. Like the pillows, the menstruating cycle would last for years, but the periods will be like a guest for a certain period in the most delicate part of a young girl’s body. (sorry for the puns).
- That those pillows were ethereal representations of cotton pads.
- The dark colors indicate the dark cloths women in India used till the early twentieth century to absorb their menstruating blood. Most of the time, these cloths were made at home.
- That although this part of a woman’s life was vital for her, especially to give her the ratification that she was a woman, it is this same essential part of a woman’s life that is treated as a shameful and almost mysterious entity.
According to Ambai, Athai had an auspicious hand. However, she could never gift her husband Ekambaram a ‘blessing’ in the form of a child. Athai blesses everyone through oil massages, and gentle stroking, and touch. This is a tactile and compassionate part of her person. The short story even tells how cows and seeds too were transformed by her touch. But just as a Kinnar, an Indian transgender or eunuch, can gift a blessing of fertility to other women but cannot herself give birth, so it is in the case of Athai.
Athai’s in-laws had tried many medicines, both tantric and English medicines, to activate Athai’s reproductive organs. It is evident that:
- Athai’s parents had hidden the issue with her periods or reproductive parts from her in-laws and had married her off.
- She could have been intersex, where it is common to find externally feminine women having no wombs in their bodies. Thus, this could answer the repetitive observation that Athai was ‘hollow’ from within. If you want to read about the lives of intersex persons and their sexual orientations and gender identifications, you can check out my 2018 DBW award-winning short-story collection The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
- Athai was married based on a lie that her in-laws wished to correct or otherwise replace her with another bride. Only when Ekambaram pleads with Athai after her attempted suicide that Athai gives in to her in-law’s demand and searches for another bride for her husband. This bride gives birth to seven children.
- Athai looks after the household of seven children and other family or cousin’s children as if they were her own. They are the pride of Athai that she never gets tired of.
- She was ill-treated and physically and psychologically abused, but she took a stand for her rights, and her in-laws listened to her opinion in the matter that she would take no more medicines for her condition.
There are many sociological aspects to this short story. I will, however, highlight a few, especially with relation to the parable-like short-story that Athai tells her children or nieces and, probably, nephews about her lack of periods. First, getting one’s period or having woman’s sexual characteristics does not determine whether you are or are not a woman. The inner conviction of your gender identity and sexual orientation defines who you are. As long as you are not an adult molesting the rights of another, you are well within your rights to be whomsoever or whatsoever you wish to be. This fact is not fully understood by the patriarchal and cis-gendered society that we live in.
Athai believed herself to be a woman, different and not blood red during certain days in a month but still a woman. Her reproductive part was like a forest full of beauty, curiosities, wonders, and other ethereal matters about the mystery of a woman’s body. She is the deer, the same deer who could not follow the correct stream of her menstruation cycle in the forest of her reproductive organs. She travels to a place where there is barrenness and only receives the light of purity and enlightenment when the full moon’s silver glow falls on everything in the forest. Till then, this deer or Athai is abused in many ways, especially in her most sacred part. That she cannot talk about this openly is a direct indication that it was not in the custom of the day in mid or early twentieth-century India to talk about one’s periods or its absence. The veil must be lifted on this most essential part of a woman’s life, at least now in the twenty-first century. It is time to stop romanticizing the so-called mystery of a woman’s body and start talking more openly about it and how it functions. Some women, let alone men, even after getting married, don’t even know how they look like down there. We should change and short stories like ‘In a Forest, a Deer’ by women issue writers like Ambai should be introduced in schools and colleges.
Technically speaking, Athai was not given the freedom to be her own woman. No one can give you that power. You have to find it within yourself. Athai found that freedom and strength within herself, and she became a much better and well-loved matriarch without giving birth to a single child that she mothered and cared for. She is not a wayward deer in this story; she is the deer that is spoken least about in Indian rural and urban households, and that is not good. I love the way the narrator mentions in the first part of the story about the innocence and carefree growth of the forest or reproductive function of a little girl who only cared about playing, having adventures, and living and breathing the natural life surrounding her body which was slowly growing into full maturity. The brutal images of the arrows on the trees of the new barren forest, as well as the image of a hunter eating its meat, is a vivid description of the condition Athai and many women like Athai are put into; being abused to do something that their body was not born to do.
Athai mentions in her story that the deer finds peace. At the end of the story, while pretending to be asleep, the narrator sees Athai sitting like a little child whose very core had been violated. Women like Athai are looked upon either as curiosities, as pitiable sights, or as women born for abuse. This should change, and that is the central core of this short story. If you are moved by this short story and would like to read another novel on women’s social issues in an Indian urban setting, you can check out my multiple award-winning book Amina: The Silent One on the products page of my blog. I have also written a short novella on a similar theme titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom, which you can check out here.
It was my pleasure to read and analyze this short story penned by Indian feminist writer Ambai. I have several short stories and non-fiction and fiction books centered on Indian women’s issues. They are all hoarded in my office-cum-writing hut. I will have to rummage through 32,000 books. Want to know more about my life? Then check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai here. I hope to read and analyze more short stories by Ambai soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, you can check out my blog’s products page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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