C.S.Lakshmi (Ambai) was born in a large middle-class Brahmin family in 1944. Her parents hailed from Palghat, which was a constituent of the Madras Presidency but is now a district in Kerala. It had a predominantly Brahmin population. The family had settled in Coimbatore. Ambai was the third child of her parents, the eldest being a son while the second was a daughter. When the third child too happened to be a daughter the family was visibly upset. More so because it was an unplanned pregnancy and Ambai’s birth was an accident. In fact Ambai recalls in an interview how for many days her father did not even cradle her in his arms and always called her ‘blackie’ because of her dark complexion. ‘Blackie was however named Lakshmi for two reasons, firstly because her maternal grandmother’s name was Lakshmi and secondly because she was born on a Friday. Prejudice against the girl child in Indian society is a well-known fact and Ambai was to some extent a victim of this prejudice being the second daughter. Her first photograph was taken when she was four years old. Before that nobody ever thought of taking a snapshot of hers.
Ambai was put in a Tamil medium school as against the English medium one to which her elder siblings went. According to her own admission ‘In my family I am the only one to write in Tamil. The others write even their personal letters in English.’ Despite these minor irritants, Ambai’s childhood was a happy one and she remembers fondly the many enjoyable vacations spent at her maternal grandmother’s house with innumerable cousins who became her playmates. Ambai was greatly influenced by her grandmother who was a self-taught Tamil scholar and who cultivated an interest in the young girl for Tamil literature. In addition to her grandmother, Ambai’s own mother too was another constructive influence on her and who became at many points in her life the pillar of support she needed to stand on her own two feet.
Ambai read avidly all the Tamil magazines and journals her mother subscribed to and grew up on the conservative, tradition bound often-romantic writings that these magazines encouraged and perpetuated. When Ambai first began writing at the age of sixteen, she wrote in a style similar to the one she had soaked up from those magazines. As she comments on her early writings she says: ‘Most of my initial stories had very rigid and orthodox views of sexuality, femininity and life in general. The widows in my stories, after a speech full of symbolic metaphors always refused to remarry and my heroines married idealists who were combinations of Tagore, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.’
Ambai had already published two novels before she turned twenty. At sixteen she had won the first prize in a competition organized by the journal Kannan. Her entry Nandi Malai Charalile (At Nandi Hills Falls), a novel, was published shortly after she won the competition. This novel appeared under the name ‘Ambai’, the pseudonym that she had used for the first time on this occasion and was to continue using it thereafter for all her creative writing. Her first short story Gnanam (Knowledge) was published in the journal Ananda Vikatan. She published many more stories in this magazine in the coming years. But her early writings were modeled on traditional concepts of womanhood and chastity. Her world was still limited to her home and there was a tacit rule limiting her interaction with the world outside. She therefore naively went along believing in the prevalent concepts, which required women to be chaste, pure, submissive and docile. To believe that a modern woman was one transgressing the bounds of morality was merely an extension of these conventional concepts.
Ambai struggled to break free. A rebel at heart she knew that there was a different and wider world beyond the confines of her walled existence. Thus her decision to move to Madras came about. Subsequently she secured a UGC fellowship and took admission in JNU for her Ph.D. and moved to Delhi in 1967.
Ambai’s literary career aptly reflects the various stages in her development both as a writer and as a person. From her early idealistic writings like Andhi Malai she moved to writing stories with new concerns but still wrote in the conventional style. Moving to Delhi, however, was the bold step she took to venturing into women centered stories that questioned the paradoxes of their suppressed existence. From writing in the conventional style she moved to experiment with new forms, new themes and looked at old subjects from new angles. According to her ‘Be it feminism, Marxism – whatever it be, it ought to contain its potency before it touches you. Stories that have a lot of feminist ideas go unappreciated if they lack an engaging style.’ Herein lies the germ for Ambai’s desire to evolve new forms and a new language for expressing her ideas in her writings.