Tribute

Ashokamitran (1931-2017): A genius bottled in obscurity who deserved far, far more

A Tamil writer has a crucial question about his inspiration and guru, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 85.

It is hard for me to write about Ashokamitran without being hit by a torrent of emotion. I regard him as not only my guru but my father, who brought me into this world, sustained me and nourished me.

Ours was like most father-son relationships. The rasa of my writing is entirely borrowed from him. He is my progenitor. But he never could warm up to my writing. And knowing that, I kept away from him.

In 1968-’69, Ashokamitran’s novel Karaindha Nizhalgal (Dissolved Shadows) was serialised in a magazine called Deepam. It formed the foundation of my writing, though I was too young to realise it at the time.

Over the next three decades, I read every word Ashokamitran wrote. While working in Delhi, I would constantly carry with me a copy of his short story collection, Kaalamum Aindhu Kuzhandhaga Lum (Time and the Five Children) like a talisman.

Ashokamitran was the managing editor of the Tamil literary magazine Kanaiyazhi from 1966-’89. The letters to the editor I regularly sent, published in under the name “Nivedita from Delhi” marked my entry into the world of writing.

Subsequently, the magazine published my first short story, Mull (Thorn). Ashokamitran wrote me a postcard, appreciating my contribution. Whenever I was in Chennai, I would make it a point to pay him a visit at his home in a quiet lane opposite the T Nagar bus stand.

Getting by

That was in the 1980s. When I met him a decade later, the house had turned into an apartment block. Writing was his only source of income. The English magazines would pay him pittance and Tamil publications were even worse. His new apartment had lost the beauty and tranquility of his former house.

In 1999, I approached Ashokamitran with the request to write a foreword for my short story collection, Nano, which included some stories he had published in Kanaiyazhi. He did write the foreword – as was his wont, on the backside of a advertisement flyer because he often did not have the money to afford even basic writers’ stationary – but in it, he said he disapproved of much of my writing. Metafiction was not the genre for him, he wrote. After that, our contact was minimal but my devotion to his writing that began at the age of 15 remained intact. In fact, it has only increased with each passing day.

All-important question

In the late ’80s, when I re-read Ashokamitran after having immersed myself in world literature, a question arose in my mind for which I’m yet to find an answer. People pray to god seeking fulfilment of many desires. My only prayer is to find this answer.

It needs a bit of explaining. I recently read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, translated in Tamil by G Kuppuswamy. Pamuk writes in great detail about another Turkish literary giant, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. Interestingly, Tanpinar’s works have been translated in Tamil, and possibly, other Indian languages as well. Similarly, almost every important European writer has been translated, discussed and debated in Tamil.

I would argue that Ashokamitran is a greater writer than Kafka or Camus. In the Indian subcontinent, I would rate him higher than even the great Saadat Hasan Manto. Why, then, is he not studied in any great detail abroad or even in Indian universities? Why is he not as famous in the Czech Republic as Milan Kundera is in Tamil Nadu?

It is easier to understand Ashokamitran’s lack of popular acclaim in his homeland, Tamil Nadu, where only those who write for the state’s Kollywood film industry matter. But Ashokamitran is one of the very few Tamil writers whose work has found exceptionally good English translators. Even then, obscurity is what he had to live with. The largest selling English daily in Ashokamitran’s hometown, Chennai, carried a 500 word report on his death on Thursday in the inside pages. Why does it have to be so. That is the question I ask.

Imagine a literary colossus like Ashokamitran moving around the streets of Chennai in a rickety old bicycle. That was his lot. He have up the cycle in the very last years of his life, when he had become too weak.

When a fellow Tamil writer, during an interview, asked him about his frail health, Ashokamitran said it was because he would often not have the means to eat well in his youth.

Greatest of the greats

A mere listing of the titles of Ashokamitran’s book over a 60-year career could constitute a 1,500-word essay. Each one is a piece of glowing ember. There is not one book that could be termed ordinary. Ottran (The Spy), Pathinettavadhu Atchakkodu (The 18th Parallel), Thanneer (Water) and Inspector Shenbagaraman are classics. Karaindha Nizhalgal is a short novel but it took me a good 10 days to finish upon re-reading recently. The tragedy and the farcical lives of Ashokamitran’s characters can bring readers to tears.

Ashokamitran’s decade-long stint at Chennai’s Gemini film studios served as the raw material for Karaindha Nizhalgal. But this is a novel about the film industry. It is about people.

Natarajan and Rajagopal, the production managers, Natarajan’s assistant Sampath, Producer Reddy, studio owner Ram Iyengar, his son Pachha, the actress Jayachandrika, desperate-for-a-film role Velu and Shanmugam – all their stories could rival the character arc of a Greek tragedy.

The effusion of empathy in Ashokamitran’s novels was a result of his honesty. He maintained that he was merely paying a tribute to the men and women he met in real life through the characters in his stories. There was no effort to forcibly squeeze out the drama where none exists.

Last words

Ashokamitran said he wrote Karaindha Nizhalgal sitting on a cement bench in T Nagar’s Natesan Park. That bench should be a place of worship for any lover of literature. At every literary event I attend, I unfailingly urge people to read each one of his works. It is a privilege to have lived in the same era as a writer of Ashokamitran’s brilliance.

With his eye for detail in capturing the humdrum reality, a ear for dialects, the precision and economy of language and a naturalist view that looked at humanity bottled in by powers beyond control, Ashokamitran, some say was Charles Dickens, Anton Chekov and Emile Zola rolled into one. But he was much more than that.

Translated from Tamil by TR Vivek

Charu Nivedita is a Tamil writer. His novels include Zero Degree and Exile.

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