LITERARY TRIBUTE

Through more than 200 stories, Ashokamitran wrote the one big story in which we find ourselves

A true modernist, the Tamil writer wrote mostly about the oppressed and the powerless.

Ashokamitran, who died on Thursday in Chennai at the age of 85, was a colossus among Indian writers of his time. Comprising a prolific output of over 200 short stories, eight novels and 20 novellas, along with several volumes of essays, reviews and articles over a period of 60 years, his contribution to the world of Tamil letters will not be easily matched in the years to come.

But it is through his fiction that he managed to touch the hearts and minds of countless readers within the country and abroad. His craft and imagination as a creative writer have led several generations of Tamil readers towards a greater awareness of their predicament in today’s world and, in the end, a reflective assertion of their own humanity.

Existential modernist

Ashokamitran spent his childhood in Secunderabad, where his father was an employee of the railways. After independence, he moved along with his family to Madras, where he lived out the rest of his life. Given this exclusively urban background, free of the weight of tradition, Ashokamitran forged a kind of existential modernism as the source of his art. The work of mid-century American writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and Dos Passos appear to have provided the inspiration behind his choice.

In this way, Ashokamitran was unique among Indian writers in placing the experiential reality of individuals at the centre of his fiction. His narratives apparently describe the surface of events as they come to pass, while the abstractions of history, culture, family and work lie embedded subtly below the surface, largely unstated, as “the eternity contained in the moment”.

Through the sixty years of his fiction, Ashokamitran has covered such a wide range of people and contexts that it is easy for his readers to recognise themselves and their world around them in his stories. His wry, detached voice, often inflected with absurdist humour – for who can resist laughing at the foibles and strange ways of this all-too-human world? – seeks not to prescribe or sanctify, but to illuminate our experience. As a true modernist, Ashokamitran wrote mostly about the oppressed and the powerless – women, children, office and industrial workers, and the forsaken ranks of the urban poor.

A great influencer

His stories were largely set in the three milieus where he spent most of his life: Secunderabad of his childhood years, the film industry where he found shelter during the first fifteen years of his working life, and a city like Madras whose inhabitants were constantly besieged by the pressures of urban existence. In the last two decades of his life he had also explored the migratory experience of poor Brahmin families in the Cauvery delta during the first half of the last century.

Ashokamitran invented a unique language and style – sharp, nuanced and unornamented – that could embed silences and subtexts in the flow of his prose fictional narratives as powerful aids to his project of illumination. Although no Tamil writer who followed him could match the brilliance of his art, Ashokamitran has indeed influenced the tone of contemporary Tamil fiction forever, relieving it of its traditional loudness and lack of nuance.

Among his celebrated works are: Thaneer (Water), set in the backdrop of the drinking water crisis in Madras of the early 1970s; Pathinettavathu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel), covering the years immediately preceding the annexation of the princely state of Hyderabad by the Indian Union; and Otran (Mole!), a series of vignettes showcasing the eccentric creativity and brilliance of an assembly of writers from around the world in a university town situated in the American Midwest. The collection of more than 200 short stories, though, seems to belong to one indivisible world and can be experienced as the one big story in which we may all find ourselves.

The motley crew of his characters – flawed, deluded, broken or simply “pulsing in opposition” – shall always remain a source of light in the darkness that surrounds us, a radiance that will, we hope, bring us just a little bit closer to one another. After all, uniting people through his unique art has always been the declared intent of this widely beloved writer. It is beyond doubt that the rich legacy of his oeuvre will continue to inspire and inform us.

N Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based translator who has published six volumes of Ashokamitran’s fiction in translation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.