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.
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.