Ashokamitran (1931-2017): His Fame Never Caught Up With His Brilliance
Ashokamitran is no more. Here is a tribute to that master of subtlety.
I don’t know. I just don’t know what Time is. It just means action. Or the interval between one action and the other. Perhaps, it is the intermingling of both the action and the interval. Or it is neither of these. Time is what I make it out to be. In my consciousness, when one leaves and the other happens, that is Time. That means, this train is standing, according to me. It has not started, yet. I don’t have to keep running and chasing to catch it.
- From the short story kaalamum ainthu kuzhanthaikalum (The Time and five children) by Ashokamitran, 1973
Ashokamitran, who passed away on 23 March 2017 was among the greatest of modern Indian writers. He was one of the most influential icons of post-independence Tamil literature, with a rich repertoire of over 200 short stories, 8 novels, 20 novellas and several essays, in a literary career spanning over 60 years. Much of his fictional writing centred around the lives of ordinary people in urban settings caught in their circumstances, but the brilliance of his art brought out the complexities and nuances of life emerging out of those extra ordinary stories.
The form and structure of his stories were uncluttered and straight, yet they explored unconventional and non-linear life experiences and human predicaments. His prose was undecorated, unarchaic and simple, yet sensitive, subtle and profound. His writings, both in the original and in translation, continue to touch and stir the hearts and minds of countless readers due to such literary qualities.
Born in 1931 as J Thyagarajan in Secunderabad in a middle-class Brahmin family that had migrated from the Cauvery delta region of Tamil Nadu, he spent much of his childhood there. His celebrated novel, Pathinettavathu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel), is set in the city and has the momentous period around 1947 as its canvas when the Nizam state of Hyderabad was being annexed to the Indian Union. The political and social tumult of those times is interwoven with the growing up story of the confused and vulnerable adolescent boy Chandru. This novel is among the best of Indian writing depicting the turbulence of this era.
Soon, he moved to Madras along with his family, where he lived for the rest of his life. Madras became a veritable home, a dwelling for his life and letters. First two decades of his working life in Madras were spent in the film industry as a studio manager. This became a subject matter of many of his stories, like the novella Karaintha nizhalgal (Star-Crossed) that brilliantly portrays the ruthless, harsh realities and pressures in the industry. Then, he opted out of the film industry and undertook various vocations including working for magazines, all the while struggling to survive the crushing life of a typical middle-class family man, keeping his passion alive and establishing himself as a writer.
The travails and tribulations of such urban middle-class life of the 1970s and 80s, like the problem of youth unemployment, underpaid jobs, uncertain futures, family fissures arising out of living in a deprived economy, crushed dreams etc. vividly occur as major themes in his stories.
Thanneer (Water) is a novella set in the backdrop of the severe drinking water crisis of the 1970s in Chennai, in which water becomes as much a metaphor as a dire material need that possesses and occupies peoples’ minds without a break every day. En paarvaiyil Chennai Nagaram (Chennai City: A Kaleidoscope) is a compilation of his short essays on various landscapes and localities of Madras. These essays, filled with the trademark wit and sharpness of the author beautifully record the shifts and changes that the city has undergone over the years.
Manasarovar is a unique literary piece among the many works of Ashokamitran. At the surface level, it is an absorbing story set in the film industry revolving around the lives of a celebrity actor and a studio writer, and the bond and chasm in their relationship. But inwardly it is a profound meditation on the human quest for inner peace and liberation.
Otran (Mole) is a classic semi-realistic fictional account of the author’s experience as a stranger in the American university town of Iowa, where he had stayed for a few months in a fellowship program along with the assembly of writers from many parts of the world.
A short story, generally considered as a somewhat restricted and restrictive literary form became a highly enriched, chiselled, sophisticated and at times a grand creation in the hands of Ashokamitran. His short stories bring out the multifaceted personality of the highly creative writer endowed with a rich imagination. They contain a breathtaking array of myriad characters and situations, though they all are mostly from urban backgrounds. Some stories also delve into the domain of deep psychology and philosophy.
Literary critics may be tempted to categorise and bracket Ashokamitran within the confines of existentialism, modernism and realism that were the dominant trends when he started out as a writer. It is true that his literary universe is least burdened with grand historical or pollical narratives, cultural deconstructions, religious motifs or philosophical discussions, let alone influences from trends like post-modernism. It contains the least amount of imagery and metaphor as understood conventionally.
But, the fact remains that truly superior literary writings are beyond the limits of classifications and deftly transcend such barriers. Ashokamitran’s works are no exception. In his personal religious beliefs, he was like any the other typical middle-class devout Hindu, but it did not manifest blatantly in his works. His writings are replete with a strong political conscience, though he did not belong to or advocate any political ideology. Many of his works express humanism and a deep empathy towards fellow beings in a subtle and gentle way, devoid of loudness and shrillness.
While recalling his tremendous contribution to modern Tamil literature, which will not be easily matched by anyone in the coming years, a sad commentary also runs in parallel which is regarding the shocking apathy of the Tamil society towards a literary genius like Ashokamitran.
First, the social condition was (and largely is) such that even a writer of such calibre had to dabble in multiple jobs and vocations to survive and could not live a decent life of his choice being a full-time writer. Some of his masterly novels that were world-class did not sell even 100 copies a year when they appeared, and a serious writer like him would not compromise his art to please the debased mass readers of commercial magazines.
Second, even after he attained an iconic status post the 1990s after struggling for a major part of his life, he was not duly recognised by the state and the society. When the news of his death came, many of his admirers felt a deep anguish that the great Tamil writer was not awarded the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award which he totally deserved, despite living till the ripe age of 85 years (Jnanapith is only given to living personalities, not posthumously).
Multiple reasons could be attributed for this lapse; the most important one being the cultural illiteracy of educated but film-star obsessed Tamils, who are unaware of their own great writers, because of which the writers remain unsung and uncelebrated throughout their life. This coupled with the fact that Tamil academics steeped in Marxist and Dravidianist prejudices and petty mindsets have the power and say to suppress and denounce even a much loved, non-political and upright literary icon like Ashokamitran. This is a grave issue worth pondering by all lovers of Tamil literature at this moment of the passing away of one of our invaluable gems.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter.com/iflickscinema)
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