reviews and essays

Smokeless Emanations

The power of Ashokamitran’s unvarnished art

By Vasantha Surya | 1 October 2016

ONE MORNING IN APRIL THIS YEAR, I was ushered into the Chennai home of the Tamil writer Ashokamitran by one of his twin granddaughters. The 85-year-old was seated at his desk, above which was a collage of family photos, much like the ones that you or I might put up. With grandfatherly pride, he talked about the twins’ post-graduate studies—one’s in counselling psychology and the other’s in graphic design. And, about one of them getting married, he observed, “Wedding halls are so difficult to get these days. So little parking! People come from long distances. Community life is not like it used to be. That was a more leisurely time. Now a wedding is just a one-meal affair. By mutual consent.” He seemed to approve of the change, though a trace of nostalgia clung to his voice.

If Ashokamitran’s persona is accessible, so is his prose. For the past five decades, his has been a household name in Tamil Nadu, thanks to a phenomenal literary output of more than 250 short stories, two dozen novels, and scores of articles, essays and reviews. His easy-to-read prose has made him a popular-magazine staple, while its depth and range have established him as a highly regarded literary practitioner and critic. He has received many honours, including the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Reading Ashokamitran’s stories, you race across a cricket pitch, chase a recalcitrant buffalo, pursue a vanishing pickpocket, scurry to place your bucket in line as water sputters from a municipal tap, scramble forward past other youths with your guts churning as your name is called to receive an examination mark-sheet, clamber onto a running train to get to a job interview, flee from a lathi-wielding mob. You stare, terrified as two British Tommies knock off your father’s cap and stamp on it. You are a migrant labourer in a road-repair gang, you tip barrels of boiling tar over jagged stones, and share a meal of cold rice and roasted squirrel with a girl worker. Threatened by the police that they’ll stuff chilli powder up your rectum if you don’t tell them your comrades’ names, you escape into the jungle, your hands still bound. You stagger in a bus and are deeply offended when someone tells you not to fall against the women passengers. You inch along in a queue to collect your family’s ration of palm oil, desperate to get to class before the bell rings.

You are a Chinese woman who flies to San Francisco to join her dashing childhood sweetheart, only to find he has turned into a groveling immigrant. You tie your insane wife’s hands behind her back to avoid being clawed. You dunk your sick daughter in a temple tank. You immerse your mother’s ashes at Kashi, stare at a widow covering a lingam with flowers, follow a savvy Benares-wallah into a brothel. You storm out of the house, full of teenage angst. You cower in the dark after an electoral defeat, terrified of those you have vilified. You sneak away to meet your seducer, who has promised to get you into a movie. You, the spoilt grandson of a patriarch, hit your long-suffering mother in public. You are the dog that joyfully welcomes back the household drudge-turned-thief with bleeding welts on his back after a stint in jail, and you, the reader, can almost taste the stale rotis they both share.

Ashokamitran’s life is the source from which his fiction flows, and yet there is no breast-beating, no confessional tone. His remains an anonymous, often androgynous voice. He can disappear into the shadows cast by his characters. Now you see him, now you don’t. His fiction is a kind of smokeless emanation. There are no diatribes, no diagnoses. The stories sometimes seem unfinished, but each has a keen edge of serrated detail. The style is conversational—almost chatty. All of this is precisely what gives his fiction its force, and makes him a pioneer and an original.

BORN J THYAGARAJAN into a Tamil Brahmin family of moderate means, in 1931, the writer grew up in a railway colony in Secunderabad, in what was then the Hyderabad state. The shortages and upheavals of the war years and those following Independence and Partition formed the backdrop of his school and college days. As the Razakar-led resistance to the integration of Hyderabad with the Indian union played itself out, traditional ways of thinking and living were fading out, and linguistic, caste and communal loyalties taking on new political forms.

In 1952, his father’s early death took the family to Madras where Ashokamitran joined the public relations department at Gemini Studios, a movie production company, also functioning as their “ideas man.” Fourteen Years with Boss (first published as My Years With Boss at Gemini Studios in 2002, and reissued by Penguin Books earlier this year) is a memoir of his time with the company. It consists of a series of articles written for the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1980s, in which Ashokamitran describes collecting material for possible scripts.

I played a respectably insignificant role in the huge Gemini machine of 600 men and women … My duty was to mutilate large numbers of newspapers and affix the clippings under a variety of heads.

His years of exposure to the world of acting did not add any perceptible artifice to his art, or artfulness to his persona, grounded as they both were in the circumstances of his own life. It was no flight of fancy but the pursuit of a livelihood that took Ashokamitran to Madras’s Kodambakkam area where the Tamil film industry was based. From the early 1930s, films had been attracting a motley workforce of varied talents and resources. Serving as a factotum for Gemini Studios brought Ashokamitran into contact with several remarkable personalities working both on and off screen, including the redoubtable entrepreneur, magazine publisher, and producer SS Vasan—the “Boss” of his memoir’s title. Many people in his stories travel back and forth between their quotidian lives—as urban office-goers, tradesmen, technicians, artisans, odd-job men and manual workers—and their roles on both sides of the silver screen, or vellithirai.

As early as in 1953, Ashokamitran was turning out articles and stories on the side, first in English and then in Tamil. When I asked the novelist Vaasanthi how it was that Ashokamitran’s stories, unsentimental as they were, appealed to readers accustomed to magazine romances, she remarked, “It was something of a novelty for Tamil readers when he started to write humorously, about serious things.” Vaasanthi’s own writing on film stars and politics describes how in Tamil Nadu, as in all of India, films are very “serious things.”

It was Vasan who urged Ashokamitran to write full-time in 1966, and three years later, the writer brought out the novel Karaindha Nizhalgal (Star-Crossed). In the 1970s, Ashokamitran—it was about this time he changed his name from Thyagarajan—published what would go on to be two of his best-known works, the novels Thanneer (Water) and Pathinettaavadhu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel). In 1984, he came out with Indru, an impressionist critique of the Emergency.

As Ashokamitran pointed out to me, “Until about the 1960s, writing devoid of hyperbole was not common at all.” A much more nuanced literature has emerged in Tamil since then, for which readers have increasingly developed a taste. The Tamil Story, an anthology of Tamil short fiction in translation that appeared earlier this year, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, records the century-long process of Tamil writing extricating itself from its earlier formalism. Neo-classicism and romanticism were the initial, passionate literary ripostes to colonialism, as well as a response to the stimulus of modernism. If the poems of the early-twentieth-century Tamil writer Subramania Bharati harked back to universalist elements within the literary canon, his contemporary, Kalki, followed suit with his historical novels about the exploits of the ancient Tamils.

It was only by degrees that literary attention shifted to the human predicament, away from divinities, philosophical abstractions, past glory and poetic sublimations. The lives of the poor and the condition of women were now also regarded as themes worthy of literary attention. Modern realism, with its critical edge and its ironic tone, entered Tamil prose, finding its way into popular literature. Ashokamitran, among others, found in his own milieu the themes and characters for his narratives.

Not only the literary focus of Tamil but the language itself was expanding to take in new possibilities, and Ashokamitran quickly caught on to them, adopting oral registers unselfconsciously. The mid-century anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu succeeded in fobbing off that dominant tongue. But Tamil was becoming increasingly permeable to other languages, despite the political grandstanding around it. Writers from all parts of Tamil Nadu have shaped the consciousness of the Tamil people thereafter by amplifying story-telling voices never before recorded. They have been nudging along this old yet still spry language, trying to accommodate its many spoken forms, some of which are still thought of as kochhai—crude.

In Manasarovar (published in 1989, translated by N Kalyan Raman), one of Ashokamitran’s characters, a lonely superstar from pre-Partition Punjab, who can find no one to talk to in the Madras film world and discovers his Learn Tamil in 30 Days book is of no use, laments,

The Tamil spoken here is not the textbook kind of Tamil, it sounds like a new and secret tongue. Here, they speak it at a fast clip, or softly whisper it in your ears. Or chatter in deafeningly loud voices.

Spoken Tamil is laden with epithets for those who transgress caste- and gender-defined boundaries, but they are not to Ashokamitran’s taste. His Tamil has its own elan. Almost effortlessly, it blends established literary usage with dialects, such as Brahmin speech and street lingo, both of which are freely sprinkled with terms from English, Urdu, and other languages Ashokamitran’s fiction came of age at around the time that Madras acquired a proud new fleet of buses: the Pallavan Transport. “Pallavan” quickly became a favoured synonym for “bus.”

His prose was the literary equivalent of these buses. It took readers where they were going anyway, in their actual lives. Ashokamitran’s “Pallavan” is steered by the sutradhaar-cum-protagonist, and each story lifts off, a friction-less narrative coasting along just above the road’s uneven surface. There are angled perspectives of familiar ground in two or three south-Indian cities, before the narrative zooms in on the lives of individual people who run the gamut of caste and class, belong to different religions and speak different languages. Often, Ashokamitran tells us of how they confront their conditioning, and somehow “adjist,” as they say in Tamil Nadu.

Ashokamitran typifies a paradox: modern Tamil writing, exacting in its pursuit of objectivity even as it dives into the many subjectivities of contemporary life, actually manages to live cheek by jowl with the jaw-dropping creations of the maya bazaar—the theatre of illusions—of Tamil films. Star-Crossed, translated by V Ramnarayan,is about the less-than-glamorous lives of those working in films, in that world reeking of sweat-stained, tinselly costumes, where “every job is permanent. And temporary,” where a production manager can be reduced to beggary with a single flop. In the 1988 novella Paavam Dalpathado (The Ghosts of Meenambakkam), a scripting assistant, haunted by the death of his daughter in a bomb blast, finds that a visiting filmmaker from a neighbouring country has turned terrorist, exploded one bomb and is about to set off another.

Of such eerie juxtapositions are film plots made, and Ashokamitran should know, having snipped and clipped reams of potential script material at Gemini Studios. Yet, instead of presenting predictably unpredictable thrillers, he focusses on the inexplicable ways that things actually turn out, on the vulnerability of individuals to the collateral damage caused by collective rages. For at least one person, the grieving father in The Ghosts of Meenambakkam, it is all deadly serious, even the ghost of guilt in his own mind.

After she passed away, whenever I tried to recall her, no distinct image surfaced in my mind … It was that sense of shortcoming that made me wander around the airport, insistent that I must see her again, even if she was a ghost or an apparition … Lakshmi! Lakshmi!

IT IS RARE, HOWEVER, for Ashokamitran to give voice to a wail of mourning. Understatement is his forte. Is there an indigenous literary tradition from which Ashokamitran draws, I asked the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novelist Sa Kandasamy. He mentioned the Singaporean Tamil scholar Edwin Thumboo’s view that there is just one tradition of story-telling in the world—the tradition of leaving things unsaid. In a first-century poem of Avvaiyar’s, he said, a girl asks her friend to sing a song about her lover in the hearing of her mother, who she hopes will take the hint and fulfil her daughter’s desire.

In Ashokamitran’s 1979 story ‘Kaai’ (which could be translated as “fruit” or “result,” but literally means “vegetable”), a servant boy is sent to pluck mangoes. He does, but on his way back most of them are grabbed from him by bullies, and so he receives a furious scolding. Just before he drops off to sleep, it occurs to him that he has not eaten even a single mango. The writer does not pontificate about this injustice; he just clears the foliage so you can see the unreachable fruit of a child’s labour.

Kaa Na Subramanyam, a formidable classicist and scholar of world literature, made a clear distinction between the derivative and the authentic in Tamil writing. In a 1988 article in the magazine Dinamani, he pointed out that Ashokamitran, though often compared with Chekhov, does not impose a structure on the reality he describes, which the Russian writer often seems to be do. To impose such a structure implies making a statement about the meaning of life and existence—or about the utter banality of it all, as in Chekhov’s case—and this is precisely what Ashokamitran never presumes to make. Rich as they are in detail, and apparently about the external world, his stories are paths traversing “an interior landscape,” to use a phrase from the poet, translator and folklorist AK Ramanujan. Each stops at the point where you know, in your gut, that the gist of it cannot be weighed down by words. Ashokamitran’s plots seemingly follow their own trajectories, slide into themes of identity and friendship, and spin towards little black holes of uncertainty.

Kandasamy elaborated on this theme by saying that Ashokamitran’s stories “are not case histories, and his psychology and his sociology don’t come in Bata-shoe sizes, to fit everyone, every society, and every situation. The thousands of words he has written fall into stories that are never more than 750 or 1,000 words; and none of them are kettavaarthai—dirty words!” Kandasamy’s own controlled prose offers lucid perspectives on the quandary in which people find themselves when familiar roles and scripts are stripped from them.

Ashokamitran’s “aesthetic of the ordinary,” in the critic Subhash Jeyan’s view, is “just ordinary”. But even he concedes that the anecdotes in Mole!—Ashokamitran’s novella based on his stint at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme in 1973, about bewildered fellow “furriners” in America’s mid-west—coalesce around a modest kernel of insight. This is spelt out in the introduction to the novella, where the writer quotes a Sangam poem: yaadhum oorey yaavarum kelir—whatever the country, all are kin. A young Italian woman in the throes of an unhappy affair seeks solace by confiding in a kind, south-Indian gentleman—and makes pasta for him. He eats it, with his vegetarian nose twitching at the unfamiliar aromas.

Ashokamitran’s tendency to leave things unsaid in his fiction also manifests itself in conversation, where it is not easy to get him to make general statements on any subject. Given that he has been writing for more than half a century, I asked him if there is anything discernible left in south India of earlier caste and regional cultures. “There used to be a certain refinement,” he said gently. I seemed to sense a fastidiousness reminiscent of the old Brahmin mindset—which many have come to hate for its hauteur.

But when I asked the Dalit novelist Cho Dharman if Ashokamitran could be regarded as a Brahmin writer, he brushed away the suggestion. “Manushan, manushan, manushan!” he said—Man! “That’s the one subject that Ashokamitran writes about. … He writes specifically about those from the lowest levels of city life, about their unfulfilled desires, which have escaped our attention, transforming the subtle reality of their condition into art. It’s a kind of magic, to write so simply.”

“What is imagined must not turn into delusion,” Ashokamitran writes in Mole! (translated by Kalyan Raman). Any writer who chooses not to be anchored in any theory or ism, either about his craft or its purpose, could be at the mercy of the random forces he is trying to portray. To escape succumbing to vertigo of the imagination, he has to retain a sense of aesthetic balance above and beyond the mastery of craft, in order to come out with an intelligible narrative. Ashokamitran often manages to do this.

Yet he does not always, and sometimes his narratives may sag. “Enough,” I found myself saying halfway through The Ghosts of Meenambakkam, for instance. For a moment, I didn’t want to find out what happens to Sylvia, the European companion of the filmmaker-turned-terrorist from an unnamed neighbouring country. Until I suddenly recalled interviewing, in a Madras flat in the 1980s, Anton Balasingham, the chief political strategist of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and meeting the woman with him with the unplaceable accent, his Australian-born wife, Adele Balasingham. That was when it all came together for me. Ashokamitran’s Sylvia turned out to be as real a person as his Tamil-speaking women characters from Madras or Secunderabad. The dissonances in the story actually make it ring true.

Some truths in The Eighteenth Parallel (translated by Gomathi Narayan) got Ashokamitran the Ramkrishna Jaidayal Harmony Award, for promoting communal harmony. Cricket, films, school bullies, Muslim and Anglo-Indian team-mates, even the unsettling awareness of girls, are all left behind as the protagonist, Chandru, sees an affable neighbor, Kasim, suddenly turning quarrelsome. He listens to conflicting reports on the Telengana peasant rebellion, and the “Police Action” that brings the Nizam to heel on 17 September 1948 after he resisted the annexation of Hyderabad State by India. Chandru signs his name in blood, follows a procession through a burst of teargas, and finds himself caught up in a communal riot. And then Nehru is on the radio announcing the assasination of Gandhi: “The light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere.” Chandru falls to the ground, amazed at his own grief.

Could anyone dislike Gandhi? Except the person who shot him? Who was he? A Muslim? A sudden surge of heat coursed through his veins.

Chandru’s initial reaction to Gandhi’s murder is followed by the sobering realisation that a “Hindu” had committed it. (In another story, from 1973—‘Gandhi’—two friends fall out after having come together as ardent humanists. One denounces Gandhi for his vacillations, while the other sees him as “a man soaked in the world’s sorrow, and driven by it to accomplish extraordinary deeds.”) What Chandru himself achieves at the end is to reclaim his own humanity, when a terror-stricken girl offers herself to him in exchange for her family’s safety.

To think that he was the cause of this depravity! How was he to rid himself of this stain! Would he ever be able to? … As he ran on, he grew dimly aware of the first streaks of dawn.

This is not catharsis but more like a “still bleeding wound”—to quote from the title of a recent translated collection of Ashokamitran’s—in the body politic.

I FOUND I HAD Ashokamitran’s 1983 short story collection Thanthaikkaaga in my bookcase. A yellowing paperback priced at Rs 11. It bore a hand-written inscription on the fly-leaf: “For my friend Kandasamy from Ashokamitran.” I called Sa Kandasamy and confessed that I must have forgotten to return it, having borrowed it when I was translating two of his novels.
“Never mind,” he said, “Books are meant to travel.” Ashokamitran’s books have been travelling, thanks to translation. He himself is no globe-trotter though he did have that one memorable sojourn at the University of Iowa, where he probably taught more than he learnt. Kandasamy told me, “He is an Indian writer, who happens to write in Tamil. He can be read in any language.” This view was an effective closure to more than half a century of linguistic chest-thumping.

Around the time when he first arrived at my door, on a bicycle, in the mid 1980s, AK Ramanujan had just told some of us in Madras that it was high time that what was being written in Indian languages was better known. It was after this that I translated Ashokamitran’s story ‘The Rat’ for an earlier anthology of Tamil short fiction, edited by Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy, which appeared in 1996.

For translators, it is tempting to try and smuggle across certain idiomatic flavours from the original texts, much as a Non-Resident Indian might secrete a jar of tender-mango pickle in a suitcase on a flight to the mango-less West, hoping it will get through customs. There is always the risk that the contraband will leak and make a mess, but the risk is often taken, and the original flavours survive, and even thrive, in an appetising new literary concoction.

Stating the obvious for a change, Ashokamitran said to me, “Translation is for those who cannot read the original.” He added mildly, “After all, everything, including translation, is an approximation of the truth.” He has had many translators, but the best known among them—N Kalyan Raman, Gomathi Narayanan, V Ramnarayan and the recently deceased Lakshmi Holmström—have managed to echo him in varying octaves that reflect but do not mimic or muffle his Tamil. A translator shouldn’t, of course, whisk you off Ashokamitran’s Pallavan Transport bus into a streamlined foreign plane, or stuff you into a cycle-rickshaw to give you a sample of local colour. Much better to have a translator who will get in the bus with you, and hand you a pair of earphones.

In ‘Free at Last,’ Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s story ‘Ini Vendiyathillai,’ a woman gives her big-shot cousin a “fond” smile. She is looking for a favour—a job for her lover. Kalyan Raman’s rendering as “fond” of the original “anbudan” does well at conveying the cloying quality implied by the Tamil word, and gives it a tang that goes nicely with the story’s tongue-in-cheek irony. This story is from Still Bleeding from the Wound, Kalyan Raman’s somberly titled volume of Ashokamitran translations which appeared earlier this year.

The collection’s title story shows Ashokamitran’s realism at its finest, with no closure and no catharsis. A man gets another man thrashed in the belief that the latter has robbed him, and then is left with the appalling feeling of having made a mistake. Kalyan Raman tracks down the pithy Tamil phrase “punumizh kuruthi”—still bleeding from the wound—to a Sangam poem describing the fatal gush of blood from a wound inflicted on a marauding pirate by a righteous king, while Ashokamitran has connected it to the lingering pain of an unjust act described in Ilango Adigal’s famous ancient epic poem Silappadikaaram. Driven to read Lakshmi Holmström’s, Alain Danielou’s and R Parthasarathy’s translations of the epic, I find Parthasarathy has captured it most vividly: Kannagi looking down at the unjustly slain Kovalan lying “in a pool of blood that spurted from his open wound.”

In The Eighteenth Parallel, the translator, Gomathi Narayanan, seems to vanish into the palpable jostle of events, cultures and languages of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, as Chandru, a Tamil Brahmin boy, son of a railway official, becomes aware of his otherness. Her rendering of Ashokamitran’s Tamil feels like an unobtrusive hand steering you through the narrative of suppressed antagonism between the mostly Tamil employees of the Nizam’s railways and the mostly Muslim employees of the state government.

Railway employees always looked down on the minions of the State Government … and were generally treated like an alien horde of plunderers.

Lakshmi Holmström’s Water is a fluid rendering of Thanneer, which is about the near-calamitous drought that befell Madras in 1971. Defilement based on a hierarchy of caste and gender is the understated sub-text of the novel, and the translation is muted, mirroring the spirit of the original and leaving it to the reader to infer something of the irrational fear and loathing that is felt by an orthodox Brahmin woman, already “inauspicious” on account of being a widow, when she and her water pot are touched by “impure” persons.

The old lady called out, “Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it.” … When those who had gathered there spoke to her kindly and tried to help her to her feet, she even began to cry … The water-pot lay on its side, in a pool of dusty water … She rose unsteadily to her feet and grasped hold of her water-pot, barely able to stand. She emptied out its contents.

THE UNACCOUNTABLE ZEST felt by humans through every vicissitude is the theme of ‘Kaalamum Ainthu Kuzhandhaigalum’ (Time and the Five Children). A train begins to move just before a youth can catch it to get to a job interview. As he pushes through the crowd, past a family of beggars with five sleeping children, it occurs to him that he will be like them if he doesn’t catch that train right now. And then somebody rather large stands right in his way—God himself—and he is asking some exasperating questions. Like, does the youth really think he will catch that train and get the job, and is he sure he can answer all the questions they will put to him? And what caste is he?

“No caste! Get out of the way, you big God, you!” he yells back, marvelling inwardly that he has been granted a vision denied to so many assiduous seekers.
For all of Ashokamitran’s ordinariness, the mythic imagination has a way of seeping into his fantasies. It is his wit that keeps the quirkiest of his stories from turning into nightmares. His is an avuncular presence, not a ghostly one. When I remarked to him that this as yet untranslated story of the supernatural reminds me of the film Fiddler on the Roof, in which the hero has frequent irreverent chats with the Almighty, Ashokamitran did not say anything. Instead giving me a smile that reminded me of the “wonderful smile” flashed by Antony in the story ‘The Colours of Evil’ (Kalyan Raman’s translation of Vannangal), when asked if he believes in ghosts.

Although Ashokamitran does not directly address religious rituals or prejudices in his work, in his tour de force, Manasarovar, with its image of a fabled “lake of the mind” in faraway mountains, he does touch upon those vague metaphysical yearnings that accompany human beings through all that happens to them, and through every relationship. In the novel, a superstar (clearly based on the actor Dilip Kumar), who lost his family during Partition, is drawn to a scripting assistant in a Madras film studio, who reminds the hero of a Sufi he saw long ago, and who is himself mired in domestic calamities. Both seek “inner peace.” In his introduction to its second edition the critic and novelist Aravindan says, “Finding the scientific approach of modernism inadequate to come up with answers and solutions to existential riddles, this novel ventures beyond the limits of rationalism.” The novel’s translator, Kalyan Raman, writes in his own introduction to it of the work’s adhaarasruti—the defining (and, to many, deafening) pitch of spirituality.

…the exhortation of ‘move on’ is often seen as the answer to periods of crisis in the lives of individuals. To move on, away from the cycle of memory and guilt, trust and betrayal, can only be an act of faith.

Ashokamitran winced at my suggestion that he had any such “high” purpose. Certainly the novel doesn’t take you to the roof of the world. It ends in a murky temple pond near Kumbakonam, in the far south of Tamil Nadu. Mirth and wonder run like fine threads of gold and silver through the warp and weft of this novel, as through much of his work. These two rasas—haasya and adbhuta—gleam through the textured nitty-gritty. Their very thinness is a reminder that one cannot clothe oneself in pure gold, or even silver.
But what is the metal in Teacher-Amma’s words, in Water, when she administers a spine-stiffening mental spanking to Jamuna, who is bemoaning being abandoned by her lover? Lakshmi Holmström catches Ashokamitran in the rare act of moralising:

they could see two small children, under ten years old, standing next to a heavy water pot which they had just set down. Teacher-Amma said: “Those children who are carrying a great big water pot they can scarcely manage between them … When you see them like that, how can you think of your own difficulties as great ones?”

Hoping to provoke this prosaic kavi—this seer who denies he has any superior “vision”—into saying something about the country’s present political situation, I asked Ashokamitran, “What do you think of the tolerance-intolerance debate? And what about nationalism, patriotism and all that?”

“What famines, what shortages Indians have been through!” he exclaimed, with a sigh. And then he came out with a startling story about the blockade of essential goods in the last days of the Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad. “They ran buses on groundnut oil. The streets used to smell of bakshanam”—fried snacks.
Aha! He’s changing the subject, I thought.

“Indians are resilient,” he said next, firmly, with that same wonderful smile.

ONE MORNING IN APRIL THIS YEAR, I was ushered into the Chennai home of the Tamil writer Ashokamitran by one of his twin granddaughters. The 85-year-old was seated at his desk, above which was a collage of family photos, much like the ones that you or I might put up. With grandfatherly pride, he talked about the twins’ post-graduate studies—one’s in counselling psychology and the other’s in graphic design. And, about one of them getting married, he observed, “Wedding halls are so difficult to get these days. So little parking! People come from long distances. Community life is not like it used to be. That was a more leisurely time. Now a wedding is just a one-meal affair. By mutual consent.” He seemed to approve of the change, though a trace of nostalgia clung to his voice.

If Ashokamitran’s persona is accessible, so is his prose. For the past five decades, his has been a household name in Tamil Nadu, thanks to a phenomenal literary output of more than 250 short stories, two dozen novels, and scores of articles, essays and reviews. His easy-to-read prose has made him a popular-magazine staple, while its depth and range have established him as a highly regarded literary practitioner and critic. He has received many honours, including the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Reading Ashokamitran’s stories, you race across a cricket pitch, chase a recalcitrant buffalo, pursue a vanishing pickpocket, scurry to place your bucket in line as water sputters from a municipal tap, scramble forward past other youths with your guts churning as your name is called to receive an examination mark-sheet, clamber onto a running train to get to a job interview, flee from a lathi-wielding mob. You stare, terrified as two British Tommies knock off your father’s cap and stamp on it. You are a migrant labourer in a road-repair gang, you tip barrels of boiling tar over jagged stones, and share a meal of cold rice and roasted squirrel with a girl worker. Threatened by the police that they’ll stuff chilli powder up your rectum if you don’t tell them your comrades’ names, you escape into the jungle, your hands still bound. You stagger in a bus and are deeply offended when someone tells you not to fall against the women passengers. You inch along in a queue to collect your family’s ration of palm oil, desperate to get to class before the bell rings.

You are a Chinese woman who flies to San Francisco to join her dashing childhood sweetheart, only to find he has turned into a groveling immigrant. You tie your insane wife’s hands behind her back to avoid being clawed. You dunk your sick daughter in a temple tank. You immerse your mother’s ashes at Kashi, stare at a widow covering a lingam with flowers, follow a savvy Benares-wallah into a brothel. You storm out of the house, full of teenage angst. You cower in the dark after an electoral defeat, terrified of those you have vilified. You sneak away to meet your seducer, who has promised to get you into a movie. You, the spoilt grandson of a patriarch, hit your long-suffering mother in public. You are the dog that joyfully welcomes back the household drudge-turned-thief with bleeding welts on his back after a stint in jail, and you, the reader, can almost taste the stale rotis they both share.

Ashokamitran’s life is the source from which his fiction flows, and yet there is no breast-beating, no confessional tone. His remains an anonymous, often androgynous voice. He can disappear into the shadows cast by his characters. Now you see him, now you don’t. His fiction is a kind of smokeless emanation. There are no diatribes, no diagnoses. The stories sometimes seem unfinished, but each has a keen edge of serrated detail. The style is conversational—almost chatty. All of this is precisely what gives his fiction its force, and makes him a pioneer and an original.

BORN J THYAGARAJAN into a Tamil Brahmin family of moderate means, in 1931, the writer grew up in a railway colony in Secunderabad, in what was then the Hyderabad state. The shortages and upheavals of the war years and those following Independence and Partition formed the backdrop of his school and college days. As the Razakar-led resistance to the integration of Hyderabad with the Indian union played itself out, traditional ways of thinking and living were fading out, and linguistic, caste and communal loyalties taking on new political forms.

In 1952, his father’s early death took the family to Madras where Ashokamitran joined the public relations department at Gemini Studios, a movie production company, also functioning as their “ideas man.” Fourteen Years with Boss (first published as My Years With Boss at Gemini Studios in 2002, and reissued by Penguin Books earlier this year) is a memoir of his time with the company. It consists of a series of articles written for the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1980s, in which Ashokamitran describes collecting material for possible scripts.

I played a respectably insignificant role in the huge Gemini machine of 600 men and women … My duty was to mutilate large numbers of newspapers and affix the clippings under a variety of heads.

His years of exposure to the world of acting did not add any perceptible artifice to his art, or artfulness to his persona, grounded as they both were in the circumstances of his own life. It was no flight of fancy but the pursuit of a livelihood that took Ashokamitran to Madras’s Kodambakkam area where the Tamil film industry was based. From the early 1930s, films had been attracting a motley workforce of varied talents and resources. Serving as a factotum for Gemini Studios brought Ashokamitran into contact with several remarkable personalities working both on and off screen, including the redoubtable entrepreneur, magazine publisher, and producer SS Vasan—the “Boss” of his memoir’s title. Many people in his stories travel back and forth between their quotidian lives—as urban office-goers, tradesmen, technicians, artisans, odd-job men and manual workers—and their roles on both sides of the silver screen, or vellithirai.

As early as in 1953, Ashokamitran was turning out articles and stories on the side, first in English and then in Tamil. When I asked the novelist Vaasanthi how it was that Ashokamitran’s stories, unsentimental as they were, appealed to readers accustomed to magazine romances, she remarked, “It was something of a novelty for Tamil readers when he started to write humorously, about serious things.” Vaasanthi’s own writing on film stars and politics describes how in Tamil Nadu, as in all of India, films are very “serious things.”

It was Vasan who urged Ashokamitran to write full-time in 1966, and three years later, the writer brought out the novel Karaindha Nizhalgal (Star-Crossed). In the 1970s, Ashokamitran—it was about this time he changed his name from Thyagarajan—published what would go on to be two of his best-known works, the novels Thanneer (Water) and Pathinettaavadhu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel). In 1984, he came out with Indru, an impressionist critique of the Emergency.

As Ashokamitran pointed out to me, “Until about the 1960s, writing devoid of hyperbole was not common at all.” A much more nuanced literature has emerged in Tamil since then, for which readers have increasingly developed a taste. The Tamil Story, an anthology of Tamil short fiction in translation that appeared earlier this year, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, records the century-long process of Tamil writing extricating itself from its earlier formalism. Neo-classicism and romanticism were the initial, passionate literary ripostes to colonialism, as well as a response to the stimulus of modernism. If the poems of the early-twentieth-century Tamil writer Subramania Bharati harked back to universalist elements within the literary canon, his contemporary, Kalki, followed suit with his historical novels about the exploits of the ancient Tamils.

It was only by degrees that literary attention shifted to the human predicament, away from divinities, philosophical abstractions, past glory and poetic sublimations. The lives of the poor and the condition of women were now also regarded as themes worthy of literary attention. Modern realism, with its critical edge and its ironic tone, entered Tamil prose, finding its way into popular literature. Ashokamitran, among others, found in his own milieu the themes and characters for his narratives.

Not only the literary focus of Tamil but the language itself was expanding to take in new possibilities, and Ashokamitran quickly caught on to them, adopting oral registers unselfconsciously. The mid-century anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu succeeded in fobbing off that dominant tongue. But Tamil was becoming increasingly permeable to other languages, despite the political grandstanding around it. Writers from all parts of Tamil Nadu have shaped the consciousness of the Tamil people thereafter by amplifying story-telling voices never before recorded. They have been nudging along this old yet still spry language, trying to accommodate its many spoken forms, some of which are still thought of as kochhai—crude.

In Manasarovar (published in 1989, translated by N Kalyan Raman), one of Ashokamitran’s characters, a lonely superstar from pre-Partition Punjab, who can find no one to talk to in the Madras film world and discovers his Learn Tamil in 30 Days book is of no use, laments,

The Tamil spoken here is not the textbook kind of Tamil, it sounds like a new and secret tongue. Here, they speak it at a fast clip, or softly whisper it in your ears. Or chatter in deafeningly loud voices.

Spoken Tamil is laden with epithets for those who transgress caste- and gender-defined boundaries, but they are not to Ashokamitran’s taste. His Tamil has its own elan. Almost effortlessly, it blends established literary usage with dialects, such as Brahmin speech and street lingo, both of which are freely sprinkled with terms from English, Urdu, and other languages Ashokamitran’s fiction came of age at around the time that Madras acquired a proud new fleet of buses: the Pallavan Transport. “Pallavan” quickly became a favoured synonym for “bus.”

His prose was the literary equivalent of these buses. It took readers where they were going anyway, in their actual lives. Ashokamitran’s “Pallavan” is steered by the sutradhaar-cum-protagonist, and each story lifts off, a friction-less narrative coasting along just above the road’s uneven surface. There are angled perspectives of familiar ground in two or three south-Indian cities, before the narrative zooms in on the lives of individual people who run the gamut of caste and class, belong to different religions and speak different languages. Often, Ashokamitran tells us of how they confront their conditioning, and somehow “adjist,” as they say in Tamil Nadu.

Ashokamitran typifies a paradox: modern Tamil writing, exacting in its pursuit of objectivity even as it dives into the many subjectivities of contemporary life, actually manages to live cheek by jowl with the jaw-dropping creations of the maya bazaar—the theatre of illusions—of Tamil films. Star-Crossed, translated by V Ramnarayan,is about the less-than-glamorous lives of those working in films, in that world reeking of sweat-stained, tinselly costumes, where “every job is permanent. And temporary,” where a production manager can be reduced to beggary with a single flop. In the 1988 novella Paavam Dalpathado (The Ghosts of Meenambakkam), a scripting assistant, haunted by the death of his daughter in a bomb blast, finds that a visiting filmmaker from a neighbouring country has turned terrorist, exploded one bomb and is about to set off another.

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Vasantha Surya’s translations from Tamil include A Place to Live, an anthology of contemporary Tamil short fiction, as well as novels by A Madhaviah, Sa Kandasamy, R Chudamani, Vaasanthi and Cho Dharman. She has published three books of poetry in English, and her children’s novel, Mridu in Madras, will be out shortly.

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