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Ashokamitran: The invisible giant

N Kalyan Raman


With the passing of Ashokamitran last Thursday (March 23) in Chennai, a unique chapter in the annals of Indian literature has come to an end. For readers everywhere, the special power of Ashokamitran’s fiction derived from his exclusive focus on the experienced reality of individuals rather than on abstractions of ideology or intellect. In this way, his literary mode was very different from other eminent Indian writers who were his contemporaries. Even in the Tamil literary milieu, he stood apart from his peers, forging an inimitable style and language for his fiction, and remaining the engaged outsider in his voluminous output of essays and columns on a wide variety of subjects ranging from literature and cinema to personalities and politics. What were the factors that had engendered Ashokamitran’s unique perspective and influenced his chosen literary mode? How different were they from the influences and circumstances that had shaped the work of his contemporaries like Mahasweta Devi, Nirmal Verma, UR Ananthamurthy and Sunil Gangopadhyay?

Ashokamitran had many things in common with these writers. Like them, he too started writing seriously in the first decade of a newly independent former colony, packed with people who were desperately poor. Compared to the languages of Europe, tradition of modern literature in the European sense was barely 70 years old in his language, Tamil. The situation was not vastly different in Bengali, Hindi and Kannada. It was a time when an overarching vision of a modernizing society ruled the imagination of the people, especially artists and writers among them. But the thematic concerns, literary practice and, ultimately, the careers of these writers were shaped by many other factors, largely related to individual circumstance as well as talents and priorities. We may briefly look at each of the abovementioned writers before we try to understand the particular factors that shaped Ashokamitran’s outlook and art.

The great Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) was born to literary parents. Close relatives of her parents’ generation were eminent achievers in the fields of cinema, fine arts and journalism. She grew up in an environment that was conducive to artistic pursuits. Over time, Mahasweta Devi became committed to writing about oppressed tribals in her fiction. She has said that the reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat.’

As her engagement with activism grew, activist writing came increasingly to supplant her output of creative fiction. Through both genres of writing, Mahasweta sought out the truth with passion and urgency. She saw her work as a kind of documentation that would make the reader “face the truth of facts and feel duly ashamed of the true face of India.”

Nirmal Verma (1929-2005) was born in a stable middle class family which placed a high value on art and intellect. He earned a post-graduate degree in history from Delhi University’s St. Stephens College and was a card-carrying member of the Communist party in his student days. He left the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Nirmal Verma joined hands with well established writers like Mohan Rakesh, Bhisham Sahni to found the Nayi Kahani or New Story movement in modern Hindi literature. The accent was on experimentation with themes and techniques. Verma largely eschewed the political in his fiction but his essays were always politically active, culturally alive. Verma had worked in every format of literature: short stories, novel, travelogue, plays and essays.

UR Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was born in an orthodox Brahmin family in the west coast of Karnataka. A UK-educated professor of English, he used fiction to explore the persistence of tradition in the face of modernity and the conflict that individuals experience in that context. A follower of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, who had propounded a form of Gandhian socialism, Another recurring theme in Ananthamurthy’s fiction was the choice made by individuals between acceptance of the status quo and political action to bring about social change.

Ananthamurthi believed in the importance of politics, insisting that change had to be brought about more through political action than creative writing. As a result of his intellectual explorations, conducted often in the medium of English and on national platforms, he was venerated as much for being a thinker as a writer.

Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012) was regarded as one of Bengal's most distinguished poets since Rabindranath Tagore. He was also productive in many other literary genres - short stories, novels, travelogues, essays and children's fiction.

Like many Bengali writers of his generation, Gangopadhyay came under the influence of Communist ideology in his youth, which was reflected in his work during the sixties and seventies. Well known examples are: Pratidwandi (translated as The Adversary), Arjun and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). Aligned with the spirit of personal liberation that swept the world during the sixties, he became almost the conscience of contemporary Bengali society, prompting his readers to question the morality, beliefs, double standards and hypocrisy of their society. He also explored the development and evolution of modern Bengali society in a celebrated trilogy of historical fiction. Sei Samay (Those Days), which dealt with the early phase of Bengal Renaissance during the middle of the nineteenth century, is the best known among them.

Ashokamitran (1931-2017) came from an entirely different socio-economic background that determined his artistic trajectory. His father was one of sixteen children born to a poor Brahmin school teacher from a village in the Cauvery delta, who died while three of his younger sons, including Ashokamitran’s father, were still in school. All three sons completed their school education after an enormous struggle and migrated north tothe erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad, becoming employees in the Nizam’s railway. During his childhood In the railway colony in Secunderabad, at school and college, and in the world that lay beyond them in the twin cities, Ashokamitran learnt to live with a motley crowd of Anglo-Indians, Muslims, Dalits and even Parsis, developing an outlook that went beyond the identities of caste and religion and focussed on the essentially human aspects of the social world. The condition of being uprooted from his native environment and the freewheeling contentiousness of urban living that cared little for communal boundaries must have contributed in no small measure to his way of seeing. Through his creative life of more than sixty years, Ashokamitran would return again and again to this formative environment and period, for which he harboured lifelong affection.

Losing his father at the age of twenty and being forced to migrate along with his family to Madras in 1952 entrenched him further in rootlessness, to coin a phrase, and anchored him in the human world in the widest possible sense. The forced migration was accompanied by a profound sense of loss. When a young editor from Penguin complimented him on Fourteen Years with Boss (2016) as a ‘delightful story,’ he told me, ‘No, it’s not a happy story at all. I shouldn’t have uprooted myself from Secunderabad. I lost everything.’ He was 84 at the time.

It was perhaps this rootlessness that drew him to the existential agonies elaborated by American writers Hemingway and Faulkner, and the documentary realism of an engagé writer like John Dos Passos, in preference to the classical imagination of Shakespeare and Dickens. Through the power of his imagination and craft, Ashokamitran adapted this existential modernism to produce an authentic, profound representation of the society around him, especially of those without the props of privilege and tradition. As I wrote in the introduction to The Colours of Evil (East-West Books, Madras, 1998),

‘Ashokamitran’s work fixes its wry, steady gaze on the urban landscape of Madras, without the comfort of inherited precepts, without the all-too-easy moral indignation, without the delusions and pretences that nevertheless seize and victimize his characters. No desolate sandstorm sweeps across his vision. For all that, his world remains quintessentially human –neither exalted for that reason, nor inexorably damned.’

His time in the film industry – at the time a frontier alliance between commercial art and industrial capital – must have taught him even more about the treachery of human impulses, the vested interests of the privileged and the precarious lives of the working poor, depicted so exquisitely in his fiction. He was also acutely aware of the vulnerability of women, both within a traditional setting like the family and outside it, in the workplace, especially in the film industry. He wrote about the condition of women like no male Indian writer has done, before or since.

Even his decision to give up his day job at Gemini studio to become a full-time writer can be seen as a refusal to belong to the order of the world and institutional authority. It was also a necessary expression of solidarity with the oppressed and powerless humans who were to be the main focus of his writing throughout his life. He was aware that there was nothing ‘ordinary’ about the ordinary people he was writing about. To quote again from the introduction to The Colours of Evil, “The grandeur of the ordinary, his work seems to assert, is the only kind that may yet bring true engagement to our lives.”

On the practical front, the local Tamil milieu posed its own challenges. As a writer of ‘literary’ fiction, Ashokamitran had to survive on the fringes of a thriving popular fiction industry. There were very few takers for his modernist tales. He was nearly 40 before he could publish his first collection of short stories, titled, ironically, Vazhvile Oru Murai (Once in a lifetime), since he wasn’t sure there would be a second collection. During the seventies, the audience for modernist literary fiction began to grow with the increasing popularity of the ‘little magazine’ movement. Over the next two decades Ashokamitran made his mark on the national literary scene with a steady output of brilliant fiction that simply could not be ignored.

However, the mainstream literary milieu in Tamilnadu, politicised to the core, was less than friendly to this writer who was born into the Brahmin caste. Lack of local recognition led to his gradual disappearance from the national scene during the nineties, although he continued to be as productive as ever. The sheer literary merit of his works ensured that many of his works were translated into English during the translation boom that commenced in the nineties. He received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1996, but without a set of prominent supporters and institutional backing, available to many of his contemporaries, there was little or no discourse at the national level on any of his works. This has led to an anomalous situation where young editors in publishing houses and those in charge of book-pages in newspapers and magazines have never heard of him.

And so it was that Ashokamitran, in spite of being a pre-eminent writer, came to live at the margins of the national literary establishment. Unlike his contemporaries of comparable stature, he never became an activist who wanted to change the world through direct intervention, never wielded institutional power, never became a “thinker” who dealt in abstractions like history and tradition, never formed alliances with other writers, locally or at the national level, never indulged in overt celebration of the sensuous life, and never enjoyed the respect and support of the Anglophone literary elite, not even in his hometown.

Yet, he has produced a body of work that is celebrated not only by several generations of readers in Tamilnadu but also by a sizable number of discerning readers across India and the world who have access to translations of his works. Ashokamitran is the only one among the five literary greats who did not receive the country’s highest literary honour, the Jnanpith award. I hope that the community of publishers, editors, critics, book journalists and intellectuals will do their best to ensure that future generations will not only read his works but also have conversations about them. There could be no better way to honour this engaged outsider, this genius who graced our time and our lives.


This essay was published in Mint Lounge on March 31, 2017


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