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By the water’s light: Some reflections on Ashokamitran’s Thanneer

N Kalyan Raman

Ashokamitran’s Thanneer (Water) is considered a landmark novel in the annals of contemporary Tamil literature. The events narrated in Thanneer, a short work of no more than 100 pages, are woven around the first severe water crisis to afflict the city of Madras (now Chennai) in the late sixties. When it was first published in 1973, Thanneer took the Tamil literary world by storm. Connected intimately with life in a central locality of Madras, the narrative seemed to resonate strongly with its audience. The book was discussed extensively within the Tamil literary milieu, as much for its unflinching description of a crisis as for its path-breaking narrative technique.

Many years later, when Thanneer was translated into English, making Ashokamitran’s work accessible to a wider audience within India and overseas, it garnered substantial critical acclaim from non-Tamil readers and critics. Even today, Thanneer enjoys the status of a classic, along with Pathinettavathu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel in English translation) (1977), a novel loosely based on Ashokamitran’s teenage years in the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad and the situation that followed India’s independence from British rule in 1947. Other important novels include Karaindha Nizhalgal (1968) and Manasarovar (1989), both set in the South Indian film industry of the fifties and sixties; and Otran (1984), with an international writers’ programme in an American University as the backdrop.

Given the author’s wide-ranging and rich oeuvre, what makes Thanneer, a pitiless urban chronicle, such an undisputed classic in the canon of contemporary Indian literature?

Thanner is a multi-layered narrative. Ostensibly about a set of main characters and others who are related to them peripherally, the novel is also a portrait of the many categories of people and +social arrangements that enable life in a city. In that sense, it is also about the nature of the city and the world. The novel’s main protagonist, Jamuna, is a young woman of 28, whose hopes of making it big in the tinsel world of films, are fading fast. Following several twists of fate, she finds herself living alone in Chennai – without hope or succor, her dignity compromised inexorably by the middle class world that surrounds her. Overlaid on Jamuna’s crisis is the unprecedented water crisis that beset Madras in the late sixties and early seventies.

How do ordinary people in an urban setting manage, when their access to a basic requirement of life – water – becomes precarious? Thanneer offers a chilling existential portrait of a city under siege, overtaken by a pestilential lack. Despair, rage, trickery and monstrous selfishness, as also generosity and strength of character, are in evidence here, as individuals and families struggle to procure and store water under extreme conditions of scarcity. Indian novels have dealt with transformation of societies wrought by cataclysmic incidents and episodes—Partition and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 come to mind—but the details and nuances springing from a protracted crisis – the subtle shifts in speech, disposition and character of common citizens in the face of a faceless strife – are captured for the first time in Thanneer. In this respect, it is somewhat reminiscent of the celebrated French classic, La Peste by Albert Camus.

* * *

Ashokamitran has said that a young woman he saw often on the streets during that period, always alone and looking for water, was the inspiration behind Jamuna. Along with her failed aspirations for a place of distinction in the film industry, Jamuna’s existence is entirely determined by the world around her. A young woman without the protection of family or spouse, Jamuna leads a life that is indeed precarious in every respect. She has no steady income and her stay in rented houses is hostage to the mercy of people who hold her in contempt for her lack of middle class respectability. She is also marked by that special vulnerability of an unprotected woman. With her fast receding aspirations as the only pivot that will give her any purchase on life, Jamuna proves an easy prey for Bhaskar Rao, a married man from the film industry, who exploits her in many ways; but, forsaken more or less completely by everyone else, Jamuna cannot find it in herself to get rid of him. For companionship and empathy, she must depend on her younger sister, Chaaya.

Chaaya is married to an army man who is away on a posting and whose return to the city is uncertain. Chaaya opts to live in a working women’s hostel, which provides an easy solution to the problem of finding water. However, she is forced to leave her young child in the care of her maternal uncle, who also bears the additional burden of tending to her mother. Jamnua and Chaaya’s mother is old and ailing, haunted in her senile dementia by copious memories of past cruelty. When the story opens, even as she longs for the protective company of her elder sister, Chaaya is at once terrified and repulsed by Jamuna’s lifestyle, which she sees as foolish, reckless and degrading. She stays away, leaving Jamuna to her own devices.

Chennai’s water crisis makes its fearsome appearance in this vale of horrors. Forced onto the streets and into the compounds of unfriendly strangers during the course of her daily struggle for water, Jamuna is even more susceptible now to the moral and economic ‘superiority’ of her neighbours, to their wounding behaviour, full of scorn and contempt for her irregular ways and circumstance. Contrite and full of self-loathing after indulging in a weekend of debauchery with two film producers from Andhra at the behest of Bhaskar Rao, Jamuna prepares to hang herself, but she is discovered and rescued in the last minute, ironically due to her lack of privacy.

A middle-aged woman who lives down the street from Jamuna, a primary school teacher who is known only as “Teacher-amma”, befriends her at an early morning fray near the communal water pump. Emerging from her own private hell, made up of an invalid husband and an ancient mother-in-law who is both spiteful and infirm, Teacher-amma seems to have achieved a kind of inner truce with the perils of the quotidian world. Her chance encounters with Jamnua are marked by an attitude that is part-solidarity, part-protectiveness. Humiliated and utterly desolate after her botched suicide attempt, it is to Teacher-amma that Jamuna turns for solace. In seemingly inspired fashion, Teacher-amma delivers a catechism of sorts in plain, simple language – based on a vision of life as inexorable, endless suffering, not just for oneself but for every living person, a vision that can potentially help an individual to stop being a victim and recover her sense of agency in this world.

At some point, weeks or months later, it starts to rain – as it must, inevitably. The rain muddies the city’s streets and makes the drains overflow, but still does not guarantee easy availability of water. At the end of the novel, in spite of being pregnant, Jamuna breaks away from Bhaskar Rao, asking him to leave. She and Chaaya, both sisters still stranded without luck, will live together – for now.

* * *

To the common run of people, lack of water might mean disruption and another source of misery. To Jamuna, almost without her realizing it, the quest for water brings many lessons. Jamuna sees quite clearly the ignominy and humiliation that will surely come her way before she can overcome the drought. When she goes hunting for water in public places and inside people’s compounds, she comes face to face with what society thinks about her. Her neighbours end up denying her the water she needs. She also comes to discover Chaaya’s exceptionally unfeeling nature.

Although Jamuna has acquired a keen sense of body, she has never gone looking for love as she hunts now for water. Even if she finds the water she needs for survival, her life will still remain arid. When her false turn with Bhaskar Rao collapses and the false trust she has reposed in him is blown to bits, Jamuna seeks a counterfeit end to her troubles: her own demise. This death, too, fails to come off. Jamuna recovers from the illusory nature of the drought in which she is stranded. Water invades her consciousness and her actions, giving her intensity and a sense of purpose that she has never experienced before. It is precisely her alienated condition which liberates her from suffering and grants her an honest perspective: water is essential for living. Through water, Jamuna comes to nurture an essential confidence in life, undiminished by alienation of any kind.

The water crisis hasn’t ended yet. She must still go in search of water; and be humiliated in the process. But this would only stabilize her, instead of sapping her strength. She will no longer seek false consolation. This is even more true of her relationship with Chaaya than with Bhaskar Rao.

Chaaya lives in a private world of her own filled only with her aspirations and values. Her values are not based on individuals and their contingencies but related to an abstract ‘society’ and its norms. The anonymous puppeteer’s string operates most ruthlessly here. Chaaya attacks Jamuna and also torments herself with all the violence of her compulsions. In the end, her fears for Jamuna originate from the same source. She has not yet reached a position where the society which she holds in high esteem (which has also imprisoned her) is ready to accept her – this is the sum of her conflict and her yearning. She tries to flee the water crisis, making her child stay in a place which she herself can’t bear for long. It is not struggle which blocks her awareness, but her own selfishness.

In the end, Chaaya is relieved that Jamuna’s false need for her has come to an end. At the same time, the strength and ability to fulfill her needs and free her from her own fears has come to Jamuna. For now, this will be the true basis of their relationship.

It is Teacher-amma who faces the most severe drought, an utter lack of love and water. Looking for water does not change her in any way because she is already present in the world, alive in and through her awareness. She serves as an instrument for delivering Jamuna from her faux suicide. But not everything that Jamuna comes to learn is taught by Teacher-amma. In a sense, the latter’s life is without any hope of deliverance. In her distraught condition, Teacher-amma perceives the inherent conflict between individuals but not that such conflicts are settled unjustly, always, by social arrangements. Her trait of living harmoniously with her environment makes her less than faithful to her own conflicts. Teacher-amma, who can vividly sense the prison that she is trapped in, continues to live inside that prison with compassion towards others.

* * *

How the water crisis plays out in the public space, comprising neighbourhood residents, government officials, workmen from the corporation, taxi drivers, ordinary people, forms another layer in the narrative. Through Ashokamitran’s spare, nuanced prose, we understand that the crisis in society at large predates the present scarcity of water. The traits brought to the fore in individuals by the struggle for water – stinginess, greed, selfishness, despair, distrust – are not fresh consequences of the water famine. They are traits of habit, brought on by extant material arrangements.

To their lives, already arid and bereft of love, is added the actual famine of a water crisis. With lack of water acting as the catalyst, this aridity becomes even more intense. When water becomes scarce In a society founded on property rights, those rights also extend to water. Even ordinary life and its needs are brought under the ambit of property rights. This aridity will continue even after water begins to flow. There is nothing new that they have learnt from the crisis. Not wishing to accept and grant even the body’s intimate need for water, they continue to hold the right to property as the fount of all life.

But the main characters in Thanneer are all intensely physical. For the first time, they become conscious of their bodies in public. This unusual circumstance frightens them. Their sense of shame conflicts with life’s remorseless necessity. In the end, it is need that emerges winner; the famine intensifies.

Ashokamirtran’s narrative technique in this novel, and indeed in most of his work, can be described as a kind of ‘documentary realism’. He describes the surface of events, apparently choosing details with great care, but never spelling out what they mean. In this quiet and unobtrusive way, he brings startling epiphanies and blinding insights for the reader. Paul Zachariah, the eminent Malayalam writer, describes it thus: “… Ashokamitran leads his characters through a maze of life’s ordinary, casual and dull details, guiding the reader into the lovely belief that…every little thing is part of life’s grand plan…Then, like the final straw, he would add one more detail. And BOOM! The world explodes with a blinding flash. You are no more the reader you started out as. The illumination has consumed you.”

* * *

The forty years since the publication of the novel have brought irreversible changes to both Chennai and India. With unseasonal rains on their way to becoming a regular feature, Chennai is no longer thirsting for water as it once did. Our liberalized economy and its unabashedly commercial ways make efficient water supply possible, at least for those who can afford to pay. But Thanneer is less about water than about the framework and dynamics of a crisis, both individual and societal. Surely, the prospect of a crisis and the need for an honest, redemptive awareness are not about to forsake us.

How are we to cope with this existential burden? “… in the last analysis, each of us is always responsible for what has been made of him - even if he can do no more than assume that responsibility.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, The Necessity of Freedom). In Thanneer, Ashokamitran arrives at and illuminates this truth not through the labyrinths of philosophy, but through a narrative of contemporary experience, under specific conditions of history, society and gender, involving people we can recognize within the frame of a mirror and without. It is an illumination that we need direly in these dark times, marked by collective despair about the future of our world.

This essay was published in 50 Writers, 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction, edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Sidan, HarperCollins India, 2013


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