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Translator's note: Colours of Evil

If literature engenders a resonance in readers – as far-fetched as a reader’s imagination is expected to be – the universality of Ashokamitran’s work evokes precisely that excitement in any language, not only in Tamil, the language in which he writes nearly all of his fiction. A major presence on the Tamil literary scene for nearly forty years, Ashokamitran has written over one-hundred-and-fifty short stories and many novels and novellas. One novel, Karaindha Nizhalghal (Dissolving Shadows), was translated into English nearly twenty years ago; more recently, two more novels – Pathinettavathu Akshakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel) and Thaneer (Water) – have been published in English translation. Ashokamitran’s work has also been translated into other Indian and European languages over the years.

Now 66, Ashokamitran began life as an exile, a child of parents who lived in the Railway Colony in pre-Independence Secunderabad. Like most exiles, he improvised his sense of belonging – among a motley crowd comprising fellow-exiles from Tamilnadu, the charming Nawabi boys of Hyderabad, and seemingly reckless Anglo-Indians to whom the Railways were then a favoured employer. Then there was the larger world that lay beyond the colony in the twin cities of Secunderabad and Hyderabad. While still a boy, he bore witness to the “Police Action” in the Hyderabad province which culminated, after much ham-handed resistance and confused rhetoric, in its annexation by the Indian Union.

Bereavement in the family and the changed social environment in Hyderabad brought him home to the city of Madras in 1952. In those days, when jobs were scarce in the fledgling Republic, Ashokamitran found work as an assistant in the public relations department of Gemini Studios, then a major film production unit. It was a conservative establishment, run by a rags-to-riches Brahmin tycoon who also owned a very popular and enduring Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan. It is not known what significant contribution Ashokamitran made to the ‘spectaculars’ from Gemini Studios; but we do know that he quit his job sometime in the late sixties and embarked on the precarious adventure of full-time writing, often supporting himself and his family through freelance work. Ashokamitran has contributed enormously to post-Independence Tamil literature, not only through his works of imagination, but also by editing literary magazines and penning essays and criticism.

* * *

Ashokamitran was the first major Tamil writer to emerge from an exclusively urban background. Urban India, for all its opportunities, has always been closely tied to sources of a traditional lifestyle. The cities were forever newly-populated, continuously attracting people from the hinterland through an expanding economy, white-collar employment on an unprecedented scale, and the demand for skilled and unskilled labour in exchange for a livelihood. The cities became sites of business and commerce, political power, education, technology, patronage of the traditional arts, and the business of popular culture. Even so, this urban context was peopled by those who were not removed from the village by more than a generation or two.

The city, amidst its glitter and opportunities, also robs the new immigrant of certitude. It calls for improvisation, which makes life more complex, dangerous, acute and, more often than not, vastly more painful. Opportunities create intense, even fantastic, aspirations. In a city dense with trickery and betrayal, aspirations establish the currency of falsehood, the hazard of every dreamer and everyone who encounters him. Aspirations also instil grit and courage, in the face of all that threatens to thwart and destroy them. However, dreams - improbable, logical, necessary – constitute what makes life in a city and animates its people.

The city also provides individual autonomy on an unprecedented scale, and the means to court the highest pleasures or the depths of ruin: it spawns and fosters a spirit which might risk its intransigent way towards both destinations. There are those who hold on to the bedrock of a remote coherence, when family, community and the innumerable gods regulated individual lives. But the city does not permit these quiet and reasonable yearnings: it intrudes and assaults, driving its citizens out into the realm of improvisation and exploration, to the pains of autonomy and uncertainty, to the dream and the glory, and more often than we can bear to know, into the abyss and the immense struggle to stay alive in that dark zone.

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

* * *

The focus of Ashokamitran’s work, it is often said, is on the petty nuances and tribulations of ‘ordinary’ people, people so ordinary that they should have no place in imaginative fiction. It is a widely-held view that his work is unresponsive to visions of life’s grand design, to higher aspirations for human existence, and to the acute need for moral redemption, so vital for the survival of a worthwhile community or society.

This is understandable. Proud inheritors of an ancient and rich literary tradition which flourished in a feudal era two thousand years ago, modern Tamil writers have been hard put to deal with the outbreak of modernity and the baffling ways in which their society has been transformed. They sought to encounter with pieties the dynamics a society which, for all its creative vigour, seemed to grow more parochial and brutalised with the passing years. Towards the middle of this century, Tamil literature also witnessed a modernist movement which followed somewhat closely on the heels of the one that dawned in Western Europe. Here, man was definitely abandoned by the gods and by his fellow-humans. He had no option but to look at the world as it was, and make his way in ‘the dim rush of his mind and senses’. These modernist writers set out to subvert paradigms of social behaviour, which had been enshrined for long in myths and legends. However, to focus on the individual; to emphasise feelings and emotions which were in no way exemplary in the conventional sense long familiar to Tamil society; and in short, to accept and validate human life at all levels and in all conditions, has been a very difficult task even for proponents and practitioners of modernist writing.

Naturally, the residual vision of the grand and the heroic, derived from a myriad of sources, is unfriendly to the modernist vision, which for its part holds out no promise of comfort; strives to discover the humanity which survives in and through the abyss; and may yet seek to give us uncertain intimations of the future. Ashokamitran’s work does not flee when faced with the abyss, in a society which is extensively arranged to provide false havens. The ‘grandeur’ of the ‘ordinary’, it seems to assert, is the only kind which may yet bring true engagement to our lives.

* * *

If his adherence to the ‘common’ and the ‘ordinary’ was singular when Ashokamitran began writing, so was the exclusively urban landscape which he traversed. The other major writer to explore city life, particularly that of the underclass, was D Jayakanthan, the pioneer of urban fiction in the fifties and sixties, a great figure of post-Independence Tamil literature. Jayakanthan grew up in the crucible of the Communist movement in Tamilnadu; in his writing, he was fiery and passionate, and frequently didactic. Nevertheless, he was the first writer to communicate a powerful social vision, based on a moral scrutiny of his characters which went beyond the straight and the narrow.

While Ashokamitran shares many of Jayakanthan’s humanist concerns, his fictional milieu is not so wide-ranging. For one, Ashokamitran, conscious of the necessarily partial knowledge of a typical urban individual, has fashioned himself in the mould of writer-as-observer rather than as a social prophet of vaulting ambition. His observation has always been acute as well as detached, as evidenced by the endless nuances and details of the world he presents in his fiction. In a truly existential worldview, destiny is forged less out of engagement with axioms and precepts than through a series of little tremors, which may bring us our greatest treasures or blinding sorrows. In his fiction, the nature of the world and of the people who live in it seeps unobtrusively into every detail. These details give us, more often than not, a larger sense of the world than can be conveyed through mere abstraction. Ashokamitran’s chosen literary mode is obviously incompatible with the grand Tolstoyan sweep, or the tortured monologue, however valuable they might be. Small wonder, then, that Ashokamitran has written as many as 150 short stories over 40 years.

The spare prose style is deceptive, for it does not make anything obvious to the reader, except what he is willing to disclose to himself. As it evolved in his work, this style was strange and unfamiliar to the world of Tamil literature, a style which was frequently held to be lifeless, flat and therefore, “not quite literary”. Readers, however, are gripped by the verisimilitude conveyed by the details, and then by the tremors of the abyss to which nobody is a stranger. This vision has endured over the years and has created an increasingly greater resonance, not only among Tamil readers, but also among those in other languages into which his work has been translated.

* * *

Here, then, are the stories. They span a period of thirty years, from 1961 to 1990. Almost all the major contexts which keep recurring in Ashokamitran’s writing are represented here: boyhood in Secunderabad; story department in Gemini Studios; the lower middle-class Brahmin family and its tribulations; the working class and its rages; and of course, women in all their various worlds.

I must confess to a personal connection with these stories. Much of Ashokamitran’s work is based in Madras, a city where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I started on Ashokamitran’s fiction when I was no more than a boy, and for the first time, I encountered in fiction the pain and squalor of everyday life as I saw it, rendered as formidable and heartless as they then seemed to me. As a very young person, I must have made important discoveries, but I was scarcely conscious of them at that time. Now, as these stories evoke memories of life in Madras from across a distance of so many years, they are also, I realise, enduring parables of its sunlight.

N Kalyan Raman


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