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Translator’s Note: The Ghosts Meenambakkam

Ashokamitran is unarguably among the ranks of great writers to have emerged in post-independence India. Now 84, he has tirelessly pursued his craft for over sixty years, with a prolific output of narrative fiction as well as essays and commentary on a wide range of topics. He writes nearly always in Tamil, a language he shares with 80 million native speakers in Tamilnadu, a province of south India.

Although the Tamil language can boast of an unbroken literary tradition over two millennia, modern literature, particularly narrative fiction, began to be produced in it less than 150 years ago. Truly ‘modernist’ writing in Tamil, giving the individual—any individual—an unprecedented centrality and agency, began no earlier than the beginning of the twentieth century. Subramania Bharathi, great poet and freedom fighter, was the pioneer of this tradition, creating a new vision of Tamil modernity. Ashokamitran, who began writing in the nineteen-fifties, can be seen as an artist who sustained and extended the modernist tradition in Tamil through his fiction, exploring human reality in an impressive range of contexts, framed inexorably by the confusions and conflicts of a reluctantly modernizing, traditional society.

Ashokamitran may have been led to this mode of exploration by the trajectory of his personal life. Ashokamitran is from an entirely urban background, an uncommon circumstance among Tamil writers of his generation. He grew up as the son of a railway official in Secunderabad and moved to Chennai (then Madras) in 1952, at the age of twenty-one. Soon thereafter, he employed in the story department of Gemini studios, a major film production company of the time, where worked for fourteen years. In 1966, he quit his job to become a full-time writer, a difficult but courageous decision for a person of his background and means. His work since then has earned for him a pre-eminent place in the world of contemporary Tamil letters, as well as wide national and international attention.

Any reader of Ashokamitran’s fiction will immediately discern that the author’s main focus is on exploring the human predicament. Ashokamitran’s art privileges the experiential reality of individuals over the abstractions of history, culture, family and work . In this way, the writer is moved by neither ideology nor intellect, but by an imagination that is more forceful and illuminating than either.

Given his disposition as a writer, Ashokamitran’s narrative technique can be described as a kind of ‘documentary realism’. He describes the surface of events, apparently choosing the details with great care, but never spelling out what they might mean. In this quiet and unobtrusive way, he brings startling epiphanies and dazzling insights about the human world to the reader. It has also been observed that Ashokamitran’s characters tend to be ‘ordinary’ people, of humble circumstance. Through Ashokamitran’s nuanced account of their struggle – not always successful – to survive with dignity in hostile environments, the reader learns, more clearly than ever before, what it means to be human in these times, in this world.

Ashokamitran employs a simple language and spare prose style to suit his narrative technique. The reality he portrays is vivid and accessible at all times, even when he is describing the inner monologue of an anguished person. His tone is normally wry and detached, punctuated not infrequently by his talent for highlighting the absurdity and humour inherent in commonplace situations.

Through his long career as a storyteller, Ashokamitran has excelled in all three formats of prose fiction: the short story, the novella, and the novel. In addition to 250 short stories and ten novels, he has published over a dozen novellas—including Paavam, Dalpathado (the Tamil original of The Ghosts of Meenambakkam)—which have achieved iconic status among Tamil readers. He seems to choose the novella format when he has to follow one or more characters through a brief life-journey, or whichat is almost the same thing, a crisis. Unlike in the short stories, the narrative in his novellas leads most often to a clear denouement. However, each novella is not so much a story as an extended meditation on the crisis. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam could well be a meditation on the fragility of what we think of as love in an age marked by abstract passions and random destruction.

Given the spare prose style employed by Ashokamitran for his prose, it is commonly believed that his stories are ‘written to be translated’ and that he is more easily ‘translatable’ than those whose language is more complex and ornate. As someone who has considerable experience in translating Ashokamitran, I don’t find this to be true. Ashokamitran uses simple details and ordinary language to convey complex realities. Unless one translates with a sure sense of what he has left unsaid, it is difficult to succeed in producing a narrative that can equal the original in literary impact. In that sense, it is perhaps easier to work with vivid, in-your-face narrative styles than to navigate the intricate pathways of Ashokamitran’s superlative craft.

I would like to thank my editors at Penguin Books India: Tarini Uppal, for her support and gentle guidance through the making of this book, and Arpita Basu, for her contribution towards improving the quality of the translation. Any errors that remain are, of course, mine.

N Kalyan Raman


February 2016


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