Ashokamitran: The invisible giant
Unlike his contemporaries of comparable stature, Tamil writer Ashokamitran, who died last week, lived on the margins of the national literary establishment
With the death of Ashokamitran on 23 March 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, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Sunil Gangopadhyay?
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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, the 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 had captured the imagination of all Indians, especially the artists and writers among them. But the thematic concerns, literary practice and, ultimately, the careers of these writers were shaped by many other factors that were largely related to each writer’s individual circumstance as well as talents and priorities.
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 Devi sought out 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 postgraduate degree in history from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s 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.
Verma joined hands with well-established writers like Mohan Rakesh and 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. He had worked in every format of literature: short story, novel, travelogue, play and essay.
U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was born in an orthodox Brahmin family on 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 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.
Ananthamurthy 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, and this was reflected in his work during the 1960s and 1970s. Well-known examples are Pratidwandi (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 1960s, 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 19th century, is the best known among them.
However, Ashokamitran (1931-2017) came from an entirely different socioeconomic background, one that determined his artistic trajectory. His father was one of 16 children born to a poor Brahmin schoolteacher 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 to the 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 focused 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 60 years, Ashokamitran would return again and again to this formative environment and period, for which he harboured a lifelong affection.
Losing his father at the age of 20 and being forced to migrate along with his family to Madras (now Chennai) 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 described 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 on 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 local conditions to produce an authentic and 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 Studios to become a full-time writer can be seen as a refusal to submit to the conventional order of the world and the authority of institutions. It was also a necessary expression of solidarity with the oppressed and powerless humans who were to be the main focus of his writing. 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. Initially, 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 1970s, 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 Tamil Nadu, politicized 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 1990s, although he continued to be productive. 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 1990s. 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 today, where young editors in publishing houses and those in charge of book-pages in newspapers and magazines haven’t even heard of him.
And so it was that Ashokamitran, in spite of being a pre-eminent writer in his native language, came to live on 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 appreciation of the Anglophone literary elite, not even in his home town.
Yet, he has produced a body of work that is celebrated not only by several generations of readers in Tamil Nadu but also by a sizeable 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 great writers discussed here 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—in Delhi and across the country—will do their best to ensure that future generations will not only read his works but also have conversations about them. There can be no better way to honour this engaged outsider, a genius who graced our time and our lives.
N. Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based translator who has published six volumes of Ashokamitran’s fiction in translation.