Reading Ashokamitran, a Subtle Genius of the Normal and the Absurd

The translations by N. Kalyan Raman bring the work of Ashokamitran, one of the finest living Indian writers, to a wider audience.

Kalyan Raman (featured) has translated three works by Tamil writer Ashokamitran. Credit: Kalyan Raman

N. Kalyan Raman (pictured) has translated three works by Tamil writer Ashokamitran. Credit: N. Kalyan Raman

Ashokamitran is a living legend of Tamil literature. Born in 1931 in Secunderabad in what was then the princely state of Hyderabad, he has written two dozen novels and novellas, although he is more famous for the over 250 short stories he has published. He has won numerous awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award in 1996, and, frankly, I had never heard of him until our office received a set of three of his books, two of which have been recently translated by N. Kalyan Raman, and beautifully produced as part of the Penguin Classics.

To be honest, I did not know what to do with them, and I wondered whether someone more familiar with Tamil literature should be commissioned to write a review. That is until two of my colleagues gently suggested I just look at them as works of fiction like any other. In a sense, this betrays the way that we pigeonhole even the greatest of writers in non-English languages, whose work transcends boundaries of class, place and time; although the first of the books, Fourteen Years with Boss, is very closely set in time and space.

In a cinema, a long time ago

Originally written as a set of pieces for the Illustrated Weekly of India, the chapters of Fourteen Years… track the unlikely career of the protagonist as a factotum in Chennai’s – then Madras’s – famous Gemini Studios. The Boss in question was S. S. Vasan, the owner, or more properly, emperor of the little cinematic empire that Gemini Studios was. I am too young to remember any of the films the studio made. It died in 1975, only six years after Vasan himself passed away, but from the way that Ashokamitran tells it, the studio had already lost its distinctive edge long before that.

Legendary Tamil writer Ashokamitran at a book launch. Credit: Kalyan Raman

Legendary Tamil writer Ashokamitran at a book launch. Credit: N. Kalyan Raman

A fatherless man, Ashokamitran received a letter from Vasan to come and meet him. His father had been a friend of Vasan’s, and Vasan respected his integrity. Coming to know of Ashokamitran’s father’s demise, Vasan offered him a job in the studio. Little did Vasan, or the Boss, realise that he had gifted a stellar opportunity to a man of extraordinary talent. The first few pieces of the book are almost bland, setting the stage, and then a curious thing happens. Under the simple recital of incidents Ashokamitran’s sense of sly play comes through. From the curious battle of wits between the Boss and the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, C. Rajagopalachari, to the chimpanzee imported from the US for a film, the prose is loaded with humour, the humour of the normal, which is also the absurd, so easily found in a film studio full of relatively poor people creating fantasies of wealth and magnificence.

One of my particular favourites is a description from the film Bahut Din Huwe:

A gigantic Bengali gentleman – settled in Madras and for whom the Madras Race Club was a second home – kept hoping feverishly that he would be made the magician in the film. Like the racing tips he handed out to his friends and foes alike, this expectation also proved to be a horse which ran the other way. All he could manage was a tiny appearance, as one of the demons that waited on the magician. Literally painted black and blue and white all over, his lone scene in the film consisted of standing before Madhubala and trying frantically to frighten her. They said in Gemini Studios that that was the only day during her four months’ stay in Madras when Madhubala smiled.

The ghosts of sorrow

The second work, The Ghosts of Meenambakkam is a more complicated work. It is a novella based on a real life incident of a terrorist attack on the Madras airport in 1984. But, as with Fourteen Years… the narrator is an ordinary man, even more, he is an ordinary and poor man. In a way it is hard to imagine a person more removed from the glamour associated with airports – or the world-changing effects of a terrorist attack. There is a touch of Ashokamitran’s life in the book as well, the narrator has a past life in which he was associated with the movies. That is his linkage to one of the main actors, Dalpathado, a movie producer from a “neighbouring country” who has become a freedom fighter/militant.

Courtesy: Penguin.

Courtesy: Penguin.

Throughout the novella, the absurdity of the aged protagonist, suffering under his own tragedy, and his association with Dalpathado, an adventurer surrounded by danger, slowly starts to make sense. The larger scheme of things knit together, but not in a pleasant way. It is hard to tell more without giving away significant parts of the plot, but it is a mournful account of tragedy layered with tragedy, of a circle of ghosts with no escape, redeemed by, if anything, the narrator’s focus on the little things of life – the rain, the grime on clothes, the tea and masala dosa. It is, Ashokamitran seems to be telling us, only by focussing on the irrelevant necessities of day to day survival that we can ignore the horror that is the greater world.

A world most closely observed

The last of the three books, is a series of twenty short stories collected under the title, Still Bleeding from the Wound. In a way it is hard to see why this name was chosen. The story by the name is a short one, one of the shortest in the book, about a poor student who paints to make ends meet. In the story he is befriended on the bus by an old man, who makes room for him to sit, and asks about him and his work, sympathising. On getting off from the bus, the young man realises he has lost the money he had earned. Months later he sees the old man walking on the road, and confronts him, accusing him of stealing the money. A mob gathers, they beat the old man, who does not seem to know what is happening.

He says to the young man, “I’ve thought about you many times since that day. But I never imagined that you would call me a thief and beat me up.”

The utter helplessness of the two men is brilliantly, painfully caught in all its detail, but there is not a jot of judgement, merely deep observation. This runs throughout the stories in the collection. One of the longest stories, Inspector Shenbagaraman, is a complex tale of an unlikely friendship between a young boy and a police inspector. There is no particular reason for the friendship, it exists almost as a whim, but it is a real thing. Maybe it is sparked by the policeman’s childlessness, but told through the viewpoint of the young boy, there is a prevailing sense of helplessness, as if moving through a world that is not possible to fully understand. Nevertheless, even without explaining, Ashokamitran draws out a complex reality of an illicit affair, family jealousies and – inevitably – helplessness. Nevertheless, his dark humour is ever present. When the young boy asks about the owner of a cinema hall, Inspector Shenbagaraman asks how he knows his name.

“My father knows him very well. We also get to see films here without buying tickets.”

“Then you’re a policeman already,” said Shenbagaraman.

Each story is distinct, marked out by well-sketched individual characters. They reflect, on the whole, not grand issues, but issues that are vital to the people involved. It is this focus on the individual, on the tiny things that give dignity to a life, and destroy it utterly, that makes the work of Ashokamitran truly shine. He is a splendid writer, and I am truly happy that through these lovely translations by Kalyan Raman, he will become better known to a non-Tamil reading audience.

One final note, the writer’s true name is J. Thyagarajan. He chose Ashokamitran as a pen name after a character in one of his friend’s plays, but maybe all that one really needs to know is that he is one of the finest living writers in India, and maybe anywhere.


Fourteen Years with Boss, Penguin Classics, 164 pages, Rs 299, Ashokamitran, translated by N. Kalyan Raman

The Ghosts of Meenambakkam, Penguin Classics, 151 pages, Rs 299, Ashokamitran, translated by N. Kalyan Raman

Still Bleeding from the Wound, Penguin Classics, 368 pages, Rs 499, Ashokamitran, translated by N. Kalyan Raman