Ashokamitran: A Not-So-Simple Writer Who Inspired Not-So-Easy Affection

The Tamil writer will be remembered for his views on communalism, the battle of the sexes and the Emergency, but also his silence on caste.

“In general, it is best to approach fiction as fiction always. Fiction reveals half-truths; they are not the truth. But, half-truth, the unique characteristic of fiction enlivens fiction,” said Ashokamitran. The life of the writer does not end with his passing away. The writing stays on. For a writer who was as prolific as Ashokamitran, that could be the only rightful homage. The news of his death was sudden. Many had met him at his grandchild’s wedding just a week ago. He had always been frail and soft spoken. No one even had the remotest idea that he would pass away!

Born Thyagarajan in Secundrabad, he moved to Chennai in his twenties. After working in Gemini for over a decade, he decided to become a full-time writer, a decision unthinkable to many even today. Being bilingual, he wrote continuously. The latest collection of his stories – edited by Mohanarangan and published by Kaalachuvadu – contains 274 short stories. In the span of 60 years, he also produced eight novels, 20 novellas and countless essays and reviews.

I always had a not-so-easy affection for him. He was one of a few men in the public sphere who could talk to a woman with comfort and without preconceived notions. I always enjoyed his warmth for the nearly three decades that we knew each other. But I could never feel the intimacy of a trusted friend, probably because of my overt political leanings.

His writings, however, spoke to me convincingly of ordinary people and their everyday lives. The streak of irony that formed the foundation of all his writings mellowed the harrowing nature of the life experiences he was presenting. Ashokamitran’s stories were based out of the two cities he lived in – Secundrabad and Chennai. He also portrayed the underbelly of the glamorous film industry in its bleakest form. It consisted of drivers, light boys and assistants in the various departments of the industry. He saw a story in each of them. His women were sensitive, struggling and strong. His depictions of the world of children and adolescent youth deserve special attention. His novels too had deceptively simple stories that drew you into their narrative swirl.  Ashokamitran’s Water – translated into many Indian and international languages – spoke of the two sisters, Jamuna and Chaya. His representation of the water crisis in urban cities made me question the very idea of modernity. His Manasarovar had two migrant people in Bollywood. The character of Satyan Kumar was documenting the story of Dilip Kumar as the story of partition history. Ashokamitran recalled how the novel Indru was based on the Emergency and the life of Snehalata Reddy. In fact, writers were his primary protagonists. Many of his stories including his very first short story ‘Nadagathin Mudivu’ have writers at the centre of the narrative. ‘Orran’ is a story about writers; Gopalji in Manasarovar, Rajagopal in Karaintha Nizhalil are writers. In a detailed interview, Ashokamitran recalls how he was surrounded by writers and his writing is one way by which he honours them. I don’t, however, recall any female writer among his lead characters.

Apart from fiction, Ashokamitran was truly a modernist in the many genres he attempted. He was quite closely connected with radio; he had directly worked in the film industry; he had always been involved in theatre as a form. He saw drama as the most difficult genre and also played an active role in the theatre group Pareeksha.

Ashokamitran was perhaps the last of his generation’s full-time professional Tamil writers, and also one of the last who consciously kept himself abreast of new writings in Tamil and English. It is pertinent at this moment to recall his uneasiness about the historical context of Tamil Nadu during his life span. He created a huge controversy when he told Anand of Outlook in 2005 that “For the Tamil Brahmins, it has been one century of being on the defensive. The community feels castrated. The Brahmins have never anyway been the placard-holding type; they have rarely expressed their feelings openly. The Tamil Brahmins have been used to taking insults. Hence perhaps the lack of visible protests or reactions. Theirs is a guilt-ridden existence; their spirit has been killed by a negative self-perception… They have been driven to a quiescent state. Their situation is very similar to that of the Jews in the 1930s.”

The dormant cynicism that permeates all his writings probably stemmed from this refusal to engage with the historical movement that gained momentum through Periyar. Ashokamitran spoke of poverty as an existential crisis and not necessarily as a class issue. And of course he did not acknowledge the ways in which caste determined societies and shaped personalities. In fact, in the 1960s he was actively engaged with Kanaiyazhi, a magazine founded by Delhi Tamils to reflect and comment on Tamil Nadu politics. In other words, it was a national voice looking at regional history. Ashokamitran displayed the same quirky satire he was so proficient in when he commented on Periyar’s struggle against the Brahmin-run Murali Café in Triplicane. Periyar met with severe opposition then, including the pouring of hot water from the first floor. But Ashokamitran humorously overruled the struggle and said, “Periyar should have fought against the bad coffee they served!” In Indra Parthasarathy’s obituary, published in the Tamil Hindu on March 25, 2017, he brought up Ashokamitran’s scathing attacks against the Dravidian movement in Sudesamitran, under his pseudonym Kingaran. Long ago in 1989, Antony Cruz interviewed Ashokamitran for his PhD dissertation. When he asked how Ashokamitran’s writing lays bare the contradictions between human beings without addressing the cause of these contradictions, he replied, “Perhaps. I have dealt with the relationship between human beings; but not so much about man against establishment or institutions or organisations.”

It feels like an unsavoury subject to rake up at this juncture. But I think a writer cannot be looked at without such context. While Ashokamitran could look at communal issues between Hindus and Muslims, the Emergency and the battle of sexes, he was blind to the question of caste and its ramifications. Those who raised these questions about him in Tamil were always looked at as people from opposing camps. It has not been possible to hold any dialogue between these camps. Ashokamitran will be remembered by his writings and the absences in his writings. But as all of us have to grudgingly acknowledge, writing is never innocent and reading still more!

A. Mangai is a theatre activist and academician.