He sounded a little bemused over the telephone that someone wanted to come down to Chennai to meet him. Why me? He didn’t say so, but his response to an interview request almost meant that. A list of questions would help, the feeble voice on the phone said. He gave directions to his new home. It’s in Thyagaraya Nagar or T Nagar, the city’s premier shopping district. He shifted there some time ago after living in Velachery, a Chennai suburb far removed from the hustle-bustle of T Nagar, which he once described as “a nursery of resoluteness”.
At 85, Ashokamitran, best known for his novellas and short stories in Tamil, is more or less confined to his home. He likes to travel by bus and used to, until about 10 years ago. A small man with a gaunt frame, he is self-effacing to an extent that he is almost apologetic about being a writer. Spotting the three books Penguin has issued as part of its modern classics collection, he says, “I am sorry you had to read these.” Irony and dry humour are defining features of all his writing, fiction and non-fiction.
The three just-released volumes — Still Bleeding from the Wound, Fourteen Years With Boss and The Ghosts of Meenambakkam — represent three different aspects of Ashokamitran’s oeuvre. The most recent one, Fourteen Years With Boss, was written in English for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1980s as a series of vignettes on the Tamil film industry, with a focus on Gemini Studios, the iconic production house in Chennai where Ashokamitran worked, as the title suggests, for 14 years. It is about a young man, who, at 20, is suddenly forced to become the head of a family when his father dies, about SS Vasan, the self-made entrepreneur who dreamed big and built Gemini, and the faceless men and women who hold up the movie business. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam is a novella that is representative of Ashokamitran’s style, narrative skills and pet preoccupations, while Still Bleeding from the Wound is a collection of 20 stories, chosen from his large body of work of 40 years and beautifully translated by N Kalyan Raman.
Ashokamitran is a poet of the ordinary in the urban landscape. He has lived all his life in cities, mainly in Secunderabad, where he was born in 1931, and Chennai, his home since the 1950s. He writes about the life he knows, exploring the unknown in the known. The stories in Still Bleeding from the Wound are very modern, written in a bare-bone, carefully constructed prose punctuated with precise dialogues. The tone is neutral; there is no authorial intervention that suggests outrage. Yet, they manage to excavate bare truths about the human condition and the suppressed violence in people. “You can get to the truth if the writer does not take sides. You can get closer to truth if you are self-effacing,” says Ashokamitran. After a pause, he asks: “Who are we to judge people?”
The refusal to be judgmental in the narration helps Ashokamitran keep his characters well-rounded and the story to transcend the plot. ‘Inspector Shenbagaraman’, a favourite, is a perfect example of his thesis that a writer ought not take sides if he wishes to uncover the truth about human beings. Narrated by Chandrasekharan, a young boy, the story is about Shenbagaraman’s illicit affair with a young woman. In sparse prose, Ashokamitran constructs the world of three families — of the boy, inspector Shenbagaraman, and the other woman in the inspector’s life — and explores the irrationality of relationships. The story is also about an adolescent’s initiation into sexuality and the nuances of the man-woman relationship.
Ashokamitran grew up as Thyagarajan in Secunderabad until his relocation to Madras in 1951. He writes about the sudden death of his father, who he appears to have been very close to, and its upheaval on the family in Fourteen Years… His father worked in Nizam’s Railways and was an avid reader, whose collection contained William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and George Elliot. He had read them all and could recite from memory Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece. Growing up in Hyderabad, then under the Nizam, Thyagarajan read Kalki, “who was not a great writer but a creater of romances, of black-and-white characters”. But he chose to write differently. “Writing should reveal life itself,” he says. Such writing had started appearing in Tamil by then. He read Pudumaipittan, Thi Janakiraman, Ka Na Subramanian and Ku Pa Rajagopalan — writers who wrote in Manikodi, a magazine that came to be known for the short stories it published. “Ku Pa Rajagopalan wrote with remarkable brevity,” he adds. He recounts Dickens as a great influence and mentions William Saroyan, the American writer who “always wrote about good people and good things”, when asked for writers he read in his formative years.
Vasan, the man who had produced the early mega hits of south Indian cinema like Chandralekha, knew Ashokamitran’s father. And Vasan was a man who never forgot friends from his past. He felt his friend’s young son needed an assured income to take care of his family. His friend read books and the son was educated. Thus began his life in Madras as a 20-year-old assistant to the public relations officer of Gemini Studios. He saw the movie world at close quarters, which he recounts in novellas including Karaintha Nizhalgal (Dissolving Shadows) and Manasarovar. Nearly seven decades later, he has not reconciled to the decision to leave Secunderabad. “It was a blunder. I knew every place there, it was everything for me. A 19-year-old boy suddenly had to take decisions about shifting houses, cities,” he says.
Thyagarajan adapted the pen name Ashokamitran to console a dear friend, Rajamani. When a play Rajamani had written flopped, young Thyagarajan assured him that he would make a character from the play famous. Unhappy with the work at Gemini Studios, he started writing short stories. His first half-a-dozen stories were in English.
Kannan Sundaram, editor of Kalachuvadu, a Tamil literary magazine, and Ashokamitran’s publisher, says Ashokamitran’s works began to gain prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. The Manikodi writers and the generation after — Sundara Ramaswami, Jayakanthan and others — too had become established names when Ashokamitran’s stories started to receive attention. As a writer, Ashokamitran constantly looks for things you overlook, says Kannan. “And those are the people he writes about. That’s what makes his fiction progressive,” Kannan adds.
The common man of the city, unsure of himself and his space in society, is Ashokamitran’s subject. He builds the story around this character and brings alive the inner and outer landscapes of his life with sharp observations. ‘Still Bleeding from the Wound’ is about a student who doubles up as a daily-wage painter, Dhanapal, who is on a crowded state bus travelling home after work. He is pushed around and almost spills his can of paint. An old man, seeing his plight, offers him a little space to sit. They start a conversation, which allows the reader a peep into Dhanapal’s poverty. After he gets off the bus, he discovers that someone has picked his pocket. In desperation, he traces the bus and confronts the conductor. They suspect that the old man who had offered him the seat stole the cash. Many days later, he spots the old man and accuses him of theft. A crowd gathers and assaults the old man. There is no trace of money, and the bewildered old man asks Dhanapal, “Why did you beat me? Who are you?” He then realises it was the boy who he had helped in the bus. “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,” he says. With no trace of anger on his face, he tells the boy, “Believe me, pa. I didn’t take your money. I know nothing about it.” Slowly, the old man walked away, and the author concludes the story. The potential of suppressed violence — in husbands, mothers-in-law, children, strangers — is something that Ashokamitran constantly hints at. The helplessness of the urban lower middle-class caught in the churn of the unpredictable big city is the world of his stories. Even when everything is fine and normal, “a big time bomb was ticking under everything, waiting to explode”.
The stories haven’t stopped even if age is slowly catching up with him. He wrote five short stories last year and is now working on a series of newspaper columns on the statues of Chennai. Some years ago, he wrote on places in Chennai for an online magazine. Though short sketches, his acute observations, engaging style and sense of place and characters ensured that it turned into a people’s history of Chennai. The flaneur in him is now bound to home and it is the memory of walking and cycling around the city for many years that keeps the writer busy.