Ashokamitran: His Secunderabad and Mine


This is the English version of the Ashokamitran article in Tamil which was published by ‘Solvanam’ : A good friend of mine translated this article in Tamil and that got published in ‘Solvanam’

Ashokamitran and I

The first thing that stuck me was his name. I think I must have heard of him first during my college days. In Secunderabad it was hard to get anything in Tamil other than the popular magazines: Vikatan, Kalki, Kumudham etc. My reading in Tamil till my college days was centered on Kalki, Sujatha, Sivasankari, Indumathi, Balakumaran etc. Pudhumaipiththan (no idea how I got his stories) and Jeyakanthan were the more ‘serious’ writers that I read. In some magazine I read the name ‘Ashokamitran’ and was immediately fascinated by that name. Infact I developed a positive bias towards the writer. My logic was ‘How can man with such a name write anything bad’. Unfortunately none of writing appeared in the magazines I used to read and hence I had to wait till I was in college before I could read his story.

It is ironical that the first story of Ashokamitran I read was in English. In a second hand shop I found a book titled, “New Writing in India” published by Penguin and edited by Adil Jussawala. I bought it immediately. It carried some excellent pieces from across India. One of the pieces was a short story by Ashokamitran.

Ashokamitran’s short story was about a young girl, who is becoming an actress, and her mother. Ashokamitran captures the shooting that happens and in the process captures a lot about the compromises, the sweat and the grime involved in the industry. (Ofcourse his much better known work in this area is the novel ‘karaindha nizhalgal’) This story stuck me immediately. The prose was simple; there was no real story in the standard sense of the word and there was nothing dramatic about the story. It was like watching a slice of human life and yet understanding it far better when seen through the eyes of the writer. The sort of emotions the want-to-heroine and her mother were going through became quite evident though Ashokamitran does not state it explicitly. I read it while on a train and passed it to a friend who was travelling with me. He read it and said, “Wow. What a different perspective.” Surprising thing is that he was not a person interested in reading stories!!

The next short story of his that I read was also in English. I don’t remember in which magazine it appeared. Maybe it was in Illustrated Weekly or maybe a later day weekly like India Today. The story was about a wedding. It is a love marriage and Ashokmitran just describes everything that happens in the marriage. Seems simple enough but Ashokamitran observes and notes certain incidents and that give an idea how unsure the bride and groom still are about their decision to marry !! It was an amazing short story. Far from the picture perfect world of the novels and stories I was reading, here was something which was so close to life.

After the GATE exams were done, only thing which remained was to wait for the result. I used to frequent the Osmania University library throughout my graduation and especially during my final year. I did take out novels but it was text books which were the priority. I did not realize till after I had written my GATE exam that University library had a section for regional languages. I used to go to one wing of the basement where English novels were kept but never visited the other wing of the basement where the regional language novels were kept. I started frequenting this area regularly and it is here that I got hold of Ashokamitran in Tamil. The library had a collection of his stories titled, ‘Vaazhvile Oru Murai’. I remember so many of the stories from this collection. They left a lasting impact and I had become a major fan of his writing.

His writing to be seemed the most ‘natural’ form of writing. There was no excess in his writing and he created the desired atmosphere with minimal fuss. There was an authenticity in his portrayal of people. Somehow he was able to strip of people of their political, social and religious covers and present them to us as ordinary people: Whether it is a traditional Tamil Brahmin wife, an extra working in films, a struggling Muslim businessman or a laborer who wears rubber tubes as shoes for laying roads. With each one of them we can easily relate. By stripping them of their garb Ashokamitran lets us see their basic humanity.

Once I read ‘Vazhivile Oru Murai’(Atleast once in a lifetime), I couldn’t stop reading Ashokamitran. ‘Vaazhivile Oru Murai’ is not enough for his writings.

18th Parallel: My point of view

The point of view chosen by an author to tell a tale has a huge bearing on how the tale unfolds.  Ashokamitran chooses to tell his tale, 18th Parallel (‘Padhinettam Atchakkodu’ in Tamil), through the eyes of a college going youth, Chandru. (It is quite obvious that the teller of the tale is Ashokamitran himself.) The story happens in Secunderabad, in the period between the Nizam rule just prior to Independence to the events following the army action against the Nizam after independence.

My interest in this essay would be to see what advantages such a view point provides to Ashokamitran and what is it that such a viewpoint misses.

Let me expand on the viewpoint part here. Chandru is an outsider as far as Secunderabad is concerned. He is a Tamilian who is living in Secunderabad. His father works for the Railways. Throughout the book Ashokamitran looks at things from this point of view: a young person not fully integrated into the society in which he lives.

This is something which is quite common in India. We have people moving from state to state in search of livelihood. Some integrate themselves with the local communities while others do their best to keep their customs / language intact and do not easily merge with the local population. You still find Tamilians in Hyderabad who have lived for decades there and yet unable to speak Telugu properly. You have people from North India in Bangalore who do not know Kannada at all even after decades. This is not viewed as something strange by the common people though there are some ‘locals’ who raise this once in a while, mainly to achieve political goals.

Chandru’s family is one such family which keeps its language and culture intact and does not join the cultural stream of the locals. This viewpoint gives a very good consistency to the novel. Everything that unfolds is seen from this prism of youth + outsider. This viewpoint enables Ashokamitran to observe the traumatic events in a dispassionate fashion. It enables him to be neutral about the events. It is almost as if everything that happened had to happen and there is nothing that Chandru could have done to change anything.  In essence Chandru is more an observer than an active participant in the making of history. Chandru in short becomes the representative of the common man who doesn’t play a part in the history in making but is nevertheless impacted by the turn of events.

This viewpoint also gives a hazy view of events, almost like an impressionistic painting.  Ashokamitran ensure that the telling of events is very consistent with the knowledge that Chandru possesses.  Only limited background information is available to us because that is how much information is available to Chandru.  For example, we come to know that the Nizam’s police are ill treating the lambadis (gypsies) based on the conversation that Chandru hears between his father and his colleague. We do not get to know the reason for such ill treatment nor the history of that area. The whole political landscape and important events are seen through newspaper reports and radio news, which are the only means available to Chandru. This technique gives an excellent feeling of living in Secunderabad during those times. The fragmented nature of the narrative also helps in painting a good picture of how things were for a common apolitical person during that important phase in Hyderabad’s history.

Other than being consistent and providing a realistic portrayal of Hyderabad of those times, this viewpoint also helps Ashokamitran to highlight the internal conflicts of Chandru and his reaction to the external events. Chandru is not only an outsider in Secunderabad, he also represents the youth who have no interest in politics. The events that unfold confuse him. He is not able to comprehend the magnitude of the events and only towards the end understands the horrific state of affairs and how irretrievably things have changed. The internal turmoil and reactions of Chandru are typical middle class concerns and Ashokamitran captures it with lot of integrity.

While this viewpoint provides a lot of advantages, there are certain important things that Ashokamitran is unable to capture because of his chosen viewpoint. One of them is the issue of Hindu Muslim relationship. Using the radio as a metaphor for power, Ashokamitran writes some superb scenes which show how the power shifts between the Hindus and the Muslims. These incidents highlight not only the changing power equations in the state but also the people’s reaction when power equations change. Chandru’s family and their neighboring Muslim family are not friends. They are strangers to each other. What would have been the impact of the events on Hindus and Muslims who were close friends, which is not uncommon in Hyderabad? This is not explored as this doesn’t fall within the view of Chandru.

There used to be a dispatch clerk called Altaf Hussain in my previous company in Hyderabad with whom I used to discuss Urdu poetry. It was very embarrassing to face him when Babri Masjid was destroyed. Even though we were surrounded by lot of Muslim friends in our colony, there was always a bit of tension when such communal events took place.  The events that took place in Hyderabad just prior to and just after Independence must have had a huge impact on the Hindu Muslim relationships. We do not get an idea of that from this book for Chandru is not a Hyderabadi in the sense of having integrated into that city. This only limits Ashokamitran from exploring whether fault lines on communal lines became deeper during those times and if they were the cause for the regular riots which used to happen in Hyderabad during the 70s. In other words, how did these events impact the future is something we do not get from Chanru’s viewpoint.  You can infact claim that Chandru’s view is like a photograph. It captures all it sees with clarity. At the same time it is static. It tells us nothing about how events would unfold and how what is in the photograph may have a bearing on the future events.

The other issue is that since we see everything with the eyes of Chandru, we do not get an idea of the whole historical process which led to the Razakkars and other massacres during those times. I don’t think this is a fair criticism though. For I believe that the novelist need not be a historian. He / She needs to be true to their chosen point of view and maintain integrity, which Ashokamitran does well. Yet there is this nagging feeling that Chandru’s point of view is a bit narrow and it would have been better if we got a glimpse of history. For example, I spoke about Chandru getting to know about the ill treatment of lambadis by the Nizam’s police. What we do not get to know is the fact that there was a lot of anger against Nizam during those times. (You just need to hear Gaddar’s ‘bandenka bandi katti’ to get an idea of the deep rooted anger against Nizam and his ministers.) Details like this would make people better understand on why the Indian army had absolutely no resistance when it came to Hyderabad.

As a contrast we can look at Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Living to Tell the Tale”. This is Marquez’s autobiography from his early childhood till he is 23 years old.  If we consider ‘18th Parallel’ to be the autobiography of Ashokamitran, we can see how these two authors differ from each other. While Marquez recounts his childhood, he is not seeing his country through the eyes of the youth. Rather he sees it through his old and wise eyes. This instantly gives him a wide canvas and he paints the social and political history of his country as he tells us his tale. He is not restricted by the need to be consistent to a youngster’s point of view. He utilizes this freedom and the events he narrates take up a different hue from how Ashokamitran paints. There are similar political changes Columbia which will affect lot of people. Rather than seeing it from a common man’s perspective and an outsider, Marquez sees it as an historian and an insider. This enables the reader to get a far better perspective of both the events as well as the causal relationship between various events.

Expanding on the photograph analogy, I feel that Ashokmitran is always like a photographer. Many of his short stories have been about a frozen moment. A moment which impacts us at that point in time but may or may not have a bearing in our long term development. Ashokamitran’s technique in ‘18th Parallel’ is similar to his short stories. He captures a lot of photographs. How people came together for the photographs and what will happen to them after the photograph is taken is not something Ashokamitran is interested in. His interest is in capturing the event clearly and recording it for posterity.  This works wonderfully for his short stories but I find it a bit restrictive for his novel. (Marquez, on the other hand, is a videographer. The movement of the images gives an idea of what to expect in the future and what their past was.)

Ashokamitran’s Secunderabad

Ashokamitran’s Secunderabad was the Secunderabad of the late 40s and the city is one of the main characters in his 18th Parallel. In this article I want to see if Secunderabad has changed much from his time till now.I lived in Secunderabad from late 60s to mid 90s. My mother still stays there and so do my brothers and I visit the city atleast two or three times a year.

The area that I grew up in was called Boiguda and was behind the Secunderabad Railway station. The school that I went to, St.Mary’s High School, was behind Keyes High School for Girls, which in turn was very close to the Lancer Barrack area where Ashokamitran lived. The area opposite to Keyes High School is the area of Railway Quarters and the Railway Offices. It is in one of these quarters that Ashokamitran’s family must have lived.

Though outsiders call the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad as Hyderabad, the places that Ashokamitran describes in his novel belong more to Secunderabad. Only Nizam College falls in the Hyderabad area as far as the novel is concerned.

Ashokamitran describes the blood-letting which happened after independence in his novel. Being Ashokamitran we do not see the blood-letting but rather get a glimpse of what could have transpired. The city for a long time had this habit of involving itself in communal clashes. The general perception was that these clashes happened either during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival or during Moharram. Atleast one such clash during a year was inevitable. The schools would be closed and curfew imposed. How much these had relationship with the trouble during Independence is something I am not able gather but they did happen and the phrase ‘tense but under control’ was often heard on radio and TV.

The interesting part is that these riots never impacted the Secunderabad area. Almost as if there was an invisible boundary they stopped at Musheerabad and never came to Boiguda area where I stayed. This area had lot of Muslims. Infact the local dhadha was a Muslim and yet there was never any sort of trouble in our colony. Infact even when curfew was imposed, people used to walking around the streets. Beyond Boiguda, towards Secunderabad station and Maredpally area there would be no signs that the city was having communal trouble. The trouble always impacted the Old City area the most.

Looking at Secunderabad of 1940s through Ashokamitran’s eyes and then looking at the city from my experience I can see that nothing has really changed. Yes, there have been some external changes; theaters around the Lancer Barracks area like Sangeeth, Minerva, Plaza, Tivoli and Dreamland were destroyed (I think Tivoli has been rebuilt). Newer complexes like Minerva, Swapnalok and Surya Towers came up in their places. There are probably more apartments now, which is true of any major city in India. The core of what Ashokamitran described in his novel still remains, probably because those places belong to central government or the army. The Parade Ground where Chandru cries on hearing the death of Gandhi is still there, so is the clock tower nearby and YMCA attached to it. All the schools in this area still stand with their old facades intact: Keye’s High School, St.Francis, St,Ann’s (all girls schools), St.Mary’s, St.Patrick and Seventh Day Adventist (all boys schools). Mehboob college also remains the same but Natraj theatre near the college is gone. The iconic Sangeeth theater has been demolished and I guess a commercial complex will come up there. The Secunderabad station remains the same. As does the Monda Market about which Ashokamitran speaks. The road between Station and Monda Market remains as crowded as ever. Alpha Hotel is still the busiest hotel around and the tea there is still top class. In short, if a person who left Hyderabad in 1950s comes back now, he would still be able to recognize and relate to the city. With Hyderabad, it is a totally different feeling. There have been enormous changes in that part of the twin city.

From my experience of the city I find two things missing in 18th Parallel. The Irani Chai shop and Mahankali Jatra. These are essential Hyderabad things which cannot be missed. Going to Irani Chai shop and loiter around there would not have been encouraged during Ashokamitran’s time. That was generally seen as a Muslim place. By the time we came to college and had some pocket money, we were generally to be seen in some Irani café or other having tea. That was the meeting place of my generation. Our previous generation was suspicious of Irani Café and preferred the standard Kamat and Taj Mahal to the Irani Café. For us though, life revolved here and it still does when I go to Hyderabad.

Mahakali Jatra is another phenomenon which would leave a lasting impact of any child who grew up in Hyderabad. The main jatra which happens at the Mahankali temple and is also called Bonalu happens in the month of July. It doesn’t happen in just one temple but every week one temple would have it. During this time would come the Potharaju. He is a dreadful figures as far as the kids are concerned. His body is yellow, being smeared with ‘pasupu’ or ‘manjal’. He wears only an underwear and has a big tilak on his forehead. What scares the kids though is the thick whip he holds in his hands and beating himself and sometimes the crowd. The woman carry pots on their heads, also known as Bonalu. This is a festival no Hyderabadi can escape because it happens in every area of the city and the loudspeakers blare at every corner.  This is an essential Telangana festival.

Irani Chai shops haven’t changed though we see more Hindus opening Irani Chai shops in contrast to them being Muslim ones. Mahakali Jatra keeps happening year after year. It has not changed at all. To a large extent Secunderabad’s soul still remains intact. Ashokamitran would immediately feel at ease here.


11 thoughts on “Ashokamitran: His Secunderabad and Mine

  1. Very good read. I have no clue about Ashokamitran or his works but still, i found the article quite engaging, given the way you choose to write about his character and your own view of secunderabad. I admit my familiarity with secunderabad also helped me to relate to it but still, the quality of writing is very good actually.

  2. Thanks Kamal. I tagged you because I was sure you would relate to the Secunderabad part. Hopefully this will also inspire you to read Ashokamitran’s novel 🙂

  3. Great article. Very engaging. Since I lived in Hyderabad for six years I was able to relate to a lot of places mentioned here.

  4. Having lived in this great city for more than three decades, I must admit I was really impressed by the descriptions of the city and its unique culture. I learnt Hyderabadi urdu which still remains my favorite language.

  5. Pingback: Ashokamitran : A wound that never heals – Infrequent Chronicles

  6. Yours is a very lucid writing with appropriate use of vocabulary. You also sound to be a writer. Have you written any novel or something? I have read some of AM’s Tamizh novels. 18vathu atchakodu is one of them. I have never been outside TN other than Bangalore, Vijayawada, Tirupati and very few Kerala towns/cities. This novel is a viewpoint from character’s eyes, as you said. Its a style. Sila nerangalil sila manitharkal is also like this. No stand is taken by the novelist. It’s very safe mode of writing. You cannot blame the novelist and I like this.

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