At first glance, Ashokamitran seems to be the definition of an author who can be easily classified. A realist who wrote about the common man, you declare. As you keep reading, your vision expands and with it the definition of Ashokamitran. Is he a writer of the absurd? An author who can take the most absurd moments in our lives and illuminate them? Doesn’t his writing involve existential crisis, you ask? You hear a resounding yes as an answer. You read more and discover magic in some of the stories. The scope keeps expanding but the unity never crumbles. Slowly you realise that you cannot contain Ashokamitran into categories. He wrote about our lives and his works, seemingly simple on the exterior, are as complex as our lives.
Illumination has been the principal focus of Ashokamitran and achieves this in a multitude of ways. He throws light on the trivial joys, fears and disappointments inherent in our day to day lives. A tiny incident would reveal a lot about the characters. In one of the stories, a person who doesn’t have money with him on that day goes to his friend’s house to borrow 25 paise, the cost of a bus ticket those days, so that he can take the bus home. He arrives at the friend’s house and finds out he is not home. His wife who is buying vegetables from the vegetable vendor drops a 25 paise coin during the transaction and then picks it up. The whole story hinges on the 25 paise coin falling from the lady’s hand. It was all the money that the man required and yet something stops him from asking for it. He goes home walking. The story then keeps expanding in us.
This is that unique quality of Ashokamitran’s writing. The stories lodge themselves inside us, refusing to go away. Like the title of one of his stories, ‘Still Bleeding from the wound’ (‘pun umizh kurudhi’) they bleed in us. ‘Still Bleeding from the wound’ is an excellent example of the predicament of human beings: the elusiveness of the absolute truth. A poor man, who paints houses for a living, gets into a bus. An old man is kind to him in the bus, the painter gets down from the bus to discover that the money in his pocket has been robbed. He thinks the old man is the robber and accosts him another day. The old man pleads ignorance. The painter remains confused. The truth is out of reach but the wound is never healing. Most of our life is run by such doubts. By never knowing the truth and yet believing in some idea we behave like the painter. The great Portugal poet Pessoa once said, “”Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text. From what’s in the note we can extract the gist of what must have been in the text, but there’s always a doubt, and the possible meanings are many.” This can stand as a perfect description for this story.
It is not as if Ashokamitran was just the poet of vignettes. In some cases, a whole life unfolds before you in a simple incident. Take the case of the story ‘Thoppi’ (The Cap). A man arrives at a place where his father was once insulted. He was then a small boy. Yet the inability of his in defending his father is eating his soul away. The whole setting of the scene and the writing reminded of Rulfo and his magical realism. This story was definitely not in the magical realism mould but the way it was narrated was very close to what I experienced in Rulfo. Here too the man lives with a wound that never heals. It reflects our own lives. Many of us would have been involved in an incident which keeps gnawing at our soul and ends up defining us.
It is the same in ‘Paavam Delpathado’ (‘Poor Delpathado’). Once again, a magical setting wherein an old man is trying to come to grips the loss of his daughter. The story can be read as a straight story but I tend to read this as a fantasy. Do the events really occur in real life or do they occur in the mind of the protagonist who is blaming himself for the destruction to calm his soul? This novella is a disturbing one and keeps bleeding in you. The absurdity of life and death hits you. Our emotional lives depend only on a few people and you can never recover from losing one of them. A wound that never heals.
Ashokamitran was the poet of the absurd as well. Leaning almost towards nihilism, stories like ‘Payanam’ (Journey) question the meaning and purpose of life. The absurd end to a great Guru, a yogi and a revered person, makes us question everything about our life. The sudden death of the mother in ‘Manal’ which changes everything for Sarojini, the fate of Swaminathan in ‘Innum Sila Naatkal’, the life of Malathi in the eponymous novella, the life of the lady whose husband vanishes a day before the wedding of their child, all bring forth the absurdity of human life. None of them is able to avoid their fate. Yet, Ashokamitran was not a fatalist. His characters, Sarojini and Malathi, struggle against the situation and you hope that they will end up winning. That, though, is not the central concern of Ashokamitran. To prepare us for the wounds that life inflicts on us is the central concern.
God is mostly absent from all Ashokamitran’s works. He rarely spoke about faith and religion. That was never a central concern. In most cases, neither God nor religion comes to rescue the characters caught in difficult situations. In his stories, Ashokamtran eschews religion and God and instead sees everything through the eyes of a rationalist. His searing gaze has no need for God. He saw human beings as human beings. He stripped them off all identities and saw their humanness. That is why the Muslim who is thrilled to get a new order (and later disappointed the order is not for him), the worker who lays roads and wears boots made of rubber from lorry tubes, the painter who loses his money and every other character resonates with us. They appear so real because Ashokamitran shows them to us as normal human beings, not as human beings divided by their identities.
It is this humanism which allows Ashokamitran to see beyond the obvious. A short story in which a girl is getting married to a person she loves has second thoughts about her decision as the wedding proceeds. What should have been described as a happy occasion is described by Ashokamitran as an occasion of self-doubt, the doubts that are infused by the proceedings. Similar is the case of a starlet, who is acting in her first scene. Once again, Ashokamitran watches this girl’s mother and ends the story with the sadness of the mother.
Paul Zachariah, who wrote a foreword to a translated collection of Ashokamitran’s stories, writes about how Ashokamitran dealt with women in his stories. The of sympathy that Ashokamitran had for women is enormous. He understands that fate and society are far cruel to them than to man. The understanding brings empathy in its wake and this empathy shapes the characters. This aspect extends far beyond our shores and shows up in America, where he deals with women from different countries in his book ‘Otran’.
This empathy is what restricts him from seeing anything as an epic. When he takes up the impact of Independence on the State of Hyderabad, he does not see this as an opportunity to present an epic. It has all the ingredients required for an epic. The Hindu-Muslim Faultline, the murderous Razakkar movement, Indian Independence, assassination of a Mahatma, military action against the Hyderabad state, the capitulation of the Nizam and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots. Instead of writing an epic, Ashokamitran sees the whole unravelling of history through the eyes of a young boy who is unaware that he is part of history in the making. ‘Pathinettam Atchakkodu’ (Eighteenth Parallel) is Ashokamitran’s best novel and the sympathetic treatment sets it apart from novels which deal with such turmoil and end up taking sides. The climax is one of the most disturbing ever. It is one in which the protagonist finally turns into an adult, who suddenly understands the horror around him. He soul is gravely wounded from which he will never recover.
All those who spew divisive venom must be made to read this novel and especially the climax. Divisiveness leads us only to death, destruction and loss of our own humanity. Ashokamitran says this in a very soft voice and it reverberates inside us. If we do not turn to be better human beings and having empathy towards others after reading Ashokamitran, something is very wrong with us.
Ashokamitran never wrote epics. He did not take up grand themes. There was no explicit philosophy in his works. His language did not stun you or dazzle you or mesmerise you. He never spoke loudly. He murmured. Yet he wounded us. He left a deep gash in our souls. He left behind wounds that never heal and hopefully those wounds which will make us better human beings.
PS: I wrote about Ashokamitran’s ‘Eighteenth Parallel’ long time ago. In case you are interested, please read it here: https://mysteryofbooks.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/ashokamitran-his-secunderabad-and-mine/
PPS: To those who want to read Ashokamitran in English, there are a reasonable number of very good translations available. Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc on twitter) has been one of the leading translators of Ashokamitran’s work. The following works of Ashokamitran are available in English:
To those who want to read Ashokamitran in English, there are a reasonable number of very good translations available. Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc on twitter) has been one of the leading translators of Ashokamitran’s work. The following works of Ashokamitran are available in English:
- Mole (translation of ‘Otran’ by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Mole-Ashokmitran-K/dp/8125026827
- The Ghosts of Meenambakkan (translation of ‘Paavam Delpathado’ by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Ghosts-Meenambakkam-Ashokamitran/dp/0143423274/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590210&sr=1-1&keywords=ghosts+of+meenambakkam
- Still Bleeding from the Wound (translation of Short Stories by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Still-Bleeding-Wound-Ashokamitram/dp/0143423282/ref=pd_sim_14_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=0SF7H8M5ZAA1GZ02AD5H
- Fourteen years with the boss – Collection of essays – Based on Ashokamitran’s experience working in Gemini studios
- Sand and other stories – (translation of some novellas by Kalyanaraman and Gomathi Narayanan) – http://www.amazon.in/Sand-Other-Stories-Ashokamitran/dp/8125022686/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590422&sr=1-1&keywords=Sand+and+other+stories
- Manasarovar (translation of the novel by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Manasarovar-Ashokamitran/dp/014306746X/ref=pd_sbs_14_4?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=1SJAYZG4070HW5JP3T57
- Eighteenth Parallel (translation of ‘Pathinettam Atchakkodu’) : http://www.amazon.in/Eighteenth-Parallel-Disha-Books/dp/0863113443/ref=pd_sim_14_5?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=020N00VZARM6F7EW83CX
- My Father’s Friend (translation of ‘Appavin Snegidhar’ and other stories by Lakshmi Holmstrom) – http://www.amazon.in/My-Fathers-Friend-Ashokamitran/dp/8126013478/ref=sr_1_14?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590692&sr=1-14&keywords=ashokamitran
- Star Cross (translation of the novel ‘Karainda Nizhalgal’ by V. Ramanarayan) – https://www.amazon.in/Star-Crossed-Ashokamitran-ebook/dp/B008G1STGC?_encoding=UTF8&keywords=ashokamitran&qid=1490590692&ref_=sr_1_16&s=books&sr=1-16
- Water (translation of the novel ‘Thaneer’ by Lakshmi Holmstrom) – http://www.amazon.in/Water-Ashokamitran/dp/8187649135/ref=sr_1_21?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590924&sr=1-21&keywords=ashokamitran
- Today (translation of his novel ‘Indru’) – http://www.amazon.in/Today-Ashokamitran/dp/8183683843/ref=sr_1_20?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490590924&sr=1-20&keywords=ashokamitran
- Colors of Evil (translation of short stories by Kalyanaraman) – http://www.amazon.in/Colours-Evil-Ashokamitran/dp/8186852050/ref=sr_1_33?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490591076&sr=1-33&keywords=ashokamitran