Smokeless Emanations

The power of Ashokamitran’s unvarnished art

01 October 2016

ONE MORNING IN APRIL THIS YEAR, I was ushered into the Chennai home of the Tamil writer Ashokamitran by one of his twin granddaughters. The 85-year-old was seated at his desk, above which was a collage of family photos, much like the ones that you or I might put up. With grandfatherly pride, he talked about the twins’ post-graduate studies—one’s in counselling psychology and the other’s in graphic design. And, about one of them getting married, he observed, “Wedding halls are so difficult to get these days. So little parking! People come from long distances. Community life is not like it used to be. That was a more leisurely time. Now a wedding is just a one-meal affair. By mutual consent.” He seemed to approve of the change, though a trace of nostalgia clung to his voice.

If Ashokamitran’s persona is accessible, so is his prose. For the past five decades, his has been a household name in Tamil Nadu, thanks to a phenomenal literary output of more than 250 short stories, two dozen novels, and scores of articles, essays and reviews. His easy-to-read prose has made him a popular-magazine staple, while its depth and range have established him as a highly regarded literary practitioner and critic. He has received many honours, including the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Reading Ashokamitran’s stories, you race across a cricket pitch, chase a recalcitrant buffalo, pursue a vanishing pickpocket, scurry to place your bucket in line as water sputters from a municipal tap, scramble forward past other youths with your guts churning as your name is called to receive an examination mark-sheet, clamber onto a running train to get to a job interview, flee from a lathi-wielding mob. You stare, terrified as two British Tommies knock off your father’s cap and stamp on it. You are a migrant labourer in a road-repair gang, you tip barrels of boiling tar over jagged stones, and share a meal of cold rice and roasted squirrel with a girl worker. Threatened by the police that they’ll stuff chilli powder up your rectum if you don’t tell them your comrades’ names, you escape into the jungle, your hands still bound. You stagger in a bus and are deeply offended when someone tells you not to fall against the women passengers. You inch along in a queue to collect your family’s ration of palm oil, desperate to get to class before the bell rings.

Vasantha Surya Vasantha Surya’s translations from Tamil include A Place to Live, an anthology of contemporary Tamil short fiction, as well as novels by A Madhaviah, Sa Kandasamy, R Chudamani, Vaasanthi and Cho Dharman. She has published three books of poetry in English, and her children’s novel, Mridu in Madras, will be out shortly.