I became familiar with the works of Ashokamitran in the mid-nineties. He was one of the few authors who wrote equally well both in English and Tamil. By reading him, I had formed an idea of how the writer would be in person. Discussions with the famous writer and my grandfather Sundara Ramaswamy on the subject only piqued my interest. I had the opportunity to see the diminutive frame of Ashokamitran from afar on numerous occasions, but I never had the courage to meet the man.
About 10 years ago, I finally summoned the nerve to go talk to him when I saw him at the Chennai Book Fair. Without thinking, I put my arm around his frail right shoulder and we began talking like old friends. When I asked him if he was all right with the gesture, he okayed it with a smile. As we began walking, I asked him about his stories, the never-ending source of his creativity, how he felt he had helped shape Tamil literature and his opinion of SuRa.
I don’t remember much of the conversation, only that Ashokamitran went to extreme lengths to make me feel comfortable. He was cordial and warm. The skin on his wrists had wrinkled and weathered, but his smile was toothy, affectionate and innocent. He was shrinking with each passing day, but the spirit was alive and kicking in him.
“Are you interested in writing,” he asked me, when he realised that most of my questions were on literature. When I said, “yes”, he grinned and asked me to have a stab at it. “It can’t cause anybody any harm,” he said in the end and took leave from me.
I remember standing there at the entrance to the fair, a bit taken aback that I had interacted – for better or worse -- with my childhood hero.
Ashokamitran died at age 86 in Chennai on Thursday evening. He is survived by his wife and three sons.
Ashokamitran was blessed with a humility that marked his relationships. He was soft-spoken, and conversations with him can be enlightening and light-hearted. But when he wrote his appreciations, he was sharp and accurate. While he took extreme care not to offend anyone, it was clear that he never took criticism against him lightly. “Many people say he was bitter. I disagree. He used to complain of ill-health. He also thought he had written a lot. But he was never given to melancholy,” says writer and translator Kuppuswamy Ganesan, who has interacted with Ashokamitran several times over the last few years, “He has been saying that he is dying for the last 10 years.”
In a career spanning more than six decades, the iconic writer has produced over 200 short stories, eight or more novels, and several novellas and essays. Most of his work has been translated into English. N Kalyan Raman and Lakshmi Holmstrom have brought several of his books to a wider English-reading audience. Raman translated Manasarovar in English in 2010.
Ashokamitran was born as Thiagarajan on September 22, 1931, in the princely state of Secunderabad. A job offer from Gemini Studios and the passing of his father took him to Madras, where he recorded his experiences in the movie industry in a later collection of essays. It was Vasan, the famous film producer, who gave Ashokamitran his first job as he knew the writer’s father.
“I am not exactly shocked as I knew he was not in the best of health. But I am extremely grieved. There is emptiness inside me... A feeling of being alone,” said Kuppuswamy, echoing the sentiments of many of his fellow writers and readers.
Speaking from Singapore, critic Maalan Narayanan said the hallmark of Ashokamitran’s body of work were his short stories. “Before Ashokamitran, the short story was rather loud. He set the trend in bringing subtleness to them. I have always felt that the author was trying to convey that life was ruthless and is not bound by logic or rationale,” he said.
“As a person, Ashokamitran was affable and gentle. He also remained aloof during the 1970s, when a bitter feud broke out between various little magazine groups in Tamil Nadu. He kept his distance and showed restraint,” Maalan added. He said the writer never got his due, perhaps, because he wrote mostly about urban life. He recalled that he had met the writer only a month ago.
Besides many Tamil Nadu state awards, Ashokamitran has also won the Sahitya Akademi prize for 1996 for his collection of short stories, Appavin Snegidar. His oeuvre of work made him a formidable presence in the literary world and he kept writing till the very end. His last bunch of short stories was sent to his publisher barely days ago.
“The Tamil writer has historically used evocative and emotional words. Ashokamitran was, perhaps, the first writer to bring a Western influence in Tamil literature. He underplayed empathy and his style was shorn of melodrama,” said Kuppuswamy.
The writer has admitted that Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann were early influences on him. Ashokamitran’s works were a piercing influence on fellow writers and readers, making him a larger-than-life figure in the post-Independent Tamil literature. Having put years of writing behind him, Ashokamitran enjoyed a father-like status in his relationship with the younger crop of writers and his readers.
Says Devibharathi, writer, novelist and former executive editor of Kalachuvadu, a monthly magazine: “It’s a great personal loss. He was like a father to me.”
The novellas, especially, gave literary credit to the art form, with many writers resorting to it as Ashokamitran had done it before them. He also edited the literary magazine, Kanaiyazhi, for a period of time. In the 1980s, during one of his several stints at the magazine, this time as executive editor, he wrote a column called ‘Another Month Has Passed’, in which he wrote on a range of issues that provoked his comment.
Ashokamitran began his career with the award-winning play, Anbin Parisu. Manasarovar, Thanneer (a novel he was admittedly not fond of despite its popularity) and 18-vadhu Atcha Kodu are his other famed works. “My favourite novel of his was Thanneer. Only two characters in the novel have names. I think the novel compares well with the best of world literature,” said Kuppuswamy.
His writings were characterised by simplicity, subtle humour, elegance and clarity of thought. The drama in his works was largely psychological. Nothing seems to happen, but underneath the calm surface, the drama is, nevertheless, seething. The urban middle class life found its patron saint in the writer. “I have been reading him ever since my school years, after SSLC to be exact. He was very detached while writing. His prose was not overflowing with emotion. He kept the stiff upper lip of a British writer,” said Kuppuswamy.
In 2004, the famed critic and filmmaker Amshan Kumar made a documentary on the writer. In it, Ashokamitran comes across as humble man, often surprised at his own body of work.
Kannan Sundaram, editor of Kalachuvadu, which has acquired the rights to publish the writer’s entire body of work, said he began reading in Tamil with Ashokamitran. “He was self-deprecating to the point that he wouldn’t accept that he had written a classic in Tamil when I sought his acceptance to bring them out as classics,” Kannan said. “’You can publish my works from 2018. Let’s allow other publications to play catch up’ was Ashokamitran’s typical remark.”
“Most writers were caught up in rural subjects. He was the first to put literature in the urban, middle-class setting. His novels were set in Hyderabad and Chennai. Also, his writing would never stand out. He never used poetic words. He didn’t want his talent to stand out. The subject was the hero,” Kannan said.
AR Venkatachalapathy, an expert on Subramania Bharathi and literary critic, said the Tamil literary world had lost a giant, the last of them from the previous generation. “Ashokamitran, Sundara Ramaswamy and Jayakanthan were the big three in the post-Manikodi era. Both SuRa and Jayakanthan wanted to dazzle the reader, one way or other. The reader trying to crack Ashokamitran may have serious questions as to his skills in writing. It takes a while to appreciate Ashokamitran,” he said.
He was first to set his story in a non-Tamil milieu and “pull it off”, said Venkatachalapathy. His essays were no pushovers either, he said, adding that Ashokamitran had a flat style of writing. “He was also a voracious reader, especially of American writings,” he said. “Another standout quality was the wry humour. He did it the best,” said the critic.