It was the end of a very long day. I had been working since five in the morning. A very satisfying day in terms of work, and a day where you expected to hit the bed after a sumptuous dinner. Just moments after that dinner, I saw an email which read “A.mi (Ashokamithran) is No more”.
I spend at least 12 hours a day actively using words. But at that moment, I did not have anything to say as I absorbed the initial jolt and its aftershock. I did not find any difficulty in falling asleep but I found it rather difficult to carry on. My body kept twitching from time to time as my mind ran faster. I woke up for a glass of water and Ashokamithran’s monumental novel Thanneer (Water) kept lingering in my mind.
In the many worlds of literature, Ashokamithran is a world to himself. When I had started my rendezvous with writing, in my subconscious, it was Ashokamithran who I was following, or rather, chasing. I am not the biggest fan of Ashokamithran, or even his biggest reader. So it was a surprise to me how he was reflecting in every little bit of amateur work I had done so far.
His language is never imposing, much like his appearance. But, the strength of his words lay in their simplicity. His writing is minimalistic, but with a capacity to send a fever through the reader by touching upon thoughts that lie deep down. It is often like staring at a painting that communicates with you through its colours and strokes, rather than the actual image.
The world of Ashokamithran was never one of glory, grandeur or honour. His stories were about simple moments in life – like when a boy coming of age sees his father, his hero, fall from stature. Or a husband who holds to his wife in time of need. Or an artist who lives an ordinary life, but dressed in the extraordinary costume of a tiger in a folk art form.
Much of his world comprised of very ordinary people who could be any one of his readers. He continued writing even until very recently. Renduviral thattachu (2015), which was published in Ananda Vikatan showcased why his writings are a timeless classic. The unsettling feeling that it left behind was the same one I felt when I read Appavin Snehithar (1995) five years ago.
Ashokamithran born as Thiyagarajan in Secunderabad, lived most of his 86 years of active life in Chennai, the erstwhile Madras. His world was urban, and his characters were people who struggled in the new urban structure of the nation. Very few writers in Tamil have written about semi-urban lives and urban problems. In describing these problems, novels like Thaneer and Karaintha Nizhalgal show the dark side of lives lived in a place so fantasised by those who cannot do so.
One could spend forever, trying to figure out where Ashokamithran figured in Karaintha Nizhalgal, an intimate portrait of the field of cinema. Was he the production manager? Was he the producer waiting to be broke? Or the failed actor? It takes a master to mask himself so well, while showcasing a world in which he spent fourteen years as a writer.
If Pudhumaipithan was a pioneer in showing the dark side of a city, Ashokamithran best succeeded and firmly held on to his throne. We still do not have many writers, in a state where a majority the population lives in a municipality or city, to showcase the confined spaces of the urban.
As a writer, Ashokamithran was equally articulate in English. He did a number of translations himself. But, he chose to continue to write in Tamil as a language of expression, like many of his counterparts. He knew in 1988 that there was no life for a full-time writer here in Tamil Nadu. He had none either.
His humour, even as an ailing octogenarian, something seen not so vividly in his writings, made him lively in person to readers who had the honour of meeting him.
Ashokamithran is one of the chief architects of modern Tamil literature. The standards set by him are comparable to, if not better than, any world literature. He has left a grand space for the world of literature to fill in. He was awarded the Sahitya Academy award for his collection of short stories titled Appavin Snehidhar. If the Gnanpeeth Award is due for a Tamil writer, Ashokamithran was or is at the top of the list, without a doubt.
I never met him nor ever intended to. But, if I get a chance to meet him in the next birth, if there is one, there would be no need for him to introduce himself. I will always sense the presence of his light.