Sometime in the summer of 2003, I perhaps first saw Ashokamitran. Even then, he was a thin, fragile figure walking slowly towards the venue where he was going to be a guest speaker in a book release event. Otherwise oblivious of the activity in the busy Anna Salai, Ashokamitran stopped just once to take a long, keen look at the cut-outs on the street before walking towards the venue again. For any passer-by, this could have been the most ordinary of scenes playing out in an ever bustling street of Chennai – a lonely, fragile old man walking on the road, stopping to look at cut-outs.
For an avid reader of Ashokamitran however, this could have been a scene straight out of any of his works.
A powerful chronicler of exigencies in everyday urban life, Ashokamitran’s pen shines through the mundaneness of everyday life to give it an aura of immortality.
Set in different and varied backgrounds, Ashokamitran’s characters were entwined through the thread of ordinariness often caught in extraordinary circumstances - like Chandrasekaran of 18th Parallel.
Considered one of his best works, Ashokamitran sets the backdrop of 18th Parallel in Secunderabad, where he was born and brought up. The novel is perhaps the only work in Tamil to speak about the circumstances under which the Hyderabad presidency is merged with the Indian union. Sometimes soul-stirring, sometimes dark, 18th Parallel nevertheless was an intense account of human mind’s response to tough situations.
Traversing through the communal clash in Hyderabad and how Chandrasekaran is inadvertently caught in a wrong situation, 18th Parallel ends posing some tough questions to the guilt-ridden protagonist. For a discerning reader, the questions are also posed to the larger humanity.
Ashokamitran was quintessentially that. His otherwise ordinary men and women keep raising questions that shake the conscience of humanity. His often not-so-sparkling characters powerfully rise to the challenge when life corners them with one.
His India 1948 was yet another effort in landscaping the variety of human emotions through protagonist Sundaram, who marries for the second time during his stint abroad. Set in the backdrop of the independence years, the novel also showcases the colours of Bombay, and the country’s industrial climate, in passing.
In Sundaram’s guilt and confusion, made deeper by the love and affection showered on him by both his wives and other women in the family, the novel portrays the emotional crises of a middle class man in great detail.
Again in India 1948, the four women otherwise leading mundane lives reveal themselves in all their strength and glory when a tough moment demands it.
India 1948 ends with huge sadness and country’s independence.
In Ashokamitran’s works, the poignancy is never rich, his characters never overwhelm. They are perhaps as understated as the author himself – understated to the point of being mistaken as ordinary. Yet, they were astoundingly extraordinary in their own ways.
If subtlety is an art, Ashokamitran was its master. Much of Ashokamitran’s writings were characterised by subtlety and wry humor. Something that was also deeply ingrained in the persona of Ashokamitran for those who knew him well.
That he was well versed with Indian cinema is established through many of his works including the much-acclaimed Karaintha Nizhalgal (star crossed in English). But Ashokamitran was also a keen political observer and made it a point to keep himself abreast of all the developments.
I have often sought his comments and columns for publications I had worked for, and Ashokamitran never ceased to surprise me with his remarkable alacrity. He made it a point to speak in English if it was an English publication, and often included commas and semi-colons when he was commenting on something!
He once left me flabbergasted talking about Joseph Stalin when I sought his views on DMK’s M K Stalin. It took me a moment to gather my senses and point out the misunderstanding. Betraying no sense of shock, Ashokamitran continued in the same vein speaking about M K Stalin and his ascension as Deputy Chief Minister. That was one rare moment when I had a brush with his pure genius.
He was perhaps frail since the time I first met him. Over the last few years, he began speaking of death to his friends, in a very matter of fact tone. But Ashokamitran remained active till end. He kept writing till his death, and like many of his characters, he found his deliverance from an otherwise ordinary life through his writings. His genius remained undiluted even in the last of his works.
In Ashokamitran’s death, Tamil literature has lost one of its finest writers and the vacuum will remain unfilled for many years to come.