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Three books that’ll make you fall hard for Tamil writer Ashokamitran’s prose

books Updated: Dec 20, 2016 18:04 IST
Ashokamitran

These recent translations from across genres are the perfect introduction to the prolific author’s vast body of work

Ashokamitran is considered to be a heavyweight among contemporary Tamil writers and one just has to read his fiction (a lot of it available in translation) or non-fiction to understand why.

The Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer, now 85, is well regarded for his simple yet powerful prose that chiefly concerns itself with the everyday struggles of ordinary people. The Chennai-based author has written over 250 short stories, two dozen novels, besides numerous essays and columns. The three books in question — samplings from across genres — are the perfect introduction to the brilliance of Ashokamitran’s prose and his versatility as a writer.

Still Bleeding from the Wound
By Ashokamitran
Translated by N Kalyan Raman
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 499
Pages: 368

The characters in the 20 short stories in this collection all face some sort of crisis —poverty, grief, despair, jealousy, hunger, loneliness or simply change. Not all find closure and Ashokamitran displays a Keatsian negative capability in his exploration of the human psyche and condition.

He enters a variety of perspectives with ease and the reader, too, becomes at once a poor student moonlighting as a house painter, a differently-abled woman expecting her second child, an arsonist in police captivity dreading torture, a physically abused wife praying for deliverance, a middle-aged music teacher hankering for respect, a struggling actor jealous of his girlfriend-cum-colleague’s success, as well as the devoted girlfriend who puts up with his passive aggression, and so on.

Many stories are set in a film studio (Born Thyagarajan, the author worked in the erstwhile Madras Presidency’s famous Gemini Studios for 14 years before turning a full-time writer and taking the pseudonym Ashokamitran), and when read with Fourteen Years with Boss (more on that later) the stories reveal how Ashokamitran’s work provided the fodder for his art.

The Ghosts of Meenambakkam
By Ashokamitran
Translated by N Kalyan Raman
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 299
Pages: 151

The nameless narrator in this story runs into an old acquaintance at an airport and finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a terrorist plot. He is grieving for his dead daughter, and his thoughts meander back and forth in time as he ruminates on her short life. The focus of the tightly structured narrative is both the inner anguish of the narrator as he tries to cope with this tragedy as well as the events that unfold as he crosses paths with a friend from the past.

The magic, once again, is in the storytelling. Ashokamitran conveys the powerful grief that grips the father and his guilt at all the ‘had beens’ and ‘if onlys’ in the simplest of prose. Not one sentence is wasted or unnecessary and carries the plot forward. N Kalyan Raman’s translation is so smooth and nuanced that at no point did I feel that I am reading the book in translation. I can only imagine how much more moving Ashokamitran’s writing would be in the original.

Fourteen Years with Boss
By Ashokamitran
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 299
Pages: 164

Fourteen Years with Boss first appeared in 1984 as ‘The Great Dream Bazaar’, a series of articles in the Illustrated Weekly of India. In these essays, Ashokamitran writes of the time he worked as a PRO for Gemini Studios, the film production company run by the magazine publisher and film producer-director SS Vasan or Boss, as he was called by his staff.

Ashokamitran reflects on both the cinema of that era and the people who made it. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes featuring famous (Madhubala, Devika Rani, Ramanand Sagar, Dalai Lama, the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the then-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C Rajagopalachari ) and not-so-famous but equally fascinating people.

With a 600-strong staff and many colourful characters, Gemini Studios emerges as a parallel universe where the resourceful Boss is the creator and preserver, fine-tuning miles of footage into art. Ashokamitran shares the stories behind some of Vasan’s blockbusters as well as colossal flops and the various changes and challenges the studios faced as competition grew.

The focus of these articles remains the world of Tamil cinema with the only personal narratives being that of the death of the author’s father due to medical negligence (told through the eyes of a bewildered boy, without sentimentality or self pity and all the more moving for the lack of it), and some references to his writing life on the side. Yet they reveal a lot about Ashokamitran.

The writer, who stays hidden behind the narratives in his fiction, comes to the fore in this collection as an intelligent, sensitive person with a fantastic sense of humour (dry, matter-of-factly) and an ability to see things and people with objectivity and empathy.

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