The narrative is sometimes filled with cliches, but the broad sweep of the canvas engages…
Ashokamitran, the Sahitya Akademi award winning writer, holds pride of place in the Tamil literary scene with his voluminous output of two dozen novels, 250 short stories, essays, columns and book reviews. The novel in hand, Manasarovar, when first published in Tamil, made a powerful impact on the readers.
At one level the novel is the story of a strangely poignant friendship in the 1960s between a Hindi film star and a Tamil screenwriter. What is striking to Satyan Kumar is Gopal's magnetic smile and gait that is graceful. The two artists revel in discussing “Dr Zhivago” which had just then got the Nobel Prize and works of writers like Nathaniel West. Gopal's mien reminds Satyan of his favourite guru Meher Baba, the silent mystic. But right through you got the impression that it was the actor who so loved Gopal, and Gopal was not really keen on returning the sentiment.
Gopal's wife is beset with grave problems including a disturbed mind. Raja, their teenaged son, comes down with a mysterious fever. Gopal is led to marry off his 17-year-old daughter Kamakshi because of pressure from his family and then he suffers guilt pangs.
There is haunting melancholy dogging every step the screenwriter takes. The redeeming love of Satyan is perhaps the only blessing that attends upon him. There is infinite pathos when he confirms that the significant other, Jambagam, is at her worst only whenever he is in the vicinity. You even wonder why Ashokamithran chose to paint such a dismal picture of the life of his protagonist.
The writer gives a glimpse into the world of our film actors — the price they pay for fame, the loneliness, the arrogance and the underlying emptiness. Satyan had arrived in Bombay from Peshawar with 50 rupees borrowed from his father. This was the time World War II came to a close. He made it big in Bollywood. There is telling irony in the descriptions of Satyan's longing for genuine affection and good friendship. Satyan has a whole big gang of hangers-on living off him in his mansion in Bombay. But he is wracked by childhood memories and longs to meet up with his parents. He regrets how he could not once afford even to get his dad's spectacles repaired. Today he is flush with money and success but he feels his wealth has prevented everyone from speaking the truth to him, let alone be friends with him.
Looking awestruck at the high roof of the bookshop, Gopal coolly asserts that human vanity is the underlying reason; vanity is the reason behind all major endeavours. Elsewhere the author notes: “Someone claims, someone else alleges; this one is angry; that one is hurt — can a man live in his hometown without such tethers and constraints. This is why everyone seeks to be free, live in anonymity a long way away from their native town and province.” Truisms and sweeping statements dot the landscape of the narrative.
On another level, Ashokamitran explores the human capability to cope with tragedy. He also delves into the spiritual quests that people of the day found themselves in. With deft strokes he paints a canvas of the times his characters lived in which is included the day Pandit Nehru passed on.
The author uses first person account for a linear narrative by both Satyan and Gopal in alternate chapters. The variety and perspective shifts are like a play of light and shadows when the sun goes behind the clouds.
Shyamala is testimony to the writer's exceptional skill in character portraits. The situations, predicament the three salient characters of the novel find themselves in, ring so true to life you begin to wonder if it is not after all a real life account that Ashokamithran is chronicling.
N.Kalyan Raman has painstakingly been faithful to the original and has captured even the fine nuances and flavour of the ethos and dialect reflected in the Tamil original. This is his fourth Ashokamithran translation.
Manasarovar; Ashokamitran; Translated from Tamil by N.Kalyan Raman; Penguin Rs 225