Ashokamitran, a colossus constrained by a small stage

Henry Kissinger once said of Lee Kuan Yew that he was “a big man on a small stage who in other times and other places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, Disraeli or a Gladstone”. I think that applies to Ashokamitran too. If he had been writing out of New York or New Jersey and in English, he would have attained the world stature of a Philip Roth or John Updike. But the fact that he mostly wrote in Tamil, and mostly about south Indian cities restricted his audience. However, that constraint didn’t take anything away from the universal quality of his art and vision.

He once said good writing should unite people. His writings — short stories, essays, novels, and even his interviews — did exactly that. By focussing on ordinary people, by capturing their everyday struggle, by celebrating their heroism, he built bridges. I discovered Ashokamitran a bit late in my life, only after my college. I fell totally in love with his writing and with his style. Reading him was like taking a walk around the city with a wise man, looking at the scenes he gently points out, things you would have missed in the normal course. At the end of the walk, you find yourself loving people around you a bit more.

I have had only one close interaction with Ashokamitran. Back in 2002, I had a chance to meet him in the lobby of Taj Connemara after a literary event. He was about to leave. I could have said a hundred things to him, but I asked if I could drop him somewhere. I shouldn’t have. The old, rickety motorcycle I had at that time used to stop every few hundred metres, and wouldn’t start unless I kicked the lever a dozen times. That’s exactly what happened as he sat in the pillion while I took him from the hotel to DMS bus stop, about two kilometres away. Buses and cars dangerously whizzed past us. I was getting tenser by the second. But he was calm, almost as if watching a scene from one of his short stories. It had a calming effect on me too. I can feel it even today.

(Ramnath Subbaraman is a journalist based in Bengaluru and a fan of Ashokamitran)

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 6:34:00 PM |

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