Author/Interview History & Culture

‘I’ll write as long as I’m physically able to’

One of the finest writers in Tamil, Ashokamitran’s short stories have been translated into English, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and other languages. Known for brevity and subtle humour, Chennai-based Ashokamitran talks about his life and works. Excerpts:

You migrated from Hyderabad long ago. But your writing have the hangover...

Almost all of us remember our younger days. And all that I write is not from memory, there is imagination too, which is the privilege of a fiction writer. I came to Madras in February 1952. Soon after the death of my father in 1951, Sri Vasan of Gemini Studios offered a job. Maybe I should have stuck to Secunderabad, but all that was so long ago. I was too young to make such a major decision of moving to a new place with the whole family.

 

The only novel that you wrote on film industry is Star Crossed. Did you work in the story department at Gemini Studio?

I was put in the Public Relations Department. And by 1955, I was the PRO but so many things were assigned to me. One was the Transport Department.

We had the finest people working for the most modest wages. Every day, I had to face a set of good but frustrated people and there were days when I could not return home without arguments and grumblings and I thought I should not continue with a system which had built-in inequities. I left in 1966 informing the boss that I could not continue.

As a PRO, I had to do a lot of talking and writing. I would keep the VIP visitors engaged for an hour or so, giving them the feeling that I was disclosing all about film-making, while all I showed them was some old sets and clothes, useless properties like swords and daggers. I was the unofficial scribe to all the gardeners and drivers and the conservancy people, writing most heart rending appeals for loans and salary advances.

When other writers say that incidents are not necessary for a short story, you never write without them. And you have maintained the same standard from the days of your first short story collection, Vazhvile Oru Murai.

Writing is not all inspiration. It needs rigorous discipline also. When ‘Vazhvile Oru Murai’ was published in 1971, I had at least 20 more stories waiting to be collected in a book form.

Your narrative style is remarkably simple. Is that deliberate?

It is best to be simple with the narration instead of trying to dazzle the readers. Even writers such as Truman Capote and John Dos Passos had to revert to a natural and flowing narration.

You were given the Sahitya Akademi award for your collection of short stories, ‘Appavin Snehidargal’ but you have written brilliant novels such as 18th Atchakkodu, Thanneer, Inru, Akasa-thamarai, Otran, Manasarovar, Karainda Nizhalgal, etc. Have you at any time thought that you could have been considered for one of your novels?

Sahitya Akademi goes by the year of publication. It used to be three years for a book to be considered but later extended to five. It depends very much on the convener chosen for a language.

Your essays in the Tamil journal Kungumam (Nadai Veli Payanam) on the slice of life were interesting to read. You had once stated that an article should be like a short story and amazingly all these essays have been in that format.

An essay need not be dry and flavourless. All good fiction writers have also been good essayists.

You were in Iowa, the U.S., for a programme some time ago. I remember, you wrote only a short story in SPAN. Why did you not attempt a novel?

I have written a novel, Otran and as far as I know, I seem to be the only one among hundreds of participants of the International Writing Programme, who attempted fiction out of the programme experience. It is common for writers to produce travelogues, but I was particular that I should not be called a travel-writer. Incidentally, Otran seems to have caught more eyes than any of my other novels! I am glad Kalachuvadu is taking care of that and my other books.

What is the novel you are currently working on? And what about the translations?

I am 85 plus. I will continue to write as long as I am physically able to. I chose to write in Tamil, because I felt a lot was there to be done. Regarding translations, I have more than 60 short stories originally written in English and published in all the leading periodicals. I have had nearly a dozen translators from prize-winning N. Kalyana Raman, the late Lakshmi Holmstrom to Pa. Subramanian and M.S. Ramaswamy. A.V. Dhanushkodi translated some difficult stories. Some of these are in the Sahitya Akademi book Most Truthful Picture. Well, I’m not very fond of Thanneer but Lakshmi Holmstrom was keen to translate it. New Horizon Media, Chennai, has published a book titled Men, Women and Mice containing 20 stories originally written in English. The same publishing house had earlier published two books, one of which was shortlisted for the Crossword Award.

Whose writings do you admire the most in Tamil and English?

I have admired a number of Tamil writers starting with B.R. Rajam Iyer. Classy Tamil fiction started with him and he was immediately followed by the incomparable Subramanya Bharati. These two laid the foundation for Manikodi. I have great respect for the humble manner of Ka.Na. Subramaniam, who went about his pursuit of good literature unmindful of the hostility from influential quarters. It is a pity that I came to know of him quite late, when I was well past forty. My output is not much. Jeyamohan and S. Ramakrishnan on the other hand are prolific. I am a slow worker and took to computer very late.

You had theatre experience too...

(Laughs) I was simply obliging friends like Gnani and Sa. Kandasamy.

Is not Thanneer being filmed by director Vasanth, with Sudha Raghunathan scoring the music?

Vasanth has not completed the shooting. I know that Sudha Raghunathan is scoring the music but have not heard the score. Actor Revathy made a four-part TV serial of ‘Ini Vendiyathillai.’

About the documentaries made on you?

I remember three. Amshan Kumar's 28-minute film was marked by very good script and background music. It has a timeless quality. Kandasamy’s is colourful with excerpts from other videos. Gnani’s hour-long film is strictly on literary matters.


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