An extraordinary storyteller who was humble and simple
May 12, 2017

It was in 1968 that Charukesi first met Ashokamitran, along with his writer-friend Vadhoolan, in his Damodara Reddy Street residence in Thyagaraya Nagar, Chennai. Charukesi relives some of the memories of all those years thereafter, of an extraordinarily simple man who touched many a heart

I was back from Ahmedabad on transfer to Chennai, when Swadesamitran Deepavali Malar had carried a short story of Ashokamitran, titled Prayaanam. It was set in a hilly surrounding, where four disciples of a guru drag him in a small cart. The wolves attack them and they leave their guru in desperation. We wondered whether a short story can be so dramatically written without a hero or heroine!

The first question Ashokamitran asked us was, “What is your age?” We said, “We are thirty,” to which he quickly replied, “That is why you have rushed to see me. If only you had crossed forty, you would not have come here!” That was typical of Ashokamitran.

When Kalki Rajendran asked us to gather material for a Readers’ Special issue, we submitted a roadmap for the entire issue, in which contributions from readers would only be given space. He suggested that the writers who were chosen to contribute short stories be given a clue of three words, around which the story should be woven around.
One of the writers chosen was Ashokamitran and we gave five sets of postcards of readers, suggesting three words each. Although the writer initially said that there should be no choice in the world, as choices confuse a human being in taking one firm decision, he picked up the postcard of a reader suggesting Ganga, Boat, Mother. It was a poignant short story that Ashokamitran gave us.

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Ashokamitran, who always reflected slices of life in his writings.

In the following year, when Kalki was preparing for the December Music Special, as per normal practice, we had to carry a short story based on music. As freelancers, we suggested to the editor several names of writers. He approved none of them. He said, “Ask Ashokamitran to give us a story.”

It was the norm practiced by the weekly that if an author was given a chance to write in a special issue or Deepavali Malar, he would not be chosen the succeeding year.

We were, therefore, surprised when he said in a firm voice, “No, I make an exception this time. I was touched by his Readers’ Issue short story and read it with moist eyes throughout.” We were only too happy to approach Ashokamitran again, for a story for the music season special. That was the story behind the story of Indiravukku Veenai Katrukkolla Vendum that appeared in the December special issue on music.

Many do not know that Ashokamitran is also connoisseur of Carnatic music, besides old Bollywood melodies of Lata, Rafi, Mukesh and Talat. He has written several articles on the latter subject in different magazines. When Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, honoured Carnatic vocalist Ananthalakshmi Satagopan (mother of Sujatha Vijayaraghavan) in the December Season, with a Senior Musician Award, he volunteered to give me an article on her music for the sabha’s souvenir that year which I was editing.

Although he said that he did not like Thanneer, one of his novels, it was a brilliant portrayal of the water crisis in the city. Among his novellas, the best is Innum Sila Naatkal, Viduthalai and Manal. The best of his novels is, of course, Pathinettavadu Atchak Kodu. When a short version of the novel was released as a supplement with a Deepavali special issue of Kumudam, Ra Ki Rangarajan, the associate editor, another equally brilliant writer, who was assigned to do the job, lamented, “How can I condense this wonderful piece of writing in 20-30 pages. It is such a fascinating work.”

For Ashokamitran, an essay must also be written in the format of a short story. It should have a definite beginning, a convincing middle and a kind of twist in the end. His obit on the demise of the great Tamil writer Thi Janakiraman is one example. All his articles serialised in the Tamil weekly, Kungumam, were full of nuggets, anecdotes and information and have come out in book form titled Nadai Veli Payanam. These are slices of life and each one is interesting. When I met him a few weeks before his death, he said, “I have a copy reserved for you. When you meet me next, you can pick it up.”

Once when his book on Madras was reviewed by his friend K.S. Subramanian in a Madras Book Club event, S. Muthiah, ‘ordered’ that I should propose a vote of thanks. I was taken aback but then mumbled a few words about Ashokamitran’s writings as an ardent fan. I was afraid of facing Ashokamitran. “You spoke naturally. That is enough,” he said, when we descended from the stage.

The morning I met him for an interview for The Hindu’s Friday Review page in March this year, Ashokamitran was very cordial, but strict. He said, “Do not add a single word to what I have said. Readers may think I am bragging.” I promised him I would not do it. His answers to my queries were simple and straightforward. He did not want to trumpet his own achievements as a writer/novelist, but whenever I mention his short stories I enjoyed much like Ammavukkaga Oru Naal and several other stories, there was a glow in his face, approving of my taste. Since he could not lay his hands on the book he had promised earlier, he gave me, Mounathin Punnagai, a collection of essays that appeared in The Hindu, Tamil.

The last I met him was in a wedding function in his family. He was in a happy and joyous mood. Did I say, last? No, I saw him last on the morning of Friday, the 24th March. He was lying in a closed freezer box eyes closed, but with a kind of smile on his lips, as if revealing his subtle humour. Was it Mounathin Punnagai? Smile in Silence? I guess so.

(Courtesy: Madras Musings. The writer is a senior freelance journalist and translator based in Chennai.)