Ashokamitran published the collection of stories called Appavin Snehidar (My Father’s Friend) in 1991. It is his tenth anthology of fiction, and brings together a short stories, all of which were written between 1990 and 1991. Ashokamitran writes in spare and understated style about the changing cityscape in India today, and about the lives of ordinary men and women caught up in the tragic circumstances of everyday life. All the stories are shot through with a comic vision that marks Ashokamitran’s work and gives it its compassion.
Ashokamitran is the pen name of J.Tyagarajan, who was born in Secunderabed, Andhra Pradesh, in 1931. He is one on of the most distinguished of contemporary novelists and short story writers in Tamil and one of the best-known literary figures in India. Two of his novel (Padinettavadu Atchakkodu and Thannir) as well as a number of his short stories have appeared in English translation. His short stories have also been translated into French Russian and Hungarian. He is the recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award.
Ashokamitran, one of the most distinguished of contemporary writers in Tamil, and amongst the best-known literary figures in India, first published the collection of stories called Appavin Snehidar (translated here as My Father's Friend and Other Stories) in 1991. It was reprinted in 1996 by Narmadha Pathipagam. My Father's Friend is Ashokamitran's tenth anthology of fiction, and consists of a short novel 'Festival Evening', a novella 'Inspector Shenbagaraman', and nine short stories, all of which were written during the years 1990 and 1991. The author provides a succinct and insightful preface which points to the unity or coherence of the collection and the interconnectedness of the individual pieces of fiction contained in it, through certain characters, locations or incidents.
'Festival Evening', the most substantial piece of fiction in this collection, spans Hyderabad and Chennai, the two main locations that Ashokamitran writes about, while the move between the two cities is mentioned elsewhere, in both 'My Father's Friend' and 'Munir's Spanners'. The narrator/ observer as a small boy, deeply familiar with Secunderabad, appears in several of the stories including the last, and one
of the finest in this collection, 'Inspector Shenbagaraman'.
Ashokamitran is first and foremost a writer about urban life. An intimate knowledge of these locations, and of the urban life particular to them, is woven into the fabric of the stories: for example, we note the young narrator's familiarity with the lakes and tanks ofSecunderabad, and very particularly, the lorries in Maredpalli tank ('Munir's Spanners'), or the older narrator's special understanding of St. Thomas Mount in Chennai and its significance ('A Loan Application for Biplab Choudhury'). It has to be noticed that here, as elsewhere, for example, in the description of Chennai's rush-hour traffic ('Let Me Sleep in Peace Tonight'), no detail is out of place, yet at the same time these very real cityscapes also have symbolic resonances: they are all, in some sense, reflections of the protagonist's state of mind.
Ashokamitran writes mainly about urban life and the changing cityscape, and equally about the changing fortunes and circumstances of people like Biplab Choudhury and Syed Maama. He focuses on people who are eccentric or alone, and who are, above all, ordinary and unheroic men and women. At first glance, 'Festival Evening' may appear to be about the glamorous film star J eyadevi, enmeshed in a glittering media world, but it actually concerns her struggle as an ordinary young girl manipulated by an ambitious mother, and whose life becomes entwined with the dilemmas of a young Sundar Raj who is just embarking upon his career. These characters are seen to be neither good nor bad, but often caught up in the tragic circumstances of everyday life, pulled by different responsibilities and loyalties. Again and again, Ashokamitran refuses to take a moralistic stand in regard to his characters. In 'Let Me Sleep in Peace Tonight' it is very clear that our sympathies are engaged by the protagonist, whose stream-of-consciousness makes up the narration of the story, and by the conflicting loyalties that beset her. But equally, the story brings out the intolerable dilemma in which her lover Rajaratnam too is entrapped. To take another example, in 'Inspector She bagaraman', each of the main characters- Shenbagaraman himself, his wife, and the girl he loves- is caught in an impossible predicament and each succeeds in eliciting the reader’s sympathy, as does the young narrator himself.
In this way although the plots of the stories are simple even minimal, the stories themselves gain depth and complexity because of the multiple points of view and different interpretations of the same incident that they carry. ‘Riddle’ is a story where each of the main characters gives a different version of what appears to the truth: it sums up the inherent puzzle or mystery of who we are, and the truth of the stories we tell about ourselves. It is this that intrigues Ashokarnirran as a writer, and marks the irony inherent in all his fiction.
Ashokamitran has said in his preface that he does not wish to elaborate on his s stories, either by adding any further details, or by filling them out with needless explanations. He has developed a 'naturalistic' form of fiction made up of impressions, episodes and reflections; one which defies the traditional expectation of what a 'story' should be. His fiction appears to be formless, yet it is very finely crafted. I have already mentioned the unity of location and mood which gives depth to his stories, and the multiplicity of points of view which are worked into the simplest of plots. The past and the present are juxtaposed in 'Festival Evening' in yet another example of his mastery of his craft. Against this complex movement, back and forth in time, the contrasting fortunes of Jeyadevi and Sundar Raj with their comic moments on the one hand, and the lasting tragedy of Sita on the other, are vividly played out. Consonant with this 'naturalistic' form, the stories are often left open-ended, sometimes with a final and sharply ironic moment, which gives us a completely different perspective on what has gone before.
Ashokarnitran has also evolved a spare and understated style that is perfectly suited to his fiction, and which is seen at its best in these 1990 and 1991 stories. He will often light upon exactly the right detail, couched in a vivid turn of phrase, which brings a whole scene to life. Such telling details are abundant: for example, Anwar Hussain and others wash their Lorries in Maredpalli tank, 'exactly as if they were washing their domestic animals', and the young boy listens to Inspector Kanrimati, his eyes 'like glass bullets'. There is a wryness of observation and an irony that runs all the way through the writing, and which is manifest in its economy, particularly, in what is left unsaid.
It could be said that many of these stories touch on the profound sadness that shadows our lives, and in that sense they have a tragic core. The paradox, however, is that at the same time they are shot through with a comic vision highlighting the ironies and absurdities which we meet with everyday. It is this tragicomic vision that marks all Ashokamitran's work and gives it its compassion.
A poet may write no more than a verse or two, but if those few lines receive due attention, they can speak for fifty years. Prose does not have this scope. A poem can be retained in the memory in its entirety. Neither a short story nor an essay can claim such an advantage. Readers, each according to their ability, might just remember the gist of it, or even some parts or aspects of it - that is, if they remember it at all.
If an author who has been writing fiction over a period of time has the opportunity to re-read his entire work at one sitting, he will become aware of one thing. He will find that, knowingly or unknowingly, he has used certain names over and over again. The same incidents will have been described from different perspectives. Many stories will be set in the same locality, or even confined to the same few streets.
There is nothing surprising in this. Neither is there anything wrong about it. If a story is able to express a chosen experience successfully, then there is no loss whatsoever if the same character, or town, or incident re-appears in another story. In the history of fiction, many authors have employed this technique.
It does not cause a problem to those who read a story, whoever the author might be, and then quickly put it out of their minds. But for those who tend to read continuously and reflect upon what they read, a certain question is bound to arise. Would the same characters and incidents be repeated in different works by the same author, unless they had their counterparts in real life? Aren't all these works of fiction really autobiographical?
I had to face this question as soon as my Padinettaavadu Atchakkodu (The Eighteenth Parallel) came out, many years ago. Aren't all your stories autobiographical?
It is not possible to answer this in a single word, Yes or No. Those who hold on to the principle, 'If you are not with us, you are against us,' make their position very simple. But reality is not as simple as that. In many stories in this collection, many characters have their counterparts and originals in real life. But these stories are not their autobi- ographies. I can say this much: I know these people; one of the objectives of my stories is to express my gratitude to them. Although I wrote these stories with much effort, I experienced great joy in doing so.
Once before, when I read all the stories that I had set aside for a similar anthology, at a single sitting, it struck me that each separate story seemed part of one long or continuous piece of fiction. The same thought struck me when I read the stories in this collection, too. At times, it has seemed to me that I should have provided more details in the stories, or elaborated on them a bit more. But my intuition warns me that it would not be appropriate to do so. Each story looks at an incident from a particular angle and within a certain scope. To say any more would put the story in danger of diluting the experience it offers.
There are Hindus, Muslims and Christians in these stories. Primarily, they are all human beings in their entirety. If Syed Maama were alive today, he would be more than a hundred years old.
As I said before, writing these stories brought me much joy. I hope my readers too will share in that happiness.
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