Ashokamithran is one of the most celebrated writers in post-independence Tamil literature. As part of a writing project on translations, I had an opportunity to meet him to get his thoughts on translations. I decided to convert this into a full fledged interview for this blog.
Ashokamitran, whose real name is Thyagarajan, has written eight novels and numerous short stories. He won the "Sahitya Akademi" award in 1996 for his work "Appavin Snegidhar", a collection of short stories. He worked in the Tamil film industry in the 50s and 60s and then went on to become a full time writer. At 80, he is still bursting forth with energy when he talks about writing. Though his voice is feeble and sometimes broken, his memory is still impeccable. He recounted many stories, a few of which am sharing here. And yes, this was my first ever interviewing experience.
How did you start off? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
In those days, writing was very much part of everyday life. Nowadays, telephony and internet has taken out writing from our daily routine. We used to write letters regularly. Office work also involved a lot of writing- memos, notes etc. Now we have paperless offices. In school also, we were encouraged to come up with our own works of creativity.
Have you ever thought about doing any other work, other than writing?
No. My father died prematurely and I was quite young at that time. I was in Secunderabad at that time. I lacked elder's guidance. So, I had to make my own decisions. Then I shifted to Chennai and worked in the film industry for about a decade. And then, slowly writing began to take up most of my time. So I left the industry and took up writing full time.
Some of your books are set in the film industry.
Yes, I've written quite a lot about it. I was working as a public relations officer. Replying to letters was my main job there. We used to get a lot of letters from students and others asking for permission to visit the studio. I was supposed to reply that they can't visit the studio, at the same time I had to convey it pleasantly. So we had a convoluted way of writing those replies-diplomatic, feel good replies. Film shooting was at private places. Now they shoot everywhere from Chennai streets to Alaska.
I was reading the translation of your book 'Karaintha Nizhalgal'(star crossed). There was this scene where one of the technicians brings his whole family to the studio to watch the shooting.
Yes, yes. But we used to avoid the general public. Then, there will be officials whom we couldn't say 'No' to. For example, this income tax officer who used to insist on visiting the studio often. We couldn’t say no to an income tax officer! There was this one time in 1956 when Chinese premier Chou En Lai was visiting Chennai and he wanted to visit the studio. So we made arrangements for the visit. The problem was, at that time the young Dalai Lama was also visiting. The film that was being shot then was about kings and people who were loyal to the king. Chou En Lai did not like it because it went against his brand of communism. On the other hand, Dalai Lama was a pleasant fellow and he enjoyed every bit of the song and dance.
So, you had started writing while you were in the industry?
Yes. I started with short stories. Then, I started writing a novel for some contest. I couldn't complete it on time. I completed it about ten years later, the novel 'Viduthalai'(liberation). That was a bit pompous.
But, I've read somewhere that you concentrate more on intense experiences of small lives than grand sacrifices, public protest and posturing.
Yes, yes. That's very true. I don't carry an explicit social message. The reader can derive anything he wants. Otherwise, the essence of the story is lost. Anyway, am not a very popular writer!
Whatever I've read about you and heard from others, tells me otherwise
(laughs) It’s a very slow process. As a writer, you become known to people very gradually.
After 1980s, your books began to be translated more. Your fame spread outside the state during this period?
Yes, I became known in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta after that. I think I became more known in those places than in Tamil Nadu. That was the time when there were a lot of fights over languages, the anti-Hindi agitations and such movements. There was so much antagonism against the Hindi speaking people here and vice versa too. They make a fuss over these languages all the time. Each language has its own beauty. I've translated the biographies of Bankim chandra chatterjee and the Mother of Aurobindo ashram. I've also translated Anita Desai's 'Fire on the mountain'. It was not a great novel, but it did win a Sahitya academy award. Whatever fuss they make about ours being a classical language, we are yet to produce a work comparable to those of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Devdas is one of his weaker novels. Even to its level, we haven't reached.
That's the only work of his that most people know about.
Yes. He never prescribed drinking as a solution to lost love. It was a written in a very realistic framework. But somehow, people interpreted it in the wrong way. He was extremely unhappy. He used to say that if I had known that people would interpret it this way, I would never have written that. So, what I was saying was, in Tamil we have big novels which run to thousands of pages, but those can't match the sublime quality of his work. Much needs to be done here. In Tamil, we do have some great poetry though.
You are one of the few fulltime writers in Tamil? Why don't we have more people who take this up as a profession?
How will you survive as a writer in this age! And there are no institutions which gives jobs to writers. Even your college would n't give me a job. Also, you wouldn't always get paid when others use parts of your work. For example, many situations from my books have appeared in a number of films but they have never credited me. It can be by accident, but this is what happens.
You had said long time back that people with integrity can never make a film. Was it based on your experience in the industry?
Yes, It is difficult to be honest in this industry. In my book 'karaintha nizhalgal', based on the film industry, the character Reddiar who is a producer is a straight forward man. He goes bankrupt and he never completes his project. There are thousands of films that are in different stages of completion. There are thousand others which are completed, but no one is ready to buy it. There is so much happening behind the scenes.
So, how do you feel about the current state? The studio system that existed here has crumbled. What are your thoughts on the monopoly that is running the industry?
It is financially in the clutches of a team, the Marans and their cousins. Now they are selling it as an international product rather than catering to the local audience. I don't understand the films these days. I still remember the days of going to theater to watch Chaplin or Fellini.
You've written in your book 'Mansarovar' that "A man living in his hometown is under various constraints. This is why everyone seeks to be free, live in anonymity away from their native towns." Was it written from your own experiences?
It is true for everybody, not only a writer. In a place where you are not known, you can do anything. The anonymity helps. It is a fact. But, somebody has to point it out. That is what I did.
You moved to Chennai from Secunderabad, where you spend your early years. The novel '18th parallel' was set there. So, the early days must've influenced you during writing the book.
18th parallel is the line that passes through Hyderabad. When you create a character, you have to provide some context, some location. It was set in the background of the Indian govt taking over Hyderabad after independence and the preceding turmoil. Not much has been written about the place. It was my first book to be translated to Telegu. It was received with great respect there.
So, are you a writer who writes mostly from things which you've experienced, places you've seen?
Yes, experiences feeds into your writing all the time. And also, you’ve to give a context or a background to your characters. So it’s easier to set them in familiar places.
Are you writing anything now?
I am suffering from cramps for the past weeks and I am tired too. So haven't written much recently. Before that I wrote a story that was published in some magazine few weeks back.
And then I made a request for a click. What happened next floored me, and also showed how down to earth this man is. He told me-“Wait. I’ve to respect the camera and the photographer. So, let me wear a clean shirt, comb my hair and come”. Even after I requested him not to take all those troubles, he insisted on it and within a minute, came dressed in a white shirt and with neatly combed hair. As I started clicking, he was worried whether there was enough light in the room and was even prepared to walk out into the balcony. Those troubles, I didn’t let him take. And so, an interview which was supposed to finish in 20 minutes went on for an hour...
As I walked out to my bike, he was there waving from the balcony. A lesson learned in humility…