Sunday, February 13, 2005

Asokamithran 50

Warning: Long post on modern Tamil Literature, if you aren't aware of modern Tamil literature scene, better skip it.

Asokamithran 50, the long awaited felicitation and analysis of Asokamithran's 50 years of writing, was conducted in the Film Chamber Theater on 12th Feb. The overflowing crowd was an indicator of the respect that this unassuming writer has in the modern Tamil literary circles. The function was one of the major literary happenings of recent times. I am one of his ardent fans and hence the hyperbole, which he himself never uses in his writings.

Asokamithran's impact on the modern Tamil literary scene is that of a hidden colossus. He might not have the star power of Jayakaanthan or Sundara Ramaswamy but any aspiring writer would marvel at his apparent absence of craft (the phrase used by the Malayalam writer and this year's Sahitya Academy winner Paul Zaccharia).

The function started of with a short film about Asokamithran, which was shot by Amshankumar for Sahitya Academy. It dealt about the influence of his early years at Secunderabad on his writings. It was shot well and offered an insight into his writing style. Should ask Badri (Tamil Blog), the organizer of the function, for its availability.

Welcome note was read by Poet S. Vydeeswaran, a long time friend of Asokamithran. He said "AM is never completely happy, there is always a strain of sorrow in him that is reflected in his writings. This strain of sorrow is brought out as irony of life and black humor and the question of survival of common man in modern India forms the back bone of his writings."

Then came the much awaited analysis of AM's short stories by Sundara Ramaswamy. He started with a literary barb "For a writer of AM's caliber to have written over two hundred short stories is a tremendous achievement. You might wonder why I am not counting the so called writer's in Tamil who have written more than 2000 stories. Well, I do not belittle their work, we will remember them on worker's day". Then he set out to analyze AM's short stories. "His short stories are about common men and their day to day problems. These might not be earth shattering problems, but completely confound him to as what to do. More often than not he escapes from the problem to enter into another. In our daily life there is a silk screen which hides most of our minds' inner workings. Some writers set out to tear away the screen, but AM doesn't shock you like that, his writings are like a breeze that lift the screen for a moment and give a peek as to what is happening beyond the screen. In each of his stories, there is a moment that lifts the story beyond the mundane, and gives the reader a chance to see what is inside the screen. Once a reader is aware of such a moment, he is aware of many more such moments that happen in his life, and that is the biggest success of AM's writings. You will never find violence in his writings, not even the instruments of violence like a sword or a pistol. But he captures the irony of ordinary man's life and shows how the common man struggles against the violence of the society". He had the audience in splits by trying to think like what one of AM's character would have thought about the function. I have been able to recollect only a few strands of thought from the marvelous talk, hope the organizers will be able to publish the transcript of the meeting.

Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy was invited to analyze AM's novels. At the outset he clarified that he was not going to analyze the novels per se as they are an extension of his short stories. He refuted the general feeling that AM has not been recognized for his contributions to modern Tamil literature. "All the writers of the next generation, from Prabanjan, Devaki Gurunath, Subramaniya Raju to Era. Murukan have sought AM to write the foreword for their first collection. This itself is an acknowledgement by the next generation writers. While talking to Ramachandra Guha, he told me how impressed he was about AM's novel 18th Parallel translated into English. I asked him who recommended AM to him, and he said Shyam Benegal had. So AM has influenced a lot more people than he himself knows. Most of my friends know passages from Pudumaippiththan or Sundara Ramaswamy by heart, the passages that are the focus of the entire novel. But in AM's writings you cannot identify a passage or sentence as such. It is the experience of the entire novel that gives it its life."

Poet Gnanakkooththan was invited to analyze AM's essays. Since by this time the meeting was over two hours old, he kept his talk short by saying his detailed analysis will be published soon. "What is known from AM's essays is that he is widely read, and continues to read the new writers with the same intensity as he did his contemporaries. His writings start out as ordinary musings, but in the course of a paragraph or two he makes a giant leap and the essay turns out to be a description of modern India."

Paul Zaccharia, the Malayalam writer was invited to share his experience in reading AM in translation. He started by recounting his first meeting with AM in an International Writers Meet and how he wondered whether the frail and fragile AM will last the course of the conference. "Then when it was his turn to talk, AM floored us all with his wit and wisdom. I stared at him with open mouth and learnt that you never take even a fragile Tamil writer for granted. Once I started reading AM, I tried to analyze his craft. I was surprised by the apparent absence of craft and the smooth melding of craft and emotions. In terms of bringing out the ironies of life, the evils of modern city life without any particular villain, and giving hope that despite all this the common man strives to live by his dharma, I would compare AM with Basheer in Malayalam". This brought a thunderous applause from the crowd as it is a giant leap of faith by any Keralite to accept that any body is as good as Basheer. Zaccharia ended with a reading of a wonderful passage from the translation of AM's novel Thanneer.

AM kept his acceptance speech simple. He listed out the boundaries for his writings - being honest about what he writes, not abusing anybody, not trying to give the reader a cheap thrill by detailed sexual imagery, not trying to shock his readers. He said only a writer like Sundara Ramaswamy could have identified that he abhorred violence in his writings. He thanked one and all for their affection.

Prabanjan, the chairperson of the function thanked Badri and his Kizhaku Padippagam team for bearing the entire expenses for the function.

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