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SIMPLE LIVES, COMPLEX LOVES

My Father’s Friend & Other Stories By Ashokamitran, Sahitya Akademi, Rs 120

Jagadisha Tyagarajan, who writes under the nom de plume Ashokamitran, is one of the foremost writers of contemporary Tamil literature. His novels and short stories provide a glimpse into life in the cities of Hyderabad and Chennai during the turbulent times following independence. His portrayal of simple urban folk is laced with a subtle but undeniable humour and pathos while his language, usually devoid of ostentatious hyperbole, is as refreshing as the sea breeze of Chennai.

My Father’s Friend & Other Stories comprises a novella and ten short stories. The characters here are predominantly middle-class citizens from various age groups, who are faced with hardships, financial or emotional, and their unique ways of coping with them. The narrative is always understated and the characters are treated with much compassion. The reader will get the feeling that he is sitting around a campfire listening to a venerable elder as he spins yarn after yarn. Ashokamitran’s characters may belong to different age groups and communities, but they are extremely easy to relate to. The tales have a parable-like quality in which subtle truths are communicated with a certain nonchalance.

One of the nuggets in this anthology is the “Festival Evening”. This skillfully-crafted novella is centred around the meeting of a reporter and his old flame after several years of separation. This story of unrequited love is by no means unique. The protagonists of this tale are a Telugu girl, Jeyadevi, and a Brahmin boy, Sundarraj. While the latter works on the fringes of the film industry — he is a painter of billboards, Jeyadevi is a struggling actress with an ambitious mother.

Sundarraj mentors her and she becomes successful. Unfortunately, Jeyadevi’s success is inversely proportional to Sundarraj’s own. They part and meet after several years at a film festival. Sundarraj is now a journalist and Jeyadevi, over the years, has become a star. But in the narrative, no single character is blamed for the sufferings of the two lovers. Rather in the case of Jeyadevi, it is the lure and wiles of the film industry, while Sundarraj is fettered by his middle-class values.

The tale has a touching tenderness, which is also evident in “My Father’s Friend”. The latter is set in Hyderabad and Chennai in the period immediately following the end of the Nizams rule. Narayanan, a young boy, witnesses an act of betrayal by Syed, his father’s friend. As a result of this, Narayanan’s entire family is dispossessed and shifts from Hyderabad to Chennai. There is an interesting twist in the treatment of the boy’s trauma and the reaction of the characters.

Yet another beautiful story in this collection is “At that moment the bomb went off”. This is the story of one catastrophic moment in the life of a terrorist. The tale is so wonderfully crafted that the reader may end up actually sympathizing with Kittu, the terrorist.

In all the stories, Ashokamitran gives an insight into the mindset and values of his characters and shows how ordinary people evolve extraordinary qualities in their attempt to cope with difficult situations.

The translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, wisely tries to “transcreate” the original instead of simply translating it. The “nadai”, loosely defined as the gait or rhythm of the original, comes through faithfully. However, some of the colloquial expressions have been included without any explanatory footnotes. This could well have been avoided without in any anyway taking away from the flavour of the original.

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