I first heard about Ashokamitran when a friend caught me watching old Tamil film snippets on Jaya Max (‘Madura Geetam’). If I was into that sort of thing—MGR, Nambiar, Manorama—he said I ought to read a small book called My Years with Boss, a chronicle of life in Chennai’s Gemini Studios in the 1950s. Next, a film critic in Mumbai recommended the same book to me, adding that she wished something this good had been written about a Bollywood studio. When I mentioned My Years with Boss to my publisher, however, she had not heard of it. She knew of Ashokamitran only as the award-winning author of a novel called Water. I soon discovered that some people—especially Indians who write in English—regarded the name Ashokamitran (which was clearly not a name at all, but an alias) with something like fear. His translator, that man Kalyan Raman, “is our great enemy”, a Mumbai poet told me. It turned out that Ashokamitran was as associated as U.R. Ananthamurthy with the campaign to deflate the egos of Indians writing in English. So who was the real Ashokamitran—the author of a beloved memoir of the golden years of the Tamil cinema, an avant-garde novelist, or a mascot for those who argue that this country’s best writing is hidden away in languages other than English?
All three Ashokamitrans, and a few more, reside in the frame of a frail 81-year old man whom I find working at his desk in a modest flat in Velachery, a middle-class neighbourhood of Chennai. The cover of my copy of My Years with Boss features a chubby, grinning man, whom I mistook for the author—it was actually the face of S.S. Vasan, the legendary boss of Gemini Studios. Both physically and temperamentally, Ashokamitran is his late employer’s antithesis: lean, long-faced, watchful and taciturn. He gazes around his room, covered with portraits of Hindu gods, and seems confused by my appearance at his home until he recognises the name of my maternal grandfather, a famous surgeon in Madras in the 1960s and ’70s. In the way that older folk accept what they cannot change, he now seems resigned to my presence; tells me to try his wife’s coffee; and answers my questions with short statements.