Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Eighteenth Parallel - Ashokamitran

Ashokamitran writes in Tamil and this fine Hyderabadi novel (Disha Books, 134 p, Rs. 55) is translated into English by Gomathi Narayanan. Vinod lent this old copy to me on my request after I'd seen his review of the book on his blog. Ashokamitran's world of Hyderabad and Secunderabad in 1948, a time when he was a college going student (in real life) trying to make sense of all that was going on about him in a critical period in the history of the twin cities, makes it the first truly authentic Hyderabadi novel that I have read complete with landmarks, the food, the people, the Irani cafes. I loved it.

I'd guess the novel was largely autobiographical as Ashokamitran was born in Secunderabad in 1931 and would have been the age of the protagonist, Chandru in 1948. Chandru belongs to a Tamil family that lives in the Lancer Barracks in Secunderabad. His father is a Railway employee in the Nizam's Railway - one of those few departments where Tamils and Telugus had jobs, unlike the other state departments where Muslims had a majority of jobs. Young Chandru is torn between his love for cricket, his Muslim and Hindu friends, his trouble with understanding the local languages Urdu and Telugu, his growing up years, girls and other such concerns. But soon these concerns make way for bigger concerns as the State of the Nizam prepares itself with its Razakars, a militant Muslim volunteer group formed to resist the accession of the state to the Indian government. The Razakars were civilian volunteers who quelled any thought in the direction of Indian accession and were opposed to the Indian National Congress and its off shoot in Hyderabad, the Hindu Mahasabha.

As the period grows blacker and uncertainty increases in the state, the small populations of the Tamils and others are caught between the two forces - Hindu and Muslim, Pro and Anti accession. Chandru does not go to college anymore with increasing attacks on Hindus and those who side with the Congress. He is attacked as well. He sees the Muslims grow more and more aggressive as they feel they will be able to resist the Indian government. The atrocities of the Razakars is shown and it reflects in the unnecessary aggression by their neighbour Kasim who stomps into their house and shuts off their tap one day accusing them of wasting water in days of shortage. News of the supply of arms to the Nizam by the gunrunner Sydney Cotton in his daily flights, the rhetoric of the Razakar leader Qasim Razvi, the fear of Communists joining the Nizam's forces, the prospect of Pakistan supporting the Nizam's fight against the Indian Army, the death of Gandhi, lead to a period of heightened gloom followed by the the meek submission to the Indian army by the Nizam, completely turning things on its head.

Chandru is as much disturbed by Gandhi's death as he is by the anger of the Hindus against Muslim  refugees when the tide turns. Overnight the tables are turned in the Hindu dominated population of the State of Hyderabad  as Hindus go on a rampage against the Muslims who dominated them for years, especially the last few months of Razakar brutality. But nothing disturbs Chandru as much as the incident that happens to him when he runs away from a murderous mob and jumps into a Muslim house by mistake where a small family is hiding from Hindu mobs. Seeing the Hindu boy, one of the teenaged girls offers herself to him to save the family. Chandru runs away from the horror of that hopeless submission, an act that he feels has stained him by making him party to it.

Coming close after my last book on the Hyderabad Nizam's (The Last Nizam), Ashoka Mitran's novel gives the perspective of the common man, the Hindus and the small sections non-aligned people like the Tamils in those times in a neatly woven tale. It is a wonderful glimpse into the history of  my hometown, as he describes many landmarks that are now no more, a Hyderabad we knew. But many landmarks still exist - Manohar theatre, the station, the tank bund, Tivoli theatre, Parade Grounds, Mettuguda, Basheerbagh, Regimental Bazaar, Keyes High School. Only one landmark I could not place - KEM Hospital. The mention of Hyderabadi cricketing stalwarts Eddie Aibara (who coached me during the period I played Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad and who was the hero of Hyderabad's first Ranji win), Bhoopathy (who was the Tamil curator and a cricketing great, someone I'd met as well during my playing days) and Ghulam Ahmed (the beaurocrat cricketer) made me smile. Life it appeared, seemed to go on two levels in those days - the act that everything was normal, colleges, cricket, girls, communal harmony on one level and and the politics underneath on the other. Chandru's friendship with the Anglo Indians, the Muslims, other Tamils, the cricket games, his buffalo, all make for a nice read.

Two things stand out with Ashokamitran's writing. The way he changes from first person to third person without missing a beat and secondly the way he juxtaposes humour with all of the other extreme emotions - frustration, fear, anger, horror. If I have a compliant it is that there are times when it rambles on with his inner dialogue making one skip some paras and also that I did not quite get the length of the time involved since the start of the book to the end. But these are minor. The book itself is a great read and fits into many categories - coming of age, Hyderabad of the old, the historical period of the accession of Hyderabad to the Indian Union, the common man's perspective of the period.

Ashokamitran is the pen name of Thyagarajan, who lived in Hyderabad for the first twenty five years of his life. He moved to Chennai where he resides currently and is seen as one of the literary heavyweights in Tamil. He worked for many years in Gemini Studios and wrote a book on those experiences too - 'My Years with the Boss'. I hope to meet him in my next foray to Chennai and gift him a copy of my cricket noel which he may like.


a.nagarasan said...

I read 18th parallel,in tamil.Actualy no parallel to this novel.After coming to HYB i gave this novel to my tamil friends.After a long circulation it was not returned to me.After settling HYB, i like to read it again.The middle class characters in this fiction are very nice.The theme of the novel impressed me much.Post independence and Nizam state or Telungana native sdpirit are portrayed visit my blog--a-nagarasan2000 with lone nagarajanc/o

Ramnarayan said...

Hari, this is a masterly review, one that will help me in doing a review myself. How well you have captured Ashokamitran's pithy but moving writing! Only a good writer can write such a genuine review. I should read the Last Nizam, too.

I had the privilege of translating Ashokamitran and receiving his warmth and kindness.A wonderful man, simple and uncluttered in his human interactions, while he could be complex and deep in his writings. Thank you for this wonderful critique of The 18th Parallel.


Harimohan said...

Thanks Ram. You're too kind. Just what I felt. I would love to read your translation of his book too. Soon.
Thanks for visiting and commenting. :)