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the Complete Review
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To purchase Sand

Title: Sand
Author: Ashokamitran
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1974/1981/1993 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 140 pages
Original in: Tamil
Availability: Sand - US
Sand - UK
Sand - Canada
Sand - India
  • and other stories
  • Translated by N. Kalyan Raman and Gomathi Narayanan
  • With a Foreword by Paul Zacharia

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, melancholy little novellas

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Sand collects three novellas (or long short stories), 'Sand' (1974), 'Malati' (1981), and 'Those Two' (1993).
       The title story focuses on Sarojini, an ambitious student whose dream is to get into medical college but whose hopes are thwarted by the everyday grind of her cramped and hectic family-life. It is a busy household, with an older brother who still has not gotten married and set up his own household and various relatives, including babies that constantly need attending to and get underfoot. Sarojini dutifully helps out and yields to others', trying to navigate the household as best she can, but it's always a struggle and it wears her down; even finding a corner to study in is nearly impossible:

All four corners of the hall were crowded with assorted bureaus and bedrolls stacked haphazardly along the wall. Another large item was Mani's table. There was no room for Sarojini amidst this clutter.
       Sarojini is constantly called on to help out -- lending a hand in the way that can be expected in a busy household, yet without her own needs being taken much into account. Rather than being supportive of her academic ambitions, the family hardly concerns herself with them, everyone almost always completely self-absorbed, concerned only about their own needs. Sarojini is not a victim, and she tries to carve out the necessary space where possible, but in such a crowded household it's almost impossible to really do so. Even finding time and space to wash up is difficult.
       'Sand' is a story of constant everyday chatter and a rubbing up against each other of a family in a too crowded space. The death of the mother adds to Sarojini's burden, without changing the fundamentals of daily life in the house. Sarojini tries to convey what she needs, but even where the family is sympathetic no one else is able to take action to assist her; she is left to her own devices, and though a strong character she is overwhelmed by the weight placed on her.
       Ultimately, 'Sand' is more short story than novel(la), the description of Sarojini's life leading to the final fateful turn she makes, Ashokamitran building it all up for the gut-punch kicker of its conclusion, all in that one last line. It's effective, and certainly makes for a tale that leaves a lingering, haunting impression, a powerful piece of work.
       'Malati', the shortest piece in the collection, centers on the title-figure, a young woman who has a responsible if low-paying position in a nursing home (cum medical clinic). The money she earns is barely of any help to her family, but she is a serious, dedicated worker -- and prefers this to a position at her dead father's old workplace, where she would also be welcome.
       The story begins on the day of her friend Sashi's wedding, with Malati asking her boss, the doctor, for some time off to attend at least part of it. He allows her to go -- and also appears there, with his mistress Sujana. Soon later, the doctor's wife comes to his offices when, "as though the event had been preordained", Sujana also shows up, leading to a heated confrontation between the two. Malati is not exactly in the middle of this, but even at the periphery affected by it.
       The events upset Malati, and she sees no option but to remove herself from the equation (limited though her place in it is). Malati laments how: "Women are women's worst enemies", as the story considers the complexity of interactions between women, from Malati's pang of jealousy that Sashi -- six months younger than her -- is getting married to her relationship with her mother to her concern that Sujana might both marry her employer and even become her boss. She finds:
If the boss or employer is a man, it's convenient for a woman in some ways. Men's expectations of women subordinates had certain clear limits. A woman who worked for men will be able -- under their very noses -- to protect the privacy of her personal life. For example, the doctor wouldn't be interested in learning about Malati's mother, nor would he understand if her were told. But it would be impossible to hide anything from Sujana.
       It makes for a reasonably effective story, helped by the strong if uncertain character of Malati; like 'Sand' it too comes with a melancholy (if not nearly as devastating) end.
       'Those Two' is the longest piece in the collection, and shifts its focus as it progresses. It begins with Venkatachalam -- who is killed off, leaving a widow and two children, after just the first page. A philanderer even in his youth, his one great passion was the prostitute Dhanam. The six-year-old son he left behind, Visu, finds himself uprooted after the death of his father (who, for example, had not left a will, compounding the confusion about who gets to take care of the children).
       Much of the first part of 'Those Two' centers on Visu, who very much goes his own way, uninterested in school and prone to wandering off -- and managing to traverse considerable distances. His dead father appears to him, convincingly, while otherwise he is curiously detached; he doesn't interact much with family, much less play well with others. Not that much attention is paid to him by his family, and he is left mostly to his own devices: "Everyone was getting used to Visu's oddness". If anything, his life is marked only by an aimless wandering, both physical and mental.
       One connection Visu has is with Dhanam, even seeking her out when he is still very young. The connection remains over the years, while the latter part of the story leaves Visu in the background and shifts attention to Dhanam, who changes her ways and eventually moves to Madras, her life there changing quite dramatically.
       Dhanam's escape, to a different life and even real success, proves illusory in yet another deeply melancholy conclusion. Though successful in leaving her past behind her, fate still catches up with her, if in unexpected form.
       It's an oddly wending story, including in how the focus moves from Visu to Dhanam. In part, there's too little follow-thorough: Visu's younger sister is long an apathetic baby, unable to walk even when she is three years old and spending much of her time just lying listlessly, but she undergoes a remarkable change -- but then also largely disappears from the story itself, a background presence who no longer has any real role to play in the story.
       The three pieces collected in Sand are well-written, as Ashokamitran is especially good in his realistic depiction of character-interaction. The busy household in 'Sand' and the workplace in 'Malati' are both vividly and convincingly rendered; the interiority of the two main characters in these is also very well presented, reaching a quite profound depth even in such short stories. 'These Two' is no less convincing but presents its characters entirely differently, shrouded in an essential vagueness -- Visu especially, who lives almost entirely in what comes across like a near-dream-state.
       Both the narratives and the main characters in Sand show a dogged determination. Even as the scenes are largely domestic and almost everyday (with some small-scale explosive exceptions), each story forges along relentlessly; Ashokamitran's fiction is gripping, page after page, even where the action might seem unexceptional. These are fine pieces -- but also limited as stories; his talents would seem to be even better suited to more expansive works.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2020

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Sand: Ashokamitran: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Tamil-writing author Ashokamitran (அசோகமித்திரன்; actually: Jagadisa Thyagarajan) lived 1931 to 2017.

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© 2020 the complete review

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