Obituary: Two weeks after death, South India learns about demise of Ronald E Asher, celebrated exponent of Dravidian languages

Kerala and Tamil Nadu grieve over the death of the UK-based linguist who translated complexities of the two South Indian languages with brilliance and ease.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 12, 2023 | 7:05 PMUpdatedJan 12, 2023 | 9:32 PM

Ronald E Asher

It may sound strange in today’s fast-paced digital age that the information related to the passing away of a distinguished scholar in Scotland’s Edinburgh took more than a fortnight to reach his readers and followers in South India.

But this indeed happened, and Kerala and Tamil Nadu are now mourning the death of renowned linguistic, writer and cultural ambassador Ronald E Asher, who died at the age of 96 on 26 December, 2022.

One of the celebrated exponents of Dravidian languages, Asher will be remembered for translating and propagating several Tamil and Malayalam literary works worldwide and positioning critical writers in both languages along with the topmost literary figures in the world.

Adopted homeland

The two south Indian states were an adopted homeland for Asher for over 50 years, and he learnt Malayalam and Tamil, apart from contributing immensely to the development of grammar in both. He travelled far and wide and created a network of key literary figures, and enriched them with the enthusiasm and confidence to explore more of their inherent creativity.

Since Prof P Sreekumar, a student of Asher and a faculty with the Central University of Kerala, informed about his demise on social media late on 11 January, condolences have poured in from across the two states. Sreekumar was informed about the death through an email from David Asher, son of Prof Ronald Asher.

Despite his immense contributions to the two prominent southern languages, writers in the region lost their connectivity with Asher over the years, mainly because of his age-related ailments and his preferred seclusion from social outreach.

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Ronald E Asher, translator and linguist

Known to Malayalis as the man who discovered and provided exposure to Vaikom Mohammed Basheer as a “universal writer”, Prof Asher was also the most popular linguist in India from Europe. For readers across the globe, he was the most intimate translator who introduced the best of modernity in Tamil and Malayalam.

His association with South India began in 1953 after reaching Chengam in Tamil Nadu’s North Arcot district to work as an assistant lecturer in linguistics. He had just completed his course at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. It took another 10 years for him to visit Kerala and contact Malayalam writers.

According to his students and former associates, Asher translated numerous works from Malayalam and Tamil into English and wrote thousands of literary reviews about writers in both languages.

English translations of Basheer’s towering works

Cover page of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's 'Balyakalasakhi'

Cover page of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s ‘Balyakalasakhi’ (Wikimedia Commons)

Malayalam poet Alankode Leelakrishnan remembers Asher as not only the translator of Basheer’s works but also notes his creative intervention that prompted the Malayali to write more.

People were thrilled when Asher brought out English translations of Basheer’s towering works like ‘My Granddad had an Elephant’ and ‘Pathumma’s Goat’ as the popular perception till then was that they were literary works beyond translation as Basheer’s writing style was unique.

Many scholars in Tamil and Malayalam are lauding his contributions by saying that his works will be remembered as long as both languages exist. He had shown exceptional brilliance in translation by quickly capturing and handling complex sentences with solid dialectical variations.

Taught at many places

Asher held many positions at the time of his death, including fellowships with the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was also an Honorary Fellow of the Kendra Sahitya Akademi.

He was also a visiting professor of Tamil at the University of Chicago. At the University of Illinois, he taught linguistics as a visiting faculty. He was also a faculty of Malayalam and Tamil at Michigan State University.

He had taught at universities in many places, including Tokyo, Paris, and Minnesota.

He was also the first occupant of the Vaikom Mohammed Basheer Chair at Mahatma Gandhi University. He received the Basheer Memorial Award instituted by the Pravasi Trust in 2010.

Asher served the University of Edinburgh from 1965 in many capacities until he retired as vice principal in 1993. He was the president of the International Association for Tamil Research from 1983 to 1990. Even after retirement, he continued his association with the University of Edinburgh.

According to his son, Asher was injured four years ago after a fall on the university campus and confined to his home.

Learnt Tamil, Malayalam alphabets through primary school texts

Born in Gringley-on-the-Hill, Nottinghamshire, England, on 23 July 1926, Asher did doctoral research on 16th-century French literature and received a PhD in 1955 from the University College, London.

While in Tamil Nadu, scholar M Varadarajan (Mu Varatharasanar) introduced Asher to Sangam literature and the works of prominent Tamil writers like Subramania Bharathi, Bharathidasan, and Akilan.

At the beginning of 1970, Asher completed his first book on Tamil, ‘A Tamil Prose Reader’, with R Radhakrishnan as coauthor.

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When Asher translated Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s 1947 Malayalam novel ‘Thottiyude Makan’ (Scavenger’s Son) in 1975, it won critical acclaim worldwide.

In the subsequent years, he focused mainly on Basheer and his significant works. ‘Balyakalasakhi’ (Childhood Friend, 1944), ‘Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu’ (My Grandad had an Elephant, 1951), and ‘Pathummayude Aadu’ (Pathumma’s Goat, 1959) had won praise for both Basheer and Asher.

Asher used to say that translating the works of Basheer and Thakazhi was challenging due to their excellent style and content. In 2000, Asher translated ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages’ into Japanese as ‘Sekai Minzoku Gengo Chizu’.

In 2002, he translated Malayalam novelist and short-story writer KP Ramanunni’s debut novel ‘Sufi Paranja Katha’ as ‘What the Sufi Said’ with N Gopalakrishnan as co-translator.

He edited the ‘Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics’ (1994), ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages’ (1994) with Christopher Moseley, ‘Concise History of the Language Sciences from the Sumerians to the Cognitivist’ with EFK Koerner (1995), and ‘Linguistic Literary: A Festschrift for Professor DS Dwivedi’ with Roy Harris.

While attending a seminar at Calicut University a decade ago, Asher said literary works in Tamil and Malayalam always posed a challenge to the translator.

He used to say that he learned Tamil and Malayalam alphabets by going through both states’ primary school texts.

Omana Gangadharan (centre) with Stephen Timms (second from right) and Ayesha Chowdhury

Omana Gangadharan (centre) with Stephen Timms (second from right) and Ayesha Chowdhury (Twitter/Sir Stephen Timms)

Recently, Prof Asher was featured as a full-fledged character in a Malayalam novel penned by his close friend Omana Gangadharan, writer and former Labour Party councillor from East Ham.

In her condolence message, Omana revealed that Asher’s curriculum vitae comprised 36 pages, three-fourths of which were on Malayalam literature.

“His contributions were immense and with no parallels. The death has created a deep void,” said MN Krassery, a retired faculty of Calicut University and close friend of Asher.

“He devoted a lifetime to cultural integration without being upset by the attempts of vested groups to divide society by religion and language,” he added.