Thursday, October 04, 2018

On a new anthology of “electrifying Bengali pulp fiction”

[Did this short review for India Today magazine]

For readers like yours truly, conditioned to think of Bengali culture as dauntingly highbrow, the idea of Bangla pulp can be hard to digest, much like the realization
late in one's movie-watching career that veteran actors like Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t feature only in Satyajit Ray’s polished cinema but also in dozens of shoddily made potboilers.

Of course, the jury will always be out on what “pulp” truly is. The new collection The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction includes a sinister, gripping Ray story – “Bhuto”, about rival ventriloquists – though it’s debatable whether anything Ray wrote can be labeled pulp in the disreputable sense of that word. But as Arunava Sinha, whose prolific career as a translator-curator has given non-Bengali readers much to cherish, puts it in his Introduction, most Bengali writers considered themselves all-rounders and attempted “a more genteel version of pulp fiction […] more in the genre of noir as a literary form, an excuse to tell a literary story without being bound by the plausible”.

Sinha divides the book’s eight stories into two sections: “Crime stories”, which includes the three longest pieces, and the much slimmer “Horror stories”. My favourites include the title tale by Swapan Kumar – in which a mysterious figure known as the Moving Shadow conducts strange, illegal acts, while claiming to be working for the public good – as well as Gobindolal Bandyopadhyay’s creepy interior monologue “Saradindu and This Body”, and Muhammed Zafar Iqbal’s weird “Copotronic Love”, in which a robot named Prometheus becomes both refined and lovelorn.

An allegation often directed at Indian genre writers (and story-writers for popular cinema) is that of derivativeness, or outright plagiarism. The central mystery in Premendra Mitra’s “Parashar Barma Makes a Bid” (I won’t give details but it involves a dream about a suicide) is taken directly from an Agatha Christie short story called "The Dream". At the same time, the Mitra story has a more elaborate storyline and makes some entertaining detours before even arriving at this mystery.

Similarly intricate is Vikramaditya’s novella-length “The Secret Agent”, which at first seems like the archetype of the seedy pulp narrative: rambling and convoluted, with dashing men and love-starved women buzzing around two high-society Delhi clubs, caught up in espionage and extra-marital affairs. But the resolution reveals the story – and its heavy-drinking protagonist Maqbool – to be sharper and more self-aware than one may have thought.

Perhaps because most of the crime anthologies I have read are very bulky, my main complaint is that this one got over too soon – it’s more a tasting menu than a full-fledged meal. But what is here is consistently entertaining, full of corny dialogue and wondrous sentences like “Don’t you know I dream of handsome men after lunch?” and
(this one is more literal than you might realise) “The Moon has returned to Mother Earth”. And perhaps most befuddling, from a story no doubt set in a very distant age: “It was 9 pm. Most of Delhi was already asleep.”

[Related post: on Blaft's Tamil pulp fiction anthologies]

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