Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Short, sweet and subversive: Blaft's Tamil folk-tales

The independent publishing house Blaft has been responsible for some of the most inventive and good-looking titles in recent Indian publishing, most notably the delightful Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, with its lurid colour plates and line drawings supplementing Pritham K Chakravarthy’s fine English translations. In keeping with Blaft’s unconventional approach to book production, the last 50 pages of their new release Where are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu are delicately bound together with a scarlet ribbon. This is the “Naughty and Dirty” section of the book and there’s even a statutory warning about it on the back-jacket.

So naturally, the first thing any self-respecting reader will do is to unfasten the “virgin belt” and settle into this series of cheerfully ribald tales told by a twinkle-eyed “Thatha” (Tamil for grandfather, or old man in general). These include the story of the prince who becomes obsessed with finding a four-breasted woman to marry; a very pragmatic explanation for why men don’t have to experience labour pain; and the tale of a woman who seeks help from her father-in-law after a tiny land-crab enters her “burrow” (it’s an extendable story, we’re informed at the end – the imaginative teller can make it last for a long time. I won’t give the details here).

Once you’re done with the Red Section you’ll find there is much more to this anthology, which brings together around a third of the pieces contained in veteran storyteller Ki. Rajanarayanan’s mammoth book Nattupura Kadhai Kalanjiyam. These are short tales
(rarely more than two or three pages each) about kings and queens, birds and animals, ghosts and demons, gods and goddesses, and many of them have been compiled, revised and expanded over centuries. Some, such as “A Life in His Stead” (about the faltering integrity of people who offer to exchange their own lives to help save a young boy), are about social hypocrisies while others have a mildly moralistic tinge, but there’s nothing here that can be called heavy-handed; there’s a marvelous lightness of touch throughout. In fact, some of the best pieces seem to exist for no other reason than that they were made up on the spot by storytellers for quick evening entertainment (see the delightfully nonsensical “Four Hundred Goats”, about a father who knows he’s found a well-endowed boy for his daughter when he chances to cross what he thinks is a log bridge). Other stories speak of the Gods in casually flippant terms, as in the tale where Shiva is likened to “our local politicians, who never have time for us”.

As Rajanarayanan (better known as Ki. Ra.) tells us in his introduction, some of these tales “reveal the tension caused by highly moralised sexuality”. It could also be said that they use subversive plots and shocking language as tools of rebellion – to bring unmentionable things out into the open and to shake up the established order. At a time when it’s becoming fashionable to define “Indian culture” as a fixed entity and in the most conservative terms, and to squeeze tradition into an airtight box, these stories are important reading. They are a reminder not just of the difference in the tones of cultural narratives between north and south India but also that folk-tales and oral renderings of all regions – passed down over the centuries by “common folk” – are amorphous, dynamic and not especially respectful of mainstream morality.

P.S. From the Blaft website, here's a short video of Ki. Ra performing a story that couldn't have been included in this book: "The Mute Man Giving Witness".


  1. even I just completed this book and what a delightful and entertaining read.

  2. Ooh, sounds brilliant. Must pick up a copy.

    Did you get to read Insects Are Like You And Me Except They Have Wings?

  3. hi have you taken off the kamila shamsie review... wanted a friend to read

  4. Hey!

    Yes, you must must must read Insects Are Just Like You And Me - It's such a brilliant book!

  5. It is just an okay book..not much to say in the stories. Just that traditionally told incidents are translated. I wouldn't say there is much message to take back except for the wowness about relating to childhood and the childhood story hearing events.

  6. sounds so interesting and intriguing! :) nice to come across such quaint books and lovelier reviews too!

  7. I am genuinely curious:

    With so many titles - English translations of both classics and contemporary works in Tamil - available by now, you, along with a few other prominent English-language critics, choose to pick the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction for such high praise and adulation (which the book may well deserve, but that's beside the point). As a critic, have you ever wondered why your coverage should be so restrictive and, well, lop-sided?

  8. Hey,

    In keeping with your constant need to impress people and convince them of how well-read you are (despite your complete and overwhelming lack of qualifications as far as commenting on literature is concerned — a common malaise among all Indian journalists), why not read 'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada and churn out some pointless insights on it by, say, next week?

  9. Anonymous: Bad day at work?

  10. Let me clarify that both Anons are not the same person.


    Anon # 1

  11. Eyefry, Meghana: no, haven't read Insects... though I've heard good things about it.

    As a critic, have you ever wondered why your coverage should be so restrictive and, well, lop-sided?

    Anon: no, I don't lose much sleep over it. Any reviewer will necessarily be restricted in the amount of reading and writing he can do, and the choices he makes will always seem lopsided/unsatisfying to someone or the other. (I'm talking here about the sort of reviewer who actually reads a book all the way through and takes the time to put down his own perspective on it - as opposed to someone who impersonally directs readers to all the books that are available in the market, or on publishers' websites.)

    Despite working on the books beat, I don't have the time to read even a hundredth of the books I'd like to read, and I don't have the time or space to review all the books I do read. Personal tastes, accessibility and the requirements of the publications I write for are some of the factors that determine what I read and review.

  12. Anonymous, what "qualifications" do you suggest are necessary to 'comment' on literature beyond a curious, lively engagement with books? Also, is a "pointless insight" possible? I suppose your oxymoronic, tautologous ("complete and overwhelming"? infelicitous phrase, no?) spite qualifies you to be an anonymous commenter on a blog. Incredible what a stupid prig you are. Ah, anonymous abuse is fun. I see why you do it.

  13. Jabberwock: Insects IS good. Quirkiest book I've read in recent times. And there's a cool story in there from a journo point of view as well, given how the author was already internationally famous via contributions to writing blogs and websites (and hence picked up for a book, instead of the other way around). Going by that video you've linked to, Blaft really seems to be investing in some healthy variety.

    And ooh again, I seem to have stumbled on the battle of the anonymice. Let's hope we get a serious critical debate out of this. Or not. (It's just as well that I've subscribed to the comments here. Um, by ticking in the little box, not philosophically).

  14. mazing! Kudos to this blogger for reviewing this book. I didn't expect someone would pay attention to these. I also thought that all those great tamil movels were dead.

    I grew up in tamilnadu during 80's at the peak of what we could call a novel-crazy-period, where people frequented libraries, and everyone from kid to old were into crime novels. It was quite normal to see novel lending push carts in streets and private novel-lending libraries in garages. And then, cable TV killed everything. People who use to yak about novels are now yakking only about TV Mega serials (Soap operas). Reading is totally dead!

    Those who whine why read these novels that portray women in bad light, have not read Rudyard Kipling. No doubt that Kipling was a racist, but he wasn't a bad writer. His works are still enjoyed and accepted. These tamil novels show the populist mindset of the generation of our fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts. You don't hate them for having skewed mindset, you just accept it and love them.