Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Thoughts on Blaft’s Tamil pulp fiction

Blaft’s second pulp-fiction anthology is out and it’s every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor. Thicker too. It doesn’t quite have the variety of the first book, which included many short, short pieces – this one has just seven stories (including a pictorial thriller starring “Karate Kavitha”) spread out over 500 pages, which means most of them are novella-length. But Pritham K Chakravarthy’s translations are excellent, and there are more of the eye-popping jacket images and smatterings of trivia that held many of us in thrall when the first anthology came out.

The things you can learn from these books. Did you know, for instance, that the Coimbatore-based writer Rajesh Kumar is trying to dethrone L Ron Hubbard as the world’s most published writer in the Guinness Book of Records? Apparently Kumar has written nearly 1,500 pulp novels – crime stories, science fiction, romance – since the 1960s. I thought his detective story “Hello, Dead Morning!” was one of the highlights of the new anthology. You wouldn’t expect a prolific, mass-market writer who produces at least 10 pages every day to concern himself too much with form and structure, but this is a genuinely well-crafted tale, interspersing a murder/suicide investigation with other events whose chronology (or connection to the main plot) is not made clear until the end. I thought it was a more than satisfying miniature whodunit (or, more accurately, whadhappened).

In the best tradition of racy, populist writing, some of these stories inhabit a puritanical moral universe of their own. There are traces of sexism, even misogyny, in a couple of them: in Kumar’s story, for instance, a young woman’s interest in “blue films” leads to a thorough degeneration in her character, and an eventual punishment that’s grossly disproportionate to her “sin”. This ties in with the orthodox notion that women must be upholders of familial and societal morality, and that they will face severe consequences if they stray from the course appointed for them. (A very telling short story by Kumar in the first anthology had a female astronaut sabotaging an experiment meant to determine whether she and her husband could conceive in outer space. “I do not want my child to be born like some guinea pig in a laboratory, without my family around me,” she said. In her Translator’s Note, Chakravarthy mentioned that the first of these novels dating back to the 19th century were ultra-moralistic tales about “the dangers of a hedonistic lifestyle”.)

The domineering male gaze is important too. Titillation can take the form of sexual threats to women, even when the woman in question is a strong character; in the Karate Kavitha story, the resourceful heroine escapes the clutches of a would-be rapist, but not before a gratuitous depiction of him tearing open her shirt.

This is not to say that most of these stories are regressive or exploitative, they aren’t. See, for example, Vidya Subramaniam’s short but powerful “Me” in Volume I. Or Kumar’s portrayal of a self-sufficient young girl whose older brother is a wastrel in “The Rainbow”. In Volume II, M K Narayanan’s “The Bungalow by the River” begins with a woman escaping her violent lout of a husband and moving to another country with her young son, while Resakee’s “Sacrilege to Love” centres on a girl with a firm mind of her own when it comes to romantic matters. All these feature women trying to loosen tradition’s straitjacket and assert their independence.

I think it's interesting that Chakravarthy’s translations and Blaft’s attractive packaging have been making these stories accessible to (and even fashionable for) a cosmopolitan readership whose social conditioning is different from the readers for whom they were originally written. This gap will probably cause a few ambivalent reactions, but the best of these stories open windows to worlds where new and progressive ideas are slowly being assimilated and where minor triumphs are hard-won. And of course, most of them are supremely entertaining too.

(An earlier post on Blaft’s Where are You Going, You Monkeys? here)


  1. Enjoyed your post, especially as it deals with popular literature in an Indian language. Why is it so hard in a city like Bombay to even come across light reading in Hindi? You generally only find Munshi Premchand and Mahadevi Varma.

    Although I plead guilty to the English-as-mother-tongue phenomenon, it is great to hear that other languages besides Bengali are alive and kicking.

    Btw I used to read your blog years ago and thrilled to find it still active :)

  2. Juhi: welcome back. And yes, the quality of translations from Indian languages to English has been quietly improving in the past couple of years, though needless to say there's a long way to go. Lots of treasures in both literary and genre fiction that English-language readers have no clue about.

  3. Excellent. Makes you run and grab a copy right now. I remember the Bengali variety of the same genre and they were lip-smackingly fun if nothing else. Immortal lines like "Detective Deepak walked into the rain, two pistols in both hands and torch in the other..." are still vivid :)
    And btw, in case you're not aware:
    Congrats... :)

  4. Avik: no, I wasn't aware - thanks for the link. Ebert had linked to my blog once before, in the comments section of his blog, and also sent across a mail: we had a nice series of email exchanges, slightly hampered by my initial wariness about believing it really WAS him. (He sent across articles and photos as proof!)