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Chennai publishers revive Tamil pulp fiction

Stories from as far back as the 1930s are being translated and published in English, creating a new surge of interest in the form.
Blaft Publications' second Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction on sale in a Chennai book store. The independent publisher produces English translations of popular Tamil fiction from as far back as the 1930s.
Blaft Publications' second Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction on sale in a Chennai book store. The independent publisher produces English translations of popular Tamil fiction from as far back as the 1930s.

She peers out of the window of a book shop, causing shoppers in Delhi's bustling Khan Market to pause a moment and give her a second look. Her gaze is sultry, her black wavy hair gathered by a silver trinket and adorned with jasmine petals. It's not clear whether the shoppers are distracted by her voluptuous charms under the transparent white sari over her low-cut blouse, or by the fact that she is demurely sipping blood from a skull-shaped coconut. Either way, she is hard to ignore - which, as the cover of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol II, is precisely her purpose.

The book is the latest title from Blaft Publications, an independent publishing house in Chennai, India's southernmost city. Its English-language versions of Tamil pulp fiction are reviving interest in this once wildly popular form of writing, which was at its peak from the 1950s to the 1980s - the days before cable television. Printed on cheap paper (hence the name), the books were published in pocket-sized versions convenient for long-distance journeys on buses or trains.

The stories were family sagas, romances, rural dramas with undercurrents of the occult or racy urban thrillers with macabre twists, their plots adapted from British "penny dreadfuls". They were cheap, sensational fiction aimed at working-class adolescents - and given a Tamil context, usually featuring a cast of loose women, thieves and detectives. Most of the modern stories would start with a murder, a few burglaries and arson with, of course, lots of titillation. Social messages were not welcome.

The books' lurid covers and provocative content meant that they were considered too raunchy and risqué for urban middle-class consumption. But, as Rakesh Khanna, Blaft's co-founder points out, that's not to say they were never read by the middle classes. "As is the case with all taboo reads, these novels were huge," he says. "The graphic elements of Tamil pulp have this incredible ability to fascinate, and they were read by the middle class. All very hush-hush, though."

Khanna, a former mathematics scholar from California, says it was the books' kitsch covers that first caught his eye when he arrived in Chennai as a student, 10 years ago. Blaft's other founder, Kaveri Lalchand, has a stronger connection with the Tamil population, as she was born and raised in the city. Her exposure to pulp fiction was limited to guessing the contents behind the compelling covers depicting gory stills of murder, vampires with elongated fangs or voluptuous women brandishing pistols or caught between the jaws of an alligator.

"Like most of my generation, I'd see these little novels in newsstands, tea stalls and railway stations and be curious about them," she says. "We wouldn't actually come into direct contact with the products and also never really did anything to understand their context. It was only after Rakesh discovered them and was totally consumed by them that we thought there was a need to take the genre to a readership beyond its intended audience."

Neither Lalchand nor Khanna reads Tamil. However, they found in their translator Pritham K Chakravarthy, an equally enthusiastic partner willing to dig deep. She spent a year in Chennai's old libraries, selecting the most popular short stories to serve as a suitable introduction to a non-Tamil reader. "We were all united in our belief that the English novel from India was limited to class conflict or immigration and forced to conform to the world's view of India," says Khanna. "English-language fiction especially, is not very representative of what Indians read. Even in selecting works for translation, the better-known publishing houses don't pick up on these stories and authors because they don't fit into that Booker-winning mould."

Founded in 2007, Blaft published its first anthology, a collection of "Mad Scientists! Hard-Boiled Detectives! Vengeful Goddesses! Murderous Robots! Scandalous Starlets!" a year later. It was an historical adventure through Tamil pulp fiction, featuring some of the most prolific pulp authors of the past several decades. The compilation ranged from translated work from the 1930s to current bestselling authors such as Rajesh Kumar, a crime writer with more than 1,500 titles to his credit.

The anthology's first print run was 2,000. It sold out in less than two months and has been reprinted twice. Again, the cover of the original was a huge draw: a bespectacled Tamil girl with neatly braided hair strikes a seductive pose in a sari and wields a gun. "It had a huge 'what on earth is this?' element," says Lalchand. The stories were a mixed bag of genres originally authored by Tamil writers. In both editions though, it is the translations that offer a refreshing insight into regional character.

Tamil idioms and onomatopoeia figure prominently and help raise Blaft's translations from trendy vernacular collectables to a wonderful read of a previously unfamiliar chapter of Indian writing. The use of sound - a delightful peculiarity of Tamil writing - is a thoughtful detail often lost in English-language works from India. Visshk is the sound of a whip cracking, da-nang that of a bell. Pulich is spit landing on a wall, while labak! is the sound of a purse being snatched. According to Khanna, the original authors are pleased with the English versions, which is sufficient evidence of a job well done.

"We didn't want to be rigid about the Wren & Martin rules of English grammar. Retaining the original's style was crucial to retaining its essence. We also decided not to translate food," says Chakravarthy. "Idlis are not translated as steamed rice cakes. Indians have read Enid Blyton books with no understanding at all of scones and sardines, so we didn't focus on translating each and every cultural detail." The books contain glossaries, but the plots rarely require referring to the last pages. "The stories have never aspired for immortality. They were always intended to be easy companions on long journeys," she says.

Blaft now wants to translate other regional Indian languages' pulp novels and stories. It has already branched out with a collection of postcards of Hindi-language pulp covers, entitled Heroes, Gundas, Vamps & Good Girls. All its titles are available to buy from its website. Over the years, the language of Tamil pulp has evolved; it has lost some of its chasteness and now contains more foreign words and terms. The covers, too, have diversified as their illustrations now contain references to the story and do not merely rely on the enticement of a slightly provocatively dressed woman.

"Pulp is not really a dying form, but the numbers are definitely going down," says Blaft's illustrator, Shyam Shankar, who also creates the covers for at least 60 of the 108 monthly Tamil pulp publications. From once enjoying print runs of at least 30,000 per publication, a bestselling novel is now classified as one that manages 10,000 copies. Television is singled out as the villain. Mystery, crime, horror, family feuds and superstition have now crossed over from pulp stories into TV serials, as have a number of writers, who have added television scripting to their writing CVs. "Even buses have TVs on long trips, so fewer travellers pick up these novels," says Shankar.

Khanna and Lalchand are aware of the dwindling numbers in pulp fiction. However, Khanna's enthuasism for its revival is cause for optimism. "Regional pulp in India has also been a victim of technology, but there's definitely a new curiosity among English readers that the publishing world in Delhi prefers to ignore. We've just started from the south and the only way we can go is up." Blaft Publications' titles are available to buy from its website at www.blaft.com.

Updated: August 15, 2010 04:00 AM

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