04 January 2010

Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, selected and translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, edited by Rakesh Khanna Published by Blaft Publications, Chennai (2008) . 400 pages. Available from Amazons and Blaft, and other sellers in India, USA, Canada, and the UK.

This book should be an international hit well beyond the diaspora, and already have been reviewed by the likes of real reviewers in Publishers Weekly, The London Review of Books, the New York Times, Village Voice and the Economist, for this book fails.

Blaft Publications should be struggling to keep up with orders for this, and its other seductive selections. But so far, the reviews haven't made it past the world lit ghetto, which is as weird in its way as A1 Books India selling The Secret Policeman's Union, but it does.

In Chakravarthy's unusually fascinating introduction (already a failure. What pulp reader wants an introduction, let alone one too interesting to skip?) she mentions several popular writers whose works have been printed on "recycled sani paper" and appear in tea stalls and bus stations. Their stories have been excluded here, she explains, because they "seemed to aim to do more than simply entertain; we felt they did not quite fit most people's idea of 'pulp fiction'."

This volume entertains, and how! But it does much more.

Included are 17 stories by ten authors, and two Q & A's that I've forbidden myself to quote to you, though they and the whole book sorely tempt. Mixed in are over 20 nuggets of black and white covers, curiosities, and illustrations. 16 full-colour pages of annotated cover art make a juicy centre.

The authors chosen sell in the millions, but this is not mindless pap for the masses, nor talk about nothing. One striking difference between this and pulp is the amount of political savvy and yet, reformist zeal that runs through pretty much every story. This shouldn't be surprising, given the extent of political involvement in a country with 714 million registered voters and such passion to have one's voice heard in this democracy that amongst the 828,804 polling stations, there is one for a single voter. Thus, this fiction is imbued with a combination of optimism and pragmatism that could come from nowhere else. I'm indulging myself by telling you a true story told to me by an Indian politician friend. X was visiting a jail where one of the inmates turned out to be an enthusiastic supporter, so keen that he offered to get his cronies on the outside to keep the neighbouring village indoors, so that no one could get out to vote.

The first story in the book is by "Subha", the pen name of two men who have produced so far: 550 short novels, 50 longer novels serialized in magazines, more than 400 short stories, plus. "Hurricane Vaij" moves like Bollywood hips. The political satire is as seriously funny and timeless as Yes Minister—but what a difference a place makes! Here, a secular politician is terrified that the opposition religious party will learn of his secret assignation — with a spiritual enlightener. There are political thugs by the pack, and a mad scientist who seeks to gain, not for himself but for his country. And those are only some of the features in one story in this beautifully produced anthology that should be only the first of a series.

Matchmakers abound, as do parents' wishes and the social demand for dowries, but love can sometimes conquer all. Female detectives work in an environment that is no Ladies Detective Agency. Here, they literally kick arses and knock out baddies with karate chops. Pattukkottai Prabakar's wildly popular Susheela wears tight T-shirts with slogans like "PLEASE SEARCH ON THE OTHER SIDE" on the back, which incites her working (but not yet bed) partner to say "This T-shirt wasn't meant for someone of your build. There's no need to search for something as obvious as lorry headlights."

One of the joys of this collection is that, while the basic motivations, tragedies and humour are as universal as the capacity to love, oppress, betray, and laugh, no story here could be reset as say, the Office tv series has, from Britain to the US, nor is any story here self-consciously of "the Indian experience", that excruciating stuff cooked up especially by US-college-educated literati to order, the butter chicken of lit.

Being unselfconscious and written only to the expectation that it is genuinely readable by someone who is not expected ever to study it, these stories (bar one) take place in settings that are very different to some homogenized West, though there is also drug addiction, bought cops and judges for the bribing. But as with the vigilante movement in the stirring "Matchstick Number One" by Rajesh Kumar (great movie stuff!) in which the family relationship is both touching and non-transposable, these stories work where they are. And it isn't just their exoticism that makes them so attractive to escape into. These are damn fine stories that smell fresh, even the ones by the youngster, Prajanand V.K., who has read his Holmes but is really an understudy to Rajesh Kumar (who has several stories in this book. the bio reads: "Rajesh Kumar may well be the world's most prolific living writer of fiction.).

Outrageousness abounds. A detective builds a makeshift taser and uses it on a low-level criminal to get him to talk, while we readers cheer the inventor on with our variations of "give him another wake-up call in the goolies". Gods are appealed to and expected to actually do something—though when God is mentioned here, as in the phrase "in the service of God", it is not the megalomaniac Hebraic god, but God in the Hindu sense—and there are gods everywhere, from every kitchen to the sides of roads. This doesn't mean that religion is sacrosanct. Far from it. "How many years ago did Jeevakan descend to this world to serve God?" a detective asks to find out how long a disciple has been in a swami's ashram.

Reincarnation is a natural part of the life cycle. In "The Rebirth of Jeeva", Indra Soundar Rajan tells how belief in reincarnation and the panoply of gods and goddesses is embarrassingly old-fashioned to today's college students, yet they change their minds when one of their own is touched. This story also addresses problems of power, wealth, caste, women's rights, and the helplessness and strengths of rural villagers—yet still manages to be as satisfyingly engrossing as a lurid cover.

As far as I can tell, there has been no culture-negating attempt to make these stories understandable to Westerners (such as, say, the common practice of changing Mum to Mom and v.v., in cartoons that are syndicated across the international M-mlines, or eliminating anything that might be considered culturally confusing). The picture of the writing duo "Subha" entwined arm in arm is wonderful. And in one of Pattukkottai Prabakar's addictive Moonlight Detective Agency stories,"Sweetheart, Please Die!", Bharat, sexy male partner to the stacked, karate-chopping Susheela, meets her for a snack, ordering for them "two plates of hot bajjis and two glasses of rose milk." Later he gets ready for a meeting, so he "washed up, combed his hair and powdered his face." There's much fun the stories, but one instance that made me choke. In in a book filled with names that take up a quarter of a line, one character says on meeting someone with a typically long one: "Hell of a name."

In contrast, I'll digress with Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I think this has been such a best-seller in the West because it says nothing unfamiliar to the target reader, which is the Westerner wherever, from Iceland to Duluth. From Larsson's themes of financial journalists being sycophants and the share market being divorced from the health of a real economy, to his study of the mentally sick members of a rich, powerful and secretive family—there is nothing in the book that couldn't have taken place as written, with just a change of place, to say, New York City or London and a little family compound in Connecticut, Jersey (the nice one) or Tuscany. The clothes, tats and piercings, and coffee would even stay the same, the only change being the toppings for the sandwiches. I'm not denigrating this shoe that fits many feet. Much of the strength of Larrson is that his messages and warnings are as global as finance. His message was serious, though he wrapped it in a ripping yarn—and his warnings have been as heeded as any of the lessons in any satire.

In Tamil Pulp, there is only one story that takes place in the West—it didn't quite work since the culture isn't understood. NASA is a family space program, not a program that can continence an act in space that can make a family! But how many millions must think this about how many popular works? Shashi Tharoor offered a taste with his comment, "Movies made by Westerners about India have rarely been worth writing home about, ranging as they’ve done from the ignorant racism of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to David Lean’s well-intentioned but cringe-inducing Passage to India , with Alec Guinness warbling away in brown-face."

Many plots here pivot on the roles and rights, and abuses of women—and spread no myths about women and mothers being gentle goddesses. Vidya Subramaniam's two stories are as readable as any pulp should be, but this author should be classified as heavy ammunition for the world's classic-literature canon. In "Me", a daughter claims the right from her mother to have, at least, a satisfying sex life.

Pushpa Thangadorai's serialized novel, "My Name is Kamala" was such a success when it came out in the 70s, that this former religious-travel-guide writer extended the novel by several months (what does the ghost of Dickens say to that?). From the excerpt, it would seem to be time to translate and republish the whole novel, as the issue is as fresh as sex for money, do-gooders wanting to help, and corruption always are. The story takes place in a Delhi brothel—and just as the situation is now, the place is both a terrifying jail for the abducted (ruled here by two middle-aged women, one of them just bad and the other a sadist), and a workplace for independent women who fear do-gooders shutting down their means to make a living.

This pulp anthology might be a good proof for a law of self in literature. The more educated the author and audience these days, the more narrow the scope of outlook often is (though some would say staring in the mirror gives a world view), to the point that we now have what's called "the academic novel" but what is really the novel about novelists kvetching about writing novels and teaching about writing in university. See for instance, Valerie Vogrin's paper: "A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist". Vogrin writes:
"In coming up with a topic for my paper, I decided to follow the lead of the panel title I devised – “Staring Back at the Mirror” – directly. I am focusing on novels that wander into the neighborhood of my own experience in the University, specifically Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose. These novels have strikingly similar protagonists—substance-abusing novelists in their late forties, long married with wandering eyes, who are severely handicapped in their writing . . . All I can really muster is a heavy sigh regarding the formulaic familiarity of these books."

The only sigh I feel about the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction is that there is not yet a sequel, or another anthology from Blaft available yet, though there is so much to translate. This very attractive book fits in every library and would make a super gift. Even the typesetting and layout manage to be tongue-in-chic retro, and classic. The cover is a treat back, front, and spine. The paper is high quality, as is the printing. I say this because this quality (of selection and editing, physical book, and introduction) equals another favourite of mine, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories edited by A.S. Byatt published by Oxford Press, 1998. This Baft publication should put to shame the execrable job that Penguin India did with Sampurna Chattarji's charming translation from the Bengali of the masterpiece, Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukamar Ray (2004). In my two copies of that, the glue pot must have been empty for the spines, and a reader can read four pages at once, as the backs show through. A criminal act of publication, especially regarding the illustrations, which are drolleries the equal of Dr Seuss.

But Blaft is not Penguin. One look at the Blaft site, and I'm craving this and that, and that. This is a publisher with a sense of fun, adventure, and risk. The choice of Pritham K. Chakravarthy is brilliant. Certainly her introduction raises the bar of what introductions can be, and her translations keep the feel of different styles, and don't seem to me to be dumbed down for non-Tamil readers. My only quibble with this book is that I would have loved more in the glossary, which is helpful but a bit hit or miss. Still, it's great that something like a ragalai, a mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law- fight, is defined in the glossary as such rather than having its meaning rubbed out in the translation, in the all too common well-meaning cultural erasure of they-won't-understand.

Oh. Some other curiosities. In only two stories do people drink tea, one story using the ability to make a good cup as a distinguishing mark of old-fashioned abilities in a girl who also values other traditions, such as wearing saris and not cutting her hair. Otherwise people drink coffee, and though there is often a specific given as to the method of making the coffee, in no case is there the question raised: "coffee or tea?" No scene happens in a tea stall, and perhaps to keep the pace fast, buses don't feature.

Read an interview of the founder of Blaft
Rakesh Kumar Khanna was born in Berkeley, California, and educated as a mathematician and musician, in UC Berkeley and IIT Madras. He moved to Chennai in 1998. He deserves high praise as a publisher and editor.

And dhool! I was just checking the Blaft site just as I was going to post this, and guess what's on it?

You can buy direct from Blaft!

Now, if only Blaft could send me an order of hot bajjis and rose milk!


Peter Rozovsky said...

My copy of the book arrived today. You are dead on about the fascinating introduction, and I am very much enjoying Subha's low-key wit in the first story, which I will resume reading now.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

anna tambour said...

Isn't it refreshing to read an introduction that actually enhances a book, especially this kind of book, where reading the stories is like eating ice cream in the bath, and the thought of reading an introduction is like licking off a topping of machine oil.

Maybe we should hold up this example to form a Ripping Yarn Introduction or No Intro Movement.

I like what you've posted at Detectives Beyond Borders, so thanks for taking the trouble to stop by here.

Happily, Volume II is out now! My copy is on order, and from the cover and contents tease, I expect this read to be similarly delicious.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words and for the tasty image of licking off a machine-oil topping.

What makes this introduction work is that it's appropriate to its subject, even essential for many readers, and that the introduction's author has great, clear-eyed affection for her subject. So I will stake out a position between the No-Intro and Ripping-Yarn camps, and I will speak for the Appropriate-Intro party.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

anna tambour said...

The Appropriate-Intro Party indeed. If only politics were this sensible. I'm certainly not going to foment against you, as I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments.

Anonymous said...

You both have gotten me excited about this book and I've ordered one as well.
It'll be fun to read on my first trip to India in January!

anna tambour said...

Now I'm excited, anticipating the fun you'll have reading, and your trip! Do drop in after, and tell us all.