DECEMBER 29, 2013
BORN INTO SOUTH INDIA’S cinematic capital, Madras (now Chennai), I rarely watched Bollywood films. But my grandmother’s enthusiasm for Tamil movies meant a childhood with a generous, if involuntary, dose of Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Prabhu, Mohan, Radha, Nadhiya, Ambika, and the many others who made up Tamil cinema’s chubby, hirsute, red-lipped pantheon in the 1980s and ’90s. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my grandparents’ bedroom as a child, watching Rajinikanth on Oliyum Oliyum, the popular compilation show of Tamil film songs. While my grandfather and I would eagerly wait for the show to end to watch the next diligently taped episode of Star Trek, my grandmother would remain transfixed by Rajini’s gyrating, hair-flicking charisma, oblivious to our impatience.
Rajini was the big-haired, mustachioed hero who casually donned all-white pantsuits and was rarely detached from his trademark black shades. His magnetism derived in part from his mythic rise from Marathi bus conductor in Bangalore to one of Indian cinema’s most iconic stars, but mainly from the sting of his whiplike one-liners and the casual disdain with which he flicked away villains. Rajini was the quintessential Tamil movie star — he was powered by righteous anger but avenged the innocent with panache. He was a superhero whose principal superpower was style.
Unlike Bollywood’s avaricious national reach, the somewhat humbler linguistic ambitions of Tamil cinema dictated that it was usually about Tamilians, usually living in Tamil Nadu. Films therefore offered a peculiarly intimate window onto our lives. Although my own Tamil was poor — English having long usurped its place as my primary language — I could easily grasp the gist of the dialogue of my grandmother’s preferred brand of family melodrama. But their proximity to family life (ours and, I thought, everyone else’s) meant that they offered nothing new — they revolved endlessly around love, marriage, and familial duty, inevitably ending in dramatic monologues, tears, and death, which never came quickly enough. What fascinated were the rapid and logic-defying dress and scene changes during songs, where a dhavani-wearing peasant girl could be delivered from the tedium of tending water buffalo by a seamless camera cut, instantaneously depositing her into the perfectly reasonable confines of a blood-red cocktail dress as she sashayed down a London street. Movies seemed to capture both the provincial grip of our city of three million as well as our equally provincial ambitions to leave it.
Tamil thrillers and horror films, on the other hand, were riveting, their uncanniness only compounded by the fact that I couldn’t fully understand their more intricate plotlines. One film in particular comes hurtling back from the otherwise hazy cloud of cinematic childhood memory. In the 1979 Rajinikanth film Dharma Yuddham, the primary moral lessons of a son’s filial revenge for the murder of his parents washed over me with little effect. What grabbed me by the throat was Rajini’s gruesome discovery of glass jars filled with eyeballs in the villain’s refrigerator; the man who had killed his parents was also involved in the illicit trade of pilfered body parts. Rajini’s realization that what the villain had been referring to as his “black roses” were actually human eyeballs was rendered all the more unnerving because of their strangely captivating English moniker. It was naturally this that stuck in the mind of the transfixed nine-year-old, and of course that Tamil villains often spoke English, had mysterious names like “Robert,” smoked large pipes, and haughtily commanded their underlings to fetch them large measures of Scotch.
My grandfather was a Trekkie and my grandmother a pulp fiction fan, and I didn’t even know it.
My grandfather, of course, thought that the popular films my grandmother watched were “trash,” though he watched them anyway, and so did I. But for me, as is peculiar to a generation of middle-class Anglophone Tamilians from Madras, the experience of watching was tinged with the mysterious sense of only partial understanding. English, the mixed colonial legacy privileged by an aspirational middle class, had loosened my grip on my mother tongue and, with that, unmoored me from the mainland of Tamil popular culture.
If my understanding of Tamil film was only partial, my ability to read Tamil was nearly nonexistent. My grandmother, on the other hand, was an avid Tamil reader. She would walk down to Murugan, a local lending library in her neighborhood, practically every afternoon. In the musty, quiet shade of the small one-room library, perched above a cheap and aromatic South Indian fast-food place named Woodlands, she would peruse dozens of slim, garishly colored Tamil magazines — Kumudam, Kalkandu, Ananda Vikatan — and pick up for me whatever trashy English-language Indian or American comic strip I was into at the time, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, and then MAD, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or even the vacuously addictive Archie comic series, copies of which were secretly trafficked under school desks, like some illicit currency.
My grandmother’s magazines contained everything from essays and short fiction to astrological charts and advice from local Tamil celebrities on personal hygiene. Later, as I learned how to read a little Tamil, I could decipher its voluptuous, flower-like script, but I still wasn’t sure what exactly I was reading — written Tamil was so different from what I spoke and heard. Instead of becoming more legible, the magazines remained enshrined in enigma. Their rough, cheaply inked pages captivated my grandmother for untold hours on sultry Madras afternoons, while I crawled under the shade of her striped, plastic deck chair, my own nose buried in Sabrina’s latest escapade, redolent of a hundred other pungent teenage thumbprints and the faint aroma of the sambar from Woodlands.
When an English translation of a selection of Tamil short fiction from the 1960s up to the present — the first Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction — came out in 2008, I had already been living abroad for four years. I bought it immediately on the recommendation of a friend, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it.
Something about the book reminded me too unpleasantly of the “Quick Gun Murugan” advertisements that Channel V (the Asian version of MTV) had popularized when it entered India in the 1990s. Quick Gun Murugan was a fictitious South Indian cowboy whose most recited one-liner was “Mind it!” — the snarling English threat that he would launch at his challengers at the end of every ad. Quick Gun, dressed in a parrot-green shirt, yellow vest with black polka dots, and neon pants, his head jauntily crowned by a white cowboy hat and his neck cinched by a hot-pink scarf, would enter an imaginary bar set in the Wild West and order exactly one whiskey and one masala dosa, while a cigarette would magically leap to his lips, unaided by human hands. When a rowdy customer with a large mole would taunt him about his manhood and rudely invite him to take it outside (“Who does he think he is? Clinton Eastwood?”), Quick Gun would reply with a sneer: “Modhallai sambar, apparama ni.” First my sambar, then you. He would calmly finish his meal and then take out the trash.
People found it hilarious. But hilarity, in my case, gave way to a distinct, shoe-shuffling discomfort. Clearly, the shared joke of Quick Gun’s bravado relied on some crude stereotype of the sambar-swilling South Indian, who could only be conjured ironically and exaggeratedly. Rajini was real, but Quick Gun was the cheap knockoff. And the ad was not only a parody of the generic figure of “the South Indian,” but also of Tamil film stars, Tamil film, and, given the umbilical bond between film and our reality, naturally also of Tamil culture. It was a nudge and a wink that a pan-Indian “we,” riding the wave of an expanding economy, a homogenizing, English-speaking middle class with a burgeoning American-influenced youth culture powered by satellite TV, had come far enough to be able to hold up our exotic, provincial cultural tokens and share a knowing smirk.
To find these ads funny also required a level of confident distance, which for me was already riddled by the emotional ambivalence of having turned a recent migrant. Battered between competing allegiances to the idealized homeland and the reality of home, culture was often the life vest. Books, movies, clothing, and ritual — they bridged the chasm between the old world and the new by taking you to the place you could no longer go. But, as Quick Gun had shown, they could equally risk dropping you soundlessly into that chasm, assuring that all was simulacra and that the departure from home was definitive and final. It was an old story, but one that was nonetheless true.
The noughties saw the rise in popularity of a pulp aesthetic in metropolitan India. Stylized depictions of Rajini began appearing on framed prints and T-shirts in the trendiest of boutiques. Gods, trucks, and freedom fighters were Warholized and stamped in high-voltage colors onto bed linens and coffee cups. Printed neon auto-rickshaws began sprouting up on designer tea trays and cushion covers. Old Bollywood posters became covetable exotica. Tehelka magazine was suddenly doing “pulp and noir” specials. The distinctive personalities of regional popular cultures were being regurgitated through a pulp aesthetic for middle-class consumption — we were being encouraged to consume style without substance as a matter of patriotic duty.
So I approached the pulp fiction anthologies with a sense of dread, a fear of slipping into easy consumerist nostalgia. But as I turned over the glossy, hardbound book in my hands, the seductive, bespectacled young woman with jasmine in her hair and an unusually large revolver in her hand beckoned with a look that both allured and mystified. What, I wondered, had my grandmother been reading all these years?
“Mad scientists! Hard-boiled detectives! Vengeful goddesses! Murderous robots! Scandalous starlets! Drug-fueled love affairs!” screeches the back cover of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. Also, stories about hidden tombs, debauched maharajas, evil curses, pornographic films, and unusual murders.
They were the universally sumptuous fare of pulp but with a lip-smacking regional twist. While many of the Blaft anthologies’ stories (a second volume arrived in 2010) deal with fantastical figures borrowed and reimagined from Western pulp fiction, in a strange reversal, they are also grounded in recognizably common preoccupations about morality, familial duty, and marriage: staples of Tamil popular culture and my grandmother’s library. The murderous robot in Idhaya 2020 killed her inventor because he mistreated his wife. The female astronaut in Silicon Hearts sabotaged her NASA mission because she wanted her baby to be born on earth, surrounded by her family and their own natural environment. Women who did drugs and slept around (Sweetheart, Please Die!) ended up as corpses in sewers. All the stock-in-trade arguments about female sexuality and motherhood, the sanctity of marriage and the evils of drugs and promiscuity remained intact, making the stories both distinctively pulp but also morally familiar to their Tamil readers.
But the Indian readers of the English translations were getting something different. The success of Tamil Pulp Fiction, as critic Mukul Kesavan put it, was that it brought Anglophone Indian readers in touch with popular fiction “from the world (we) inhabited,” rather than from that of the American and British writers (like James Hadley Chase or Sidney Sheldon) who had customarily supplied middle-class reading for pleasure. As an Anglophone Tamil, I found myself torn: while Kesavan and others were suddenly hailing these translations of Tamil fiction into English as cultural nationalism, I was drawn to them because they were imaginative fragments broken off from my own provincial cultural universe, before it was shared, and before I even knew what it meant.
But these translations also offer something more than a mere portrayal. While the covers of both the anthologies play on a certain idea of the “pure Tamilian girl” — both depict young, pretty women with dark hair adorned with flowers, pottus, and the dangling earrings typical of Tamil jewelry — there is also something subversive about them. The gun-toting beauty adorning the cover of the first volume is different from the chiffon-clad tree huggers popularized by Tamil cinema, the hyper-feminine bores that I had come to resignedly expect as the standard fare of Tamil film. The siren adorning the cover of the second anthology is an equal revelation. This nymphette with flowing tresses might ordinarily be expected to demurely serve you your tea. Instead, here she is sipping blood out of a skull. Through a straw.
What made these images so irresistible was that while they are in the language of pulp, they simultaneously exoticize and subverte the stereotype: sure, Tamil girls looked like virginal, jasmine-wearing, oily braided beauties, but there was more to them — to us — than met the eye. The lurid lens of Tamil pulp seemed to open up some interpretive room that popular depictions of Tamil figures bound by middle-class morality didn’t.
There has always been something deliciously dubious about pulp. On the one hand, it’s a kind of guilty, overstated indulgence of our supposedly baser instincts — for sex, stereotypes, murders, mysteries, romance, and escapist fantasy — but at the same time, the indulgence has always been communal, the titillation shared. Pulp is the exaggerated and the stereotypical, but it’s also a play on authenticity — it is collective fantasy conjured from the ashes of social norm. But what distinguishes pulp from other popular genres is its self-awareness — its not-so-secret acknowledgement that what we think and what we love is so often what we shouldn’t.
This relationship between signifier and signified — pulp is, after all, a universe where everything is an exaggeration, but also where nothing is quite what it seems — is made explicit in both anthologies by the inclusion of glossy, high-color centerfolds which reproduce the original cover art of the magazines and novels. While many of these images will be familiar to anyone growing up in Tamil Nadu — graphic illustrations of ordinary men, women, gods, goddesses, and thugs notable only for their striking colors and stylization — others are bizarre by any standard. There are many staged images — real photos of people dressed in costume — like that of the pretty woman in what appears to be a bikini made of newspaper clippings, toting a machine gun for the cover of Pattukkottai Prabakar’s novel, Miss India Missing. Or (a personal favorite), a dainty looking nurse dressed in white, running over a doctor with a wheelchair — the cover of Subha’s novel Ragasiyangal Virapathargalla. The third tier of images, the seriously uncanny, pull infamous and obscure images from various media and then Photoshop them with abandon: enlarging, shrinking, cutting, pasting, and superimposing bits of birds, blonde women, large blood-soaked cats, skulls, robots, devils, snakes, werewolves, claws, and copious amounts of blood onto images that bear some loose relation to the storyline. It’s easy to see why these oddly seductive cultural mash-ups seemed to call out for some kind of translation.
Pritham Chakravarthy, the 51-year-old bilingual translator of both Blaft anthologies, grew up reading many of these stories. She was a child of the 1960s and came of age under the shadow of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, a period that left its imprint on her sense of the importance of personal freedom, both political and creative. A story in the first anthology, “My Name is Kamala,” by Pushpa Thangadorai, is about a young girl sold to a brothel in Delhi, and was excerpted from a novel that Chakravarthy’s mother used to hide away in a cupboard. She had heard of Thangadorai’s previous novel, The Red Light is Blinking, but she had never read any of his work because, in her house, Thangadorai was considered inappropriate for young girls.
As Chakravarthy grew older, her mother would hard-bind some of the magazine stories she had accumulated so that she and her sister could read them over their summer holidays. Chakravarthy loved reading and became a member of Easwari lending library in Nungambakkam, whose library cards became jealously guarded possessions. Visiting these lending libraries became such an obsession in their family that Chakravarthy’s sister eventually opened her own, and it became the main source of Chakravarthy’s research as she began to compile the first anthology. But the “frenzy” around pulp novels and popular magazine fiction during the 1960s and 1970s never really existed again in the same way.
Rakesh Khanna, the 40-year-old founder of Blaft who conceived of the idea, is half-Indian, half-American, and in Chakravarthy’s words, “nocturnal like me.” As a student at IIT Madras, he would go out late at night to drink tea and was intrigued by the colorful magazines hanging outside the tea stalls. When Khanna’s wife acted in a play with Chakravarthy’s daughter, the idea of translating some of the magazine stories was born. What started out as a “casual story-telling project” with the translation of Indra Soundar Rajan’s story “Palace of Kottaipuram” (which appears in the second volume), resulted in two anthologies and the establishment of Blaft as a successful publishing house. Blaft printed only a few thousand copies of the first volume, but it soon sold out and went to a second printing.
When Khanna and Chakravarthy began their hunt for a representative selection of Tamil pulp, they had some idea of what they were looking for, but they were careful how they approached authors whose works they wished to include in the anthologies, as they didn’t want to risk offending authors who nurtured literary aspirations. Should works be referred to as “pulp” or “popular” fiction? Pushpa Thangadorai considered himself to be a pulp writer, but Subha, Rajesh Kumar, and Indra Soundar Rajan thought of themselves as writers of popular commercial fiction, a different animal that still carried the faint whiff of respectability. After the commercial success of the pulp fiction books, however, authors became more comfortable with the label. But until that point, it was eschewed by writers for the same reason that Chakravarthy’s mother hid her books away from her daughters.
According to Chakravarthy, pulp didn’t really exist in Madras, where the dual battle lines of taste and class appeared cleanly divided between consumers of popular culture and patrons of high art. The process of collecting stories therefore became something of an exercise in defining what the genre might mean in this context. Chakravarthy, who was responsible for the final selection, excluded any “literary” works and instead compiled stories which straddled conventional pulp (as it is commonly understood in the West) — detective, romance, and science fiction — while retaining themes or characters that she thought were recognizably Tamil.
Chakravarthy was also deeply invested in making the “popular” — what was read by auto drivers and tea stall owners — accessible to a broader audience. She wanted to introduce non-Tamil speakers to this kind of Tamil writing and give them a glimpse of the cultural universe of Tamilians, an act simultaneously demystifying and enchanting. She made some choices early on, deciding that food and familial relations, what she considered to be two vital aspects of Tamil culture, would not be translated. “I was very staunch that I will not translate idlis into rice cakes or dosa into rice pancakes, you know?” she told me in an interview. “Or upma into porridge. I have grown up reading Enid Blyton and Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I never knew what a croissant or a scone was! And it didn’t matter to me!”
A part of her intention was to retain what she viewed as a more “authentic” Tamil idiom in the cultural and linguistic form of the books, but equally importantly was her sense that not fully knowing what readers (non-Tamil speakers from other parts of India or the world) were reading wouldn’t diminish their enjoyment of the stories. “Who will understand where Kottaipuram is […] but so what? I don’t know where Blake Street is.”
From my own experience, I suspect “not knowing” was part of the attraction. I wasn’t entirely sure if Chakravarthy’s stubborn retention of certain Tamil words stemmed from a sense of literary protectiveness over the linguistic rhythm of the stories, or whether she was exoticizing themes, characters, and language for effect, which I had found so distasteful about Quick Gun, but which was also an intrinsic part of pulp’s seductiveness.
While Chakravarthy had plenty of freedom about what would appear in the anthologies, she had to fight to include one, which ended up being her favorite. “Me,” a short story by Vidya Subramaniam, is about an argument between a mother and daughter who live together; the daughter bluntly tells her mother that she is having sex with a man she has no desire to marry. In both the conservative social milieu of Madras as well as the world of pulp, this made her a transgressive figure, who, for once, didn’t meet a brutal end.
It was not only characters trapped in Madras morality, but writers too. Ramanichandran, whose stories generally consist of subservient female figures, was apparently herself a demure family oriented woman who considered herself a housewife. Her husband, who owned a small shop that sold supplies for religious Hindu rituals, also carried copies of Ramanichandran’s work for sale. He carried twice as many of his wife’s novels as he did ritual supplies and kept a tally of books sold and how much money was made.
“And this bastard has never read a single story of hers,” snorted Chakravarthy. He’d bought Ramanichandran a computer, taught her how to use it, even put in Tamil software, but seemed uninterested in his wife’s work beyond the profit it generated.
It’s funny, I said, that Ramanichandran’s novels — pure pulp — were being sold side by side with religious paraphernalia. I had noticed that the little shop outside my mother’s Tamil temple in Delhi did the same thing — it hawked all the staples that displaced Tamilians in Delhi could conveniently find in one place — puja articles, South Indian snacks … and hordes of magazines, which my mother bought for my grandmother on her visits to Delhi. Was this odd little ecosystem of pickles, puja items, and pulp trying to tell us something about the inherent proximity of the sacred and the profane in Tamil popular culture? Chakravarthy laughed. She didn’t know, but she liked the idea.