February 21, 2020
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Kamala's Agony

In lurid, tinny Tamil pulp, starlets rest cheek-by-jowl with gods. Remarkably satisfying.

Kamala's Agony
Kamala's Agony
The Blaft Anthology Of Tamil Pulp Fiction
Translated By Pritham K. Chakravarthy
Edited By Rakesh Khanna
Blaft Publications Pages: 366; Rs. 395
One of the curious absences in the world of Anglophone reading in India is Indian popular fiction. There’s Chetan Bhagat who’s priced sensibly and sells hugely, but the culture of English-language publishing in India is genteel, bourgeois and literary. There is no desi Nick Carter, no James Hadley Chase, no dime novel equivalents, no fiction magazines of the sort that sustained popular science fiction and no really prolific, bestselling authors.

This has something to do with the narrowness of the social class that reads English for pleasure in India. But even within this sliver, publishers seem to aim their books at the tiny minority that’s willing to be bored witless in the name of art. The idea of fiction as guiltless diversion where the reader turns pages in search of reliable narrative pleasure, doesn’t seem to exist.

This matters because there’s something odd about a reading habit where the literary fiction you read grows out of the world you live in, but the popular fiction comes from elsewhere. Your Indian reader will turn from Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and Allan Sealy to Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, Dan Brown and the assembly line consolations of Mills & Boon for entertainment. While the middle-class English consumer of Julian Barnes, Will Self and V.S. Naipaul shares a reading world with people who read formulaic romantic novels and genre fiction of all kinds— detective, horror, suspense—her Indian counterpart, far from sharing a reading world with people-not-exactly-like-her, has no idea what they’re reading.

This is because all the popular fiction produced in India is published in Indian languages. When I was in college, railway station bookstalls were crammed with Hindi novels by Gulshan Nanda. I never read a novel by him, which I regret because it’s strange to be cut off from someone that so many are reading. But like many Anglophone Indians, I find reading in an Indian language a chore. The reason our reading lives aren’t nourished by popular novels set in locales we know is not because they aren’t written, but because they aren’t translated.

Which brings me to this anthology, a riveting collection of stories written by 10 bestselling Tamil writers. They are real professionals who make Stephen King and Barbara Cartland look like amateurs. Indra Soundar Rajan, who is represented here by a splendid story on the theme of reincarnation, has written 500 short novels. If that sounds like fiction manufactured on an industrial scale, wait till you get to Rajesh Kumar, who has published 1,250 novels and 2,000 short stories in 40 years.

To the discriminating Anglophone desi, who buys Rushdie for literary sustenance and Dick Francis for base narrative pleasure, this suggests that everything they write is awful. Not so fast. He might consider the fact that during the boom years of Tamil pulp fiction, the mid-’90s, Rajesh Kumar’s novels sold in millions. Then he might actually read the stories and novellas in this anthology. My personal favourites are two private-eye tales: Hurricane Vaij by Subha (pen name for two writers, Suresh and Balakrishnan) and Sweetheart, Please Die! by Pattukkottai Prabhakar, but a reader looking for romance should read Dim Lights, Blazing Hearts by Ramanichandran, while someone in the market for lurid, "real-life" squalor might sample My Name is Kamala, a massively popular novel about prostitutes in Delhi.

I don’t know Tamil so I can’t tell what’s been lost in translation, but the magical thing about this anthology is that I never once thought of the stories as Tamil stories. In Pritham Chakravarthy’s translations, the characters in these stories live and breathe an English that smells like a neutral ether: neither elaborately English nor annoyingly vernacular. And it’s hard to convey the delight I felt in reading time-pass fiction where the starlets, the hard-boiled detectives and the vengeful goddesses came from the world I inhabited, were mine.

There are two reasons to buy this book. One, it’s a wonderful read and, two, it’s the best-produced paperback in the history of Indian publishing. From the luridly brilliant cover (complete with gun-toting, full-breasted Tamil rose) to the colour plates, the line drawings, the perfectly judged author introductions and the high-quality paper inside, this book is an object lesson in how publishing is done.

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