'Tamil Pulp': Sexy, Gory Fiction, Now In English

Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of New America Now on member station KALW in San Francisco.

Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction
 

Forget The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Indumathi's Hold On A Minute I'm In The Middle of A Murder is coming to America. Here's a quote from this foreign best-seller:

"Suddenly a trickle of blood began to flow from a crack in the stone tomb. How could fresh blood come out of a tomb built in 1977?"

The story is part of a collection of Tamil pulp fiction that's been translated into English.

Tamil has always been the language of high culture in India. Its literature is 2000 years old, its poetry exquisite.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II
Edited by Rakesh Khanna
Translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy
Paperback, 540 pages
Blaft Publications
List price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

But some of the most widely read stories in Tamil have titles like Sweetheart, Please Die.

You see these books everywhere in India. The covers are lurid, mustachioed men menacing women in tight nurse's uniforms, knives dripping blood, and lots of cleavage. Rakesh Khanna, a Californian living in India, wanted to find out more about the stories. So he hired a translator. Now, they have put together Volume II of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.

Indian pulps have been around since the early 20th century. They borrowed freely from American dime novels and British penny dreadfuls. But because this is India, there are also kings, ghosts and mythological serpents.

In The Palace of Kottaipuram, Indra Soundar Rajan writes, "one of the mob stepped up with a flower garland, ready to put it around Visu's neck. Woven into the strands of flowers was a cobra …"

A vintage Tamil cover i i

hide captionTiger Police Diary, by Rajeshkumar

A vintage Tamil cover

Tiger Police Diary, by Rajeshkumar

It's Eat Pray Love and Kill for 10 rupees — about a quarter.

The translator of the American collection, Pritham Chakravarty, told me they were considered so racy, her mother hid them away in a cupboard. Luckily her school-bus driver had a stash.

The sex isn't really very explicit. But the detectives are often unmarried couples. There's room for lots of banter in between murders, as in this exchange from The Palace of Kottaipuram:

"Archana shook her head in disappointment. It was an act of beauty; her pallu fell off her shoulder and Visu's gaze swooped down to her chest like a jet landing on a runway. Archana followed his look and adjusted her sari."

The woman asks, "I can't even let it slip a bit, eh?" and giggles.

It's mostly suggestive. As one pulp writer said, exposing a navel is sexy. Spinning a top on it is vulgar.

And the pulp writers are no top spinners — these are solid middle-class respectable Indians.

A vintage Tamil cover i i

hide captionTen Murders By The Demon

A vintage Tamil cover

Ten Murders By The Demon

Chakravarty remembers one meek old woman who let her husband do all the talking, even when negotiating rights to her books. She made coffee, switched off the stove and took her granddaughter to dance class.

Just a typical gray-haired grandmother.  Until she picks up her pen and writes:

"A picture formed in her imagination: Gunaseelan lying on an ornate bed, surrounded by liquor bottles and a harem of scantily-clad women. She began trembling."

That's from Dim Lights, Blazing Hearts by Ramanichandran. Coming soon to a bookstore near you.

GOLDEN RULES FOR TAMIL PULP FICTION

In 1933, Tamil author Sudhandhira Sangu wrote an article called "The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing." He laid out the three golden rules:

1. The title of the book should carry a woman's name — and it should be a sexy one like Miss Leela Mohini.

2. Your story must absolutely include a minimum half-dozen lovers and prostitutes, preferably 10 or a dozen murders, and few sundry thieves and detectives.

3. You can make money only if you are able to titillate. If you try to bring in any social message, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure your women readers.

Excerpt: 'The Palace Of Kottaipuram'

Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction
 
The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II
Edited by Rakesh Khanna
Translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy
Paperback, 540 pages
Blaft Publications
List price: $24.95

The plane swooped down like a huge metal bird. What a sight! It landed on the runway, turned its sharp beak, sped down the tarmac, and came to a smooth halt about fifty metres from the control tower of the tiny Madurai Airport.

Of the passengers coming down the stepladder, one stood out: Viswanathan Rupasekaran Kottaipurathaan, known to his friends as Visu.

The regal characteristics of the whole Kottaipuram clan were evident in his clothes, his colour, the way he carried himself. Watching him stride through the foyer holding his gray briefcase, Karwar Karunakaran, his clerk, brimmed with pride. He welcomed Visu warmly as he stepped out of the airport.

"Namaskaram, oh Raja!"

In return, Visu merely nodded distractedly, as his eyes scanned the parking lot, searching for someone. Disappointed, he turned back to the karwar.

"Are you looking for someone, Raja?"

"Karunakaran, my name is Visu," he snapped, irritated. "You're more than twice my age! Why do you insist on using these pompous titles? Please call me by my name."

"But that would be disrespectful, sir! The grandeur of Kottaipuram lies in the way your family has retained the esteem of its subjects. Whatever you may say, you are a member of the royalty, and I am a mere karwar, a clerk, forever loyal to you. Why, when even Thirumeni Devar, the eldest man in the samasthanam, calls you 'Raja,' how can I afford to be presumptuous?" Karunakaran guided him towards the parking lot. Mallaya, the driver, gave a low bow and took Visu's briefcase.

In the parking lot, amidst several Marutis and Ambassadors, was a Vauxhall bearing the bright yellow flag of the princely state of Kottaipuram. Even as the driver held the rear door open, Visu climbed into the driver's seat.

"Please, Raja," Karunakaran begged him. "If your grandmother the maharani comes to know that I let you drive, I'll lose my job. I can already hear her shouting at me. 'How many times do I have to tell you?' she'll yell. 'Don't you have any brains?'"

"Karunakaran," Visu cut in sternly, "as long as you are in this car with me, I don't want to hear another word from you. In fact, if you do say another word, I'll speak to my mother and make sure you lose your job. Also, try to learn to call me Visu. If you really can't manage that, at least call me Thambi."

He sounded genuinely angry, and Karunakaran and Mallaya got into the back seat without another peep. Visu started the car.

Just as he turned onto the main road, a moped, as if it had been waiting for the car, sped right up to them, touched the bumper, and came to a halt.

On the moped, clad in tight jeans and a T-shirt, her hair in a ponytail and a slim gold chain with a locket around her neck, sat a young girl, about twenty — her figure like a sandalwood statue.

Visu cut the engine at once and called out excitedly, "Hi Archana!"

"Sorry I'm late, Visu," said Archana, getting off the moped. "I had some trouble with my vehicle."

Visu was already out of the car. "I was hoping to see you the second I got off the plane."

She replied with a gleeful giggle. Her lightly polished lips and the neat row of shining pearly whites behind them captivated Visu's attention. Her elegant looks reflected a high-class upbringing.

In the car, Karunakaran was looking concerned. Mallaya had already broken into a sweat. "What's happening, sir? There seems to be something going on between him and this girl…" the driver whispered softly to the karwar. The karwar silently pushed him aside, and they went back to listening in on the exchange.

Archana's bout of laughter ended with a jiggle of her firm breasts. "So how was the Bangalore trip? Was it a success?" she asked, throwing her arm around Visu's shoulder in a manner that confirmed the karwar's and the driver's suspicions.

Visu gave an elaborate nod to indicate that it had, indeed, been a success.

This is a deep love; they're as close as copulating serpents, thought the karwar. His initial shock that Visu had somehow managed to get involved with a girl — in spite of the tight watch they kept over him – now gave way to panic.

Visu had completed his engineering degree just a month ago. His exam results were yet to be announced. He had already started a small industrial tool manufacturing business in Madurai, and had made the trip to Bangalore to purchase machinery.

The Samasthanam of Kottaipuram was a princely state situated forty miles south of Madurai. Visu was the younger son of the late Ramanathan Rupasekaran Kottaipurathaan, the sixth raja of Kottaipuram. Gajendran Rupasekaran Kottaipurathaan, the elder son and seventh raja, took care of the estate.

The two sons had little in common. The elder brother had never stepped outside the boundaries of Kottaipuram, and remained tied to his traditional roots, while Visu, the younger brother, loved to travel and had a scientific, rational outlook.

"Visu, I have happy news for you," chirped Archana.

"What?"

"My father is coming to your samasthanam. He wants to tell your mother and grandmother about our relationship. Finally, after four years, no more secrets!" Not noticing as Visu's face turned pale, she went on, "Why aren't you saying anything? You asked me to come to the airport because you had something important to discuss. What is it, Visu?"

Visu gave her a dark look. His throat was rapidly drying up.

"What is it?" Archana asked again, gently nudging him.

"Archana…" Visu began hesitantly. "How much do you love me?"

"Right up to the sky," was the prompt reply.

"Suppose you came to know that not long after our marriage, I would die… Would you still…?"

She did not wait for Visu to finish. She reacted as though he had just jabbed sharp needles into her ears. "What are you talking about?" she demanded, choked with tears.

"I'm sorry, Archana. I had to know how deep your love is. I had to ask you this," consoled Visu. Archana lifted her teary face up to him.

"I don't care if we never get married, Visu. You'll always be my husband anyway. Don't you know that?"

"Thank you, Arch…" he said, kissing both her hands.

Archana looked at the sky. "Visu, it's getting late. You haven't yet told me what you wanted to discuss," she reminded him.

"Tomorrow," replied Visu.

Archana realized that nagging him would be useless. "Fine!" she said, and halfheartedly kickstarted her moped. The Vauxhall followed her down the main road.

They drove in the same direction for some distance, Archana often turning back to wave at Visu. At a fork, she took the road going into the city, and Visu turned onto the one leading to Aruppukkottai.

In the back seat, both the karwar and the driver sat quiet and tense. After some time, the karwar said to Visu, "Thambi, please don't mistake me, but do you think what you are doing is right?"

"What?"

"Being in love with that girl…"

"Who said that being in love is a crime? Archana's not just some girl I picked up off the street, Karwar. She's the daughter of a crorepathi."

"Maybe so, Thambi! Indeed, she looks like a freshly bloomed flower. And shouldn't she be blessed with flowers all her life, to wear in her hair as a happily married woman, with a thali around her neck and a pottu mark on her forehead?"

Visu brought the car to a sudden halt and turned around in his seat.

"Karwar… Do you really believe, like everyone else in the samasthanam seems to believe, that I will die when I turn thirty?"

"My beliefs are well founded on past events, aren't they? Has any man in your family survived past his thirtieth birthday?"

At this, Visu fell fearfully quiet.

The karwar cut into the silence. "I'm not saying this because I oppose your love — only because I want the best for you, and for that girl."

Hearing the concern in the karwar's words, Visu looked up at him.

"Karwar, can this curse actually be real?" he asked in a hushed tone.

"I can't fully comprehend it. We're living in a modern age when a determined man can achieve anything he wishes for. This isn't Dvapara Yuga or Tretha Yuga anymore, when magical curses had power!"

He put the car into gear again, as the karwar stared at him unwaveringly.

"Whatever age we live in, Thambi, there are always things beyond a man's capacity for understanding. The day when people stop believing in curses and the repercussions of their sins, this whole world will become a cremation ground. Of course, it's unfortunate that you will have to pay the price for the sins committed by your forefathers…"

"You know, no one has ever even told me what this curse is all about."

"You will come to know when the time is right. It's bad enough that no male member of your family makes it past thirty. What's even worse is that your family will never have a girl child. And there is something else I must tell you, Thambi…"

"What, Karwar?"

"If God wills it, this curse could be lifted today. Then you would be free to marry Archana without any misgivings!"

"Is that right? And how might that be done, Karwar?"

"Today your elder brother, Gajendran Rupasekaran Kottaipurathaan, the ruling prince of the samasthanam, turns thirty. Thirumeni Devar has been responsible for watching over him closely ever since he turned twenty-nine — you're aware of that. Your elder brother owes Devar his life. If only he can make it through today! Then all the pujas that have been performed, all the alms that have been given this year will have served their purpose. Right now, your mother and your sister-in-law, Valaiyambikai, are in the temple of your family deity, Vengai Ponni Amman. They made the unanimous decision to spend these last few tense hours in the presence of the idol. Vengai Ponni Amman is a very powerful goddess. Perhaps the curse will lose its potency in Her presence…"

Engrossed in Karunakaran's words, Visu drove on autopilot, the nerves in his forehead taut. The tamarind trees along the roadside gave way to lush green fields on either side. Goats and cows grazed on the few drier patches.

"The maharani sent me to the airport to bring you straight to the Vengai Ponni Amman temple," said the karwar. "Otherwise, Mallaya would have come alone."

Visu looked at Karunakaran thoughtfully. It was already half past five. As if acknowledging the hour, the sun was setting in the west.

Excerpted from The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol.II edited by Rakesh Khanna. Copyright 2010 by Blaft Publications Pvd. Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Blaft Publications.

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The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction
The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

by Rakesh Khanna and Pritham K. Chakravarthy

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