Tamil pulp fiction: Of deadly damsels, daring detectives
In the village of Veppampatti, coconut trees are getting poisoned because there is strychnine in the soil. A terrorist threatens to blow up the Taj Mahal and it is up to detective Vaijayanthi, a proverbial beauty with brains, to save the day. Love and death are twinned in the burning desert of Rajasthan. There are sinister plots afoot and disembodied brains in control on the planet GL 581g. Susheela of the Moonlight Detective Agency proves herself an ace sleuth as she races against time to avert the murder of an internationally known actress.
The Blaft Anthology Of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. III is a mash-up of genres and a vivid, racy and action-packed ride through ludicrous plots, complete with nitrogen-chomping aliens, salacious private eyes and skeletons in the closet. This collection features six pocket novels by some of the biggest stars of contemporary Tamil pulp fiction. Interestingly enough, for all their pulp credentials, these books upturn regressive gender stereotypes and we have women cast as spunky detectives, genius scientists as well as villainous masterminds. A good story can often be found in the unlikeliest of places, and, in this case, it is between lurid and risqué covers.
This is perhaps why these books continue to sell in numbers that would throw mainstream English-language publishers into a tizzy, despite the fact that many of the writers are turning to the increasingly lucrative options afforded by television and popular cinema and are not as prolific as they used to be, when they finished at least a novel a month.
Like the first two volumes, this translation captures what one presumes are the quirks of the original Tamil version, with all its bumps and faults. An authentic “pulp” feel permeates the book even as readers navigate their way through old-school detective fiction, crime thrillers, steamy romances and “interstellar terror”. Each story, whether set in Chennai, Jaisalmer or a distant planet light years away, is rooted in a strong Tamil context, one that is accessible to all those who are from the state, irrespective of their social strata. See, for example, the oddly beautiful opening sequence of The Top Of The Game by Indra Soundar Rajan:
“Outside the window, the expansive sky blinked its starry eyes: munukku-munukku!
“To one side was the moon, shining like a silver plate. Sai, tired from trudging around all day, looked up at the moon and pulled the image of Krithika into his mind.
“He imagined drawing her close, hugging her tight, playing with the flowers in her hair, wetting her flower-like lips...
“‘Enough!’ cried the bloodthirsty bedbugs on his dirty mattress, dissolving the dream.”
The line-up of writers includes Chennai-based author duo Suresh and Balakrishnan, who write detective novels under the pen name Subha, and Blaft regular Rajesh Kumar, who is, by his own admission, one of the most prolific stalwarts of Tamil crime fiction, with over 1,500 novels to his name. His is a story filled with intrigue, hallucinogenic drugs and poison.
These novels have had a large and dedicated fan following ever since they appeared on the scene in the 1930s, similar to the untapped mass market that Robert de Graff discovered in America when he launched Pocket Books in 1939. For him, books were far removed from the circles of highbrow privilege. His first ad for his line of books said as much: “These new Pocket Books are designed to fit both the tempo of our times and the needs of New Yorkers. They’re as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio—and as good-looking.”
This idea is also mirrored in the growth of the Tamil pulp fiction market. While this translation is targeted at an alternative English-speaking readership, it remains as true to the original as possible. And this is in part due to the very cool cover designed by Shyam Shankar, who has spent his life illustrating for Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil popular magazines and pulp novels. His style eschews self-conscious kitsch and draws on references from the original Tamil covers. His buxom Tamilian village lass morphing into a female scythe-wielding robot is no less formidable than Vol. II’s sari-clad vamp sipping blood from a human skull or the Vol. I’s gun-toting bespectacled girl next door.
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