Curses that last for generations, haunted houses occupied by flickering apparitions, human beings possessed by restless spirits, skulls collected from burning ghats, murderous voodoo and protective books and lemons, voluptuous damsels both chaste and randy, killings by the dozen and rapes aplenty—all these humdrum activities comprise the subject matter of the stories of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction 2. Like its predecessor, which came out to warm reviews in 2008, this book too takes the racy and lurid stories of a bustling local industry and brings them over to the wider world of English in a handsome paperback.
Every story in the world possesses a plot, or what the literary theorist Gary Saul Morson calls “narrativeness”. In genre fiction, or pulp fiction, this quality of narrativeness (enshrined by the word “page-turner”) is privileged over the other aspects of storytelling, such as rich and subtle language, close insight into psychology or manipulations of point of view. Because of this, pulp fiction is often the site of one of the guiltier pleasures of reading, that of skipping. The eye often leaps across two or three paragraphs to peek at what has happened, because we can’t wait to find out. When this happens, we might say that the story is a success on its own terms—the writer has drawn us in.
The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction 2: Blaft, 522 pages, Rs495.
Certainly, this feeling of being gripped by narrative pleasure and curiosity is often supplied by the first and longest story in this volume, Indra Soundar Rajan’s The Palace of Kottaipuram. This tells the story of conspiracy and intrigue on a samasthanam, or feudal princely estate. Rajan gives us a charming pair of protagonists: The good-hearted young regent Visu (cursed like all the men in his line to die before the age of 30) and his smart and sexy girlfriend Archana, whose physical charms are always emphasized (“Archana’s bout of laughter ended with a jiggle of her firm breasts”). The two begin to suspect that the curse is actually a cover for a power struggle in the palace, and thereby set the story in motion.
Also prominent on the feudal estate are the enigmatic Noorukudis, a tribe of bonded labourers who have been bound to, and sometimes preyed upon by, the royal family for centuries. Rajan loves the conventions of crime fiction, of the good guys enmeshed in dangers of which they have no comprehension (“Far away, on the balcony of the top floor, a pair of eyes was watching them”). But the complex social structure and history set up by him means that the story is always both advancing and expanding.
Overall, though, the book is a disappointment when compared with the first volume. More than one story of the seven chosen is just a meaningless pile-up of blood and gore. Not only are the characters as flimsy as playing cards, they have very little agency either. The evil spirits that do gruesome things to them (and titillate the reader) are finally, and a little too easily, trounced by other evil spirits, or by the protection of some powerful godman or deity. This is just a lazy way of working, happy to feed off a larger attitude in the culture that imputes everything to a divine hand and sees propitiation as the best solution. Only Rajan’s story offers some critique of blind faith and superstition.
Nowhere in this volume is there the narratorial sympathy or realism of a story like Pushpa Thangadorai’s My Name is Kamala, which tells the story of a south Indian prostitute’s attempt to escape from a northern brothel, from Volume 1. Rather, when a woman is drugged and brutally raped on camera in Rajesh Kumar’s Hello Good Dead Morning, the writer suddenly steps back from the debauched world he has enthusiastically created, and says only that the rapists were “toying with her body, strumming it like a rudra veena”. Why this coy, romanticizing, falsifying description of something so horrific?
Now that the novelty value of Tamil pulp fiction has diminished, it is harder to feel very animated about this second crop. It may be that these stories need a supporting extra-literary narrative—that of the great fame of the authors in Tamil Nadu, their prolific outputs and the millions of copies sold, of the heat and excitement of this publishing sub-culture—for an English-reading audience to believe in their magic. But surely, stories which are intrinsically fluent and gripping should shake off such a crutch in the reading. Despite their sensational subject matter and Chakravarthy’s confident translations, there is just too much that is simplistic and dull in Tamil Pulp Fiction 2.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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