February 2011

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

The Blaftness of Blaft

He was a dark man, with white hair and white teeth. A thick moustache covered his dark lips. His chin had a deep cleft. He wore a silk shirt, a polyester veshti, and a thick gold chain with a leopard claw pendant around his neck. He smelled strongly of perfume.
--From the story “Hurricane Vaij” in the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol. I

A friend whose fiancé was learning how to perform past life regression therapy once observed to me that it was odd how many people discover they were Cleopatra or someone else really famous in their past lives. Even people who do not find out they were Cleopatra, such as my father, a great regression therapy enthusiast, always discover they were human. When I argue with my father that it’s statistically unlikely that all current living humans are reincarnations of previously living humans, and that traditionally animals, and bugs, and worms are thrown into the mix of transmigrating souls, he becomes irritable and says I don’t know what I’m talking about. In Bollywood movies, reincarnation, a fantastic plot device, becomes even more narrow: young couples whose love transcends lifetimes (what’s known as a janam-janam ka rishta in Hindi-Urdu) die under cruel circumstances only to be reborn in a human form exactly identical to their previous incarnations. Thus the same actor and actress can go ahead and play the lovers in their next lifetime as well.

I remember very clearly the first time I saw a Bollywood movie in which reincarnation was the engine driving the plot. I have no recollection of the title of the movie or the actor and actress who were reborn, but I remember my feeling of shock and dismay when the two main characters suddenly died just an hour and a half into the film, right before the intermission. My imagination stalled. How would they fill the next hour and a half? Then, quite rapidly, two new births occurred, and the two babies sped into adolescence and came to bear a remarkable resemblance to their previous incarnations. I was amazed at the genius of the device. The best part was that all this occurred in an immediate progression, so that all the evil-doers that had thwarted the lovers in their previous lifetimes were still alive and well in the second half, and at once understood when they saw the new avatars of the slain lovers that these were they, born anew.

Upon recently embarking on my first voyage into Tamil pulp fiction, I was thrilled to encounter a reincarnation plot. Just as in the Bollywood movie I had seen so long ago, the heroine, an urban teenager, is the spitting image of her previous incarnation as a village damsel. What’s more, the timing is again close enough so that everyone who did her wrong in the village recognizes her instantly and is momentarily frozen with horror, but then becomes totally unsurprised to see her back again. The heroine, skeptical about the whole thing at first, soon comes to embrace her role, and ultimately remembers just about everything from her previous life, which leads to stirring speeches such as this one:

Yes it's true: I died then. And it's also true that I've been reborn now. What was that you said? That I had an affair with Parasu? You know what happened to him, don't you? He became a midnight snack for a horde of snakes and scorpions.

The writer of this gripping tale, “The Rebirth of Jeeva,” is Indra Sounder Rajan, a devotee of the goddess Meenakshi Amman and an expert in Tamil mythology. That story can be found in the first volume of the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, but an entire novella by Rajan (who has written more than five hundred short novels!), The Palace of Kottaipuram, awaits the true fan in Volume II. In The Palace of Kottaipuram, the plot is not reincarnation-driven, but instead involves an ancient curse on a royal family. By dint of sharp intelligence, true love, and a generous cleavage, the heroine, Archana, manages to save her true love, the last in line of a lineage of cursed princes. Thrilling descriptions of Archana abound, but this was one of my favorites:

Flooded with romantic thoughts, Archana, in her skirt, olive-green shirt, and canvas sports shoes, with a tiny heart-shaped gold locket dangling in her cleavage, bounced down the staircase.

It would be wrong, however, to advertise the two volumes of Tamil pulp fiction published by Blaft as mythology-centric. In fact, Rajan is the only author included in the volumes who writes in this genre. Pulp fiction is by definition genre fiction, and in these two collections genres abound: detective stories, sci-fi (in the sense of weird scientific experiments, but none thus far involving aliens or flying saucers), horror, ghost stories, an excerpt of a serial on the lives of prostitutes and even a graphic short story (featuring a sexy and bold young heroine called “Karate Kavitha”). Volume II features more long (and often more lurid) fiction than Volume I, including the unforgettable novel The Hidden Hoard in the Cryptic Chamber. These lines of dialogue alone make it clear that Tamil pulp fiction is an absolute necessity:

“Just a moment. Did you say you were attacked by a naked man at Hell’s Haven?”

“A nearly naked man, yes.”

“Looks like Ranjit Singh is back to his old games. I almost caught him three months ago.”

“What old games are those?”

“’Human metamorphosis’... He believes that if he can isolate a two- or three-year-old child and rear it like a wild animal, never setting its brains to work and concentrating only on building up its muscles, the child will grow up to be a savage beast -- never want to wear clothes or learn to speak. I think you were assaulted by one such being. When I go to Ranjit Singh’s house tomorrow, if I find some brutish naked thing, he’s had it from me.”

Most of the authors collected in the anthologies are stunningly prolific, with the most prolific of all being the detective writer Rajesh Kumar, who had published "more than 1,250" novels and 2,000 short stories according to his bio in Volume I, but by Volume II, published just two years later, he is described as having published ‘nearly 1,500’ novels, putting him in contention for breaking the world record held by L. Ron Hubbard. The editor of both volumes of pulp fiction, Rakesh Khanna, explained to me in an interview that most of the authors are amused to have an indie publishing house with such small print runs publishing their work. Tamil pulp writers, whose books are sold on train platforms and news stands all over the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, are used to print runs of about 40,000 every couple of weeks when they publish a new novel (Blaft print runs are around 5,000).

As a newcomer to pulp fiction of any kind, I was amazed when reading the two thick volumes at the great speed with which they could be devoured. A hundred pages are easily consumed in a single sitting. It’s like chewing on a big barrel of popcorn at the movies or absent-mindedly eating an entire spindle of cotton candy at a country fair. But this easy consumption is only made possible by the miraculously smooth translations of Pritham K. Chakravarthy, with editing by Khanna. These are not the kind of translations that make the reader work hard to get comfortable with the text. Perhaps the material, intended for mass consumption, lends itself to readability, but I am inclined to suspect that that’s not all there is to it.

kumariIn fact, Blaft doesn’t just publish pulp fiction, though that is how they began. Their list of publications is excitingly idiosyncratic, everything from pulp to folklore (a volume titled Where are You Going, You Monkeys? that includes a chapter of off-color tales helpfully sealed off with a decorative red ribbon) to a translation of the very experimental postmodern Tamil novel Zero Degree by Charu Nivedita. Of Blaft’s non-translated books, two must be mentioned here: the first is Kumari Loves a Monster. This highly unusual picture book features elaborate drawings of voluptuous Tamilian maidens in heart-warming scenes of romantic bliss accompanied by a series of fantastical monsters. In one drawing, a scantily clad young woman bathes in a pool below a waterfall, her hand resting gently upon the back of an enormous hunch-backed, tusked monster with yellow scales. The monster clutches a lotus in a huge flipper-like paw. The cursive caption on the facing page (with a Tamil version below it) reads: “Like the lotus bud in your hand,/you have plucked my heart/from the pond of my life.” For the picture shown here, of the young lady in yellow snuggling up to her multi-tentacled beloved at the movies, the caption reads: “Watching movies is a must/with the one you love and trust."

The second, possibly the most intriguing book on the list of thrilling publications from the house of Blaft is a collection of short fiction by Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Manickavel (who titled a section of a recent blog post on Indian writing in English “Do not have an unnecessarily complicated name like Kuzhali Manickavel”) writes in English and lives in Chidambaram. The stories in Insects are sometimes as short as half a page and occasionally as long as twelve pages. Many of them do feature insects, or at least insect imagery, and diagrams of insects with witty labels are found throughout the book, such as the one shown here of an earwig representing childhood mythology. It is difficult to think of a way to encapsulate this collection of so many unusual and imaginative stories: other reviewers refer to them as dream-like. I think it better to call them surreal; also: intricate, ironic and frequently hilarious, though sometimes very, very sad.

Manickavel’s descriptions are unusual, and often striking:

Mrs. Krishnan is wearing a blue sari today. She looks like she has draped the sea over her shoulder and I tell her so. A black handbag hangs from her arm like a dead crow but I decide not to tell her that.

Her plots are usually bizarre, often serpentine, and since one is not even sure where they began, their course is always unpredictable. Some sample scenarios:

It seems best to leave you with a sample dialogue (from the story “The Dynamics of Windows”) between a girl who works at a library, and a young poet of uncertain talents, whose comparison in a poem of breasts to purple mangos she has objected to on their previous meeting:

The next afternoon Kathir’s head appeared at her window like a runaway balloon.

“What if I changed the purple to green?” he asked.

“I thought it didn’t matter what I thought.”

“It doesn’t. But what if it was green instead of purple?”

“What would that do?”

“Well, I thought about it and I realized that green mangos are more like breasts. Purple ones, not so much.”

“Give me your hand.”

“What?”

“Your hand.”

His fingers were cold and pale, as if they had been kept underwater for too long. Prasanna glanced around to make sure no one was looking. Then she placed his hand on her left breast.

“Well?” she asked.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Are green mangos hard or soft?”

“Yes. I mean hard.”

“Does this feel hard to you?”

“I was thinking more about the shape really.”

Kathir looked like a rickshaw driver with his hand ready on the air horn.

“Maybe you could take your hand away then,” said Prasanna.

“Of course. Sorry.”


More reading for your new obsession:

My interview with Rakesh Khanna and Pritham K. Chakravarthy
My interview with Kuzhali Manickavel
Kuzhali Manickavel’s blog
Blaft’s YouTube channel
Blaft’s blog, Blaftatronic Halwa