Ask any Tamil speaker about the history of their language and you’ll get an earful. Tamil literature is 2,000 years old. One of the oldest manuscripts registered by UNESCO in India is in Tamil. Tamil poetry is exquisite.
They probably won’t tell you that some of the most read stories in Tamil are actually about voluptuous call girls, horny detectives, and vengeful ghosts. Titles like Sweetheart, Please Die and Dim Lights,Blazing Hearts.
If you go to India, you’ll see these books and magazines at railways stations, at the corner tea stall, stacked next to strings of cigarette packets and potato chips. The covers are like movie posters—mustachioed men, menacing women in tight nurse uniforms, knives dripping blood, and lots and lots of cleavage.
Rakesh Khanna remembers being really intrigued by them when he was studying mathematics in Chennai.
Khanna, who grew up in Berkeley, the son of a Punjabi father and an American mother, didn’t even speak Tamil.
“I am a late night coffee and cigarette person,” he remembers. “I’d go to the tea shop and just see all these outlandish covers.” When he asked his Tamil-speaking friends about the books, they’d dismiss them as “crap.”
But he persisted, he says, because he “needed some light reading in the middle of partial differential equations.” As a Tamil language learner he was also looking for something that was a step above “Ramu throws a ball,” but a little more accessible than “super heavy literature full of social messages.”
Now Blaft Publishing, the publishing house he started, is launching its second anthology of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English. “We were somewhat restrained in the first one,” Khanna says. “The second one is much more explicit. Lots of horror and gore.”
Without blinking her eyes, she drove the sharp pencil point into his stomach. Then Shanthi pulled the tip out and drove it hard into Benjamin’s skull.
—Hold on a Minute, I’m in the Middle of a Murder
When Khanna approached Pritham Chakravarthy, a professor of film history and dramaturgy, to translate these novels, she says “I just had to put my feminism aside and have a ball.” She grew up reading these lurid stories in books and magazines. Her mother and aunts would read them as well, locking the more salacious ones in the cupboard. She would read them on the school bus.
“As a kid it was like treading into forbidden territory,” she says. She spent over a year reading some 500 pulp novels and tracking down their authors. “Rakesh even sent the auto driver to collect porn,” she says. “The men in them were invariably Punjabis if the woman was the protagonist. But the porn was too difficult to track down. No credits. No publication details. No author names.”
Luckily she had more than enough regular-issue pulp to choose from. She went to one of Chennai’s oldest lending libraries, the Easwari Lending Library, and started tracking down decades of pulp fiction.
She even found a 1933 guide to writing pulp novels or as they called them “commercial novels.”
- The title of the book should carry a woman’s name—and it should be a sexy one, like Miss Leela Mohini.
- Don’t worry about the storyline. Your story must absolutely include, at minimum, half a dozen lovers and prostitutes, preferably a dozen murders, and a few sundry thieves and detectives.
- 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 women readers.
But women (and taxi drivers) were, in fact, a large chunk of pulp fiction readers. Housewives read them at home on lazy summer afternoons. Working women read them on the train while going to the office. Their biggest advantage was that you could just slip them into your handbag when you reached work. “You can’t do that with Tolkien,” says Chakravarthy.
The stories have all the classic pulp fiction ingredients—the detectives are hard-boiled, the women are served sunny side up, and the scientists are megalomaniacs. But Indian pulp fiction isn’t just a bad photocopy of American pulp, says Khanna.
“In America pulp fiction is a lot about nostalgia for the forties and fifties,” says Khanna. “In India it’s something that’s still happening. You still have the ten-rupee novel which is ‘timepass’ on a long bus ride.”
A lot of Tamil pulp borrowed heavily from mythology and folklore. In fact, says Chakravarthy, she was unable to translate some of the most popular writers like Chandiyan and Washingtonil Thirunamanam. “The quasi historic romances, the total Brahmanic language, the historical references—it was too difficult,” she says.
Some pulp writers went for an English-inflected Tamil, the colloquial Chennai-bhasa spoken on the streets.
Others might be writing about a suave James Bond-ish hero who travels to Chicago and Tokyo but write in the chastest Tamil imaginable, refusing to use English words for anything, even neckties.
The sex is usually a little tame by Western standards. Exposing a navel is sexy, says one writer, but spinning a top on it is vulgar. But Khanna admits there is “a grisly fascination with rape and molestation.”
“My co-feminist friends were aghast,” recalls Chakravarthy. The books had to walk a fine line between middle class morals and the need to titillate. So in one story, a woman is ruled out as a suspect because a beedi stub is found under the victim’s bed. And a good middle class woman would never be caught smoking, certainly not a beedi.
But the writers also find clever ways to sneak in sex and innuendo. For example, unlike Western pulp, many of the writers have detective duos. Sometimes detective duos from one series show up in another in a sort of pulp fiction double date. Either way it leaves plenty of room for romantic banter in between solving murders.
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.
“I can’t even let it slip a bit, eh?” she giggled.
—The Palace of Kottaipuram
“Archana, by the way, is the one who solves crimes,” laughs Khanna. “The boyfriend is a dummy.”
When Chakravarthy and Khanna decided on the writers they were going to include they started tracking them down. Khanna says the writers were flattered but, mostly, bemused by the attention. After all Rajesh Kumar, one of the writers, has been churning out these books since 1968. He’s written about 1,250 novels and 2,000 short stories. Suresh and Balakrishnan started writing together when they were schoolmates in 1983. They write under the name Subha. They’ve written some 600 novels together and live with their families in adjacent apartments.
“They sell millions,” says Khanna. “So [a print run of] 10,000 copies is not a big deal.”
But the books have not made any of the writers fabulously rich, nor has it won them much literary respect.
Some of them had gone on to write film scripts and television serials. But they have remained resolutely middle class.
“Ramanichandran [one of the authors] was this meek woman,” recalls Chakravarthy. Her husband ran a tiny shop near the Mylapore temple selling religious supplies like kumkum and vibhuti. “She let her husband do all the talking,” says Chakravarthy. “In our first meeting she got up four times—to make coffee, switch off the cooker, open the gate, take her granddaughter to dance class.”
Looking at the mild-mannered gray haired grandmother, it was hard to imagine she could sit down and write lines like these:
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.
—Dim Lights, Blazing Hearts.
Now with the advent of cable television, pulp fiction, too, is losing its audience. Khanna says when he first put the anthology together he thought it would have greater appeal in the American niche market rather than India. But the books have proved to be hugely popular in India because, even in Tamil Nadu, as English becomes more prevalent, fewer young people read these books in Tamil any more. “Even some of the authors’ grandchildren read these books for the first time in English,” says Khanna.
“But I think this will go on for a few more decades,” says Chakravarthy. “At least as long as there are truck and auto drivers.”
After all it’s good value for money. It’s eat, pray, love, and kill—all for ten rupees or less. You just can’t beat that.
Sandip Roy is the host of New America Now, a news magazine show on KALW 91.7 FM, produced by New America Media.