Tuesday, June 08, 2010

On The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction 2

Curses that last for generations, haunted houses occupied by flickering apparitions both good and evil, the human body invaded by restless spirits, skulls collected from burning ghats, murderous voodoo and protective lemons, patients who use the art of “Persian sorcery” to kill their doctors, voluptuous damsels both chaste and randy, killings by the dozen and a fair amount of rapes – all these perfectly routine, 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 picks up some of the racy stories from the cheap books and magazines with lurid covers of the world of Tamil pulp fiction, and brings them over to English in a splendidly designed and weighty paperback.
Every story in the world possesses a plot, or what the literary theorist Gary Saul Morson calls “narrativeness”. This is a quality of moving forward or backward in the time-field of the story, and a dramatisation of the contingency of life, whereby we experience the pleasure of story (even when we know, for instance, that it is going to have a happy ending) by contemplating “the excess of possibilities over actualities” set up by the writer. Will the young prince die because of the curse, or will he find some way of beating it? What will happen when this family visits the old dilapidated house on the banks of the river? We want to know, and we read on.
In genre fiction, or pulp fiction, we might say that this quality of narrativeness, understood in a limited but effective way as meaning narrative speed (as encapsulated in the word “pageturner”), is privileged over all the other aspects of storytelling, such as rich and subtle language, close insight into the psychology of individuals, manipulations of point of view, or even a refusal to bring a story to a finished, tied-up close. 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 sneak a peek at what has happened, because we can’t wait to know. When this happens, we might say that the story is a success on its own terms – the writer has drawn us in.
Certainly this feeling of being gripped by narrative pleasure and curiosity is often evoked by the first and longest story chosen by the translator Pritham K Chakravarthy, Indra Soundar Rajan’s “The Palace of Kottaipuram.” This tells the story of conspiracy and intrigue over several generations on a samasthanam, or feudal princely estate, not far from Madurai. Soundar Rajan gives us a charming pair of protagonists: the young and good-hearted regent Visu (cursed, like all the men in his line, to die before the age of thirty) and his smart and sexy girlfriend Archana, whose physical charms are always emphasised (“Archana’s bout of laughter ended with a jiggle of her firm breasts”). Archana and Visu begin to suspect that the curse might not be as fixed in the supernatural realm as it appears, and thereby set the story in motion.
Also prominent on the feudal estate are the Noorukudis, a tribe of bonded labourers who have been bound to, and sometimes preyed upon by, the royal family for centuries. Soundar Rajan loves the conventions of crime fiction, of the good guys enwebbed 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 new anthology is a disappointment when compared to 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 – something we accept – but often they have very little agency either. The evil spirits that invade their worlds and do gruesome things to them (thereby stimulating or titillating the reader) are finally, and a little too easily, trounced just in the nick of time by other spirits, or by the protection of some powerful goddess or deity. This is just a lazy way of writing, happy to feed off a larger attitude in the culture that believes that there is a divine hand behind everything and that any crisis requires a puja and a mantra to be solved.
One might say these are merely the conventions of the genre and a sign of how it has its ear to the ground, responding to the religiosity of the culture to which these books are addressed. But, no matter the circumstances, it is always disappointing to see stories take the path of least resistance in this fashion. Only Indra Soundar Rajan’s story offers some critique of blind faith and superstition. A tribal woman in his story is suddenly possessed by a vengeful spirit, blurts out a number of prophecies, and collapses, a small streak of blood seeping from her mouth. We are told: "The women in the crowd rushed forward, each taking a spot of the blood and applying it as vibhuti on their foreheads." Later Archana discovers that the "possession" was merely a charade organised by the conspirators in the palace, the better to ensure that they have their way. It is people like those women in the crowd, we realise (as a result of this small observation made at the time of the incident by the narrator) who ensure that these acts of theatre carry the force of supernatural revelation.
The spectrum of human emotions on display in this volume is very small, as if the writers have worn out their sympathies churning out hackwork. Nowhere in this volume is there the tenderness, the realism, or the insight into a troubled heart 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. Women are seen, whether benignly or in a matter of fact way, as if this were but natural, as sex objects. Again, this may be how pulp fiction generally sees the fairer sex (it seems somehow right to use this cliche), so it is pointless to ask for a more developed understanding of gender issues. What is more interesting, rather, is that for all their apparent coolness and disregard of conventional morality, these stories can't bring themselves to fully embrace the violence and savagery of their material.
In Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning", we see a young woman, Nadia, a blue film and then, aroused, sexually exploiting a visiting technician by threatening to foist a rape charge upon him if he resists. Nadia later is given her comeuppance for this immoral behaviour when she is herself sexually assaulted: suddenly abducted, drugged, and raped on camera. As this scene is pictured, the writer suddenly steps back from the lurid world he has so enthusiastically set up (giving it far more attention that the murder that, when solved, ends the story), and says only that the rapists were “lying on either side of her, toying with her body, strumming it like a rudra veena.” Why this coy, romanticising, falsifying description of something so horrific? Why is Rajesh Kumar so shy of saying, "They fucked her brutally one after the other"?
Now that the novelty value of Tamil pulp fiction in translation has receded, it is harder to see feel so enthusiastic about this second offering of work from his universe. It may be that these stories need a supporting extra-literary narrative – that of the great fame of the authors in Tamil Nadu, the vast number of books they have written, the millions of copies sold, 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 once we enter their worlds. This, one finds, is not the case. Despite their sensational subject matter and Chakravarthy’s idiomatic, confident translations, there is just too much narration, dialogue and plotting that is dull, simplistic, and unskilled in Tamil Pulp Fiction 2.
And here is an old post on another Indian work of pulp fiction: Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist.


Bala said...

That was a strange choice for a Rajesh Kumar novel. His books suck when he starts moralising. I believe he had to put in this "loose-women-suffer-bad-fate" because he faced criticism that he was "spoiling the society" by portraying "westernised women". In the late 80s or early 90s there was some controversy that we "good" Tamil boys were being spoilt by Rajesh Kumar. As a result he started this whole "moral of the story" thing. "drug addicts suffer horrible fates" was more common than "loose women getraped". This is a bad choice by Pritham. But "Kottaipurathu Veedu" is a good choice among Indra Soundarrajan's works. And BTW, "suspect that the curse is actually a cover for a faction in the palace power structure to assert their power," is little spoilerish.

Chandrahas said...

Bala - You've clearly read these works in the original, so it's an improvement of this post now that one can also hear the opinions of a reader like you.

I was interested in the writer-audience relationship you describe in the case of Rajesh Kumar. I find this sort of moralism very shallow and cynical, because it is actually not interested in moral inquiry or an independent line at all, but only in a contrived condemnation of perceived deviancy that will appeal to popular conservative prejudices. I don't see why readers should have to accept this without any protest.

I've also amended the plot summary you described as spoilerish, the only problem now being that a trace of it now remains in your comment. Thanks very much for writing.

Bala said...

>>because it is actually not interested in moral inquiry or an independent line at all, but only in a contrived condemnation of perceived deviancy that will appeal to popular conservative prejudices.

It is a curse of modern Tamil writing. Here ilakkiyam (literature) can never be just for fun or consumption. It has to do "something for society". (No one knows what exactly that something is). When Rajesh Kumar got too popular (I think by early 90s he was churning out 2 "pocket novels" a week) he had to be taken down a peg and this criticism started. In fact, other pocket novel writers used much more lurid scenes and colourful descriptions of female anatomy, but i dont remember them getting criticized. The lesser known the writer, the more steamy the book had to be to sell.
pocket novels were usually sold in petty shops/kiosks in bus stands. The new books were displayed in a clothesline (just like magazines). For a lesser name to compete with Rajesh Kumar's "brand", the front cover had to display lots of cleavage and the back page blurb had to mention a rape or illicit pregnancy!!. But those writers were left alone and Rajesh Kumar had to pay the price for fame. Then he started this whole moralising business. When it got a little too much, his publisher Asokan wrote in his defense saying other "respected" writers like Sandilyan too employed "shringara rasa" to spice books.

(I might be wrong about the chronology - it is a little fuzzy as i was 9-10 at that time.)

And regarding the spoiler - please edit my comment and remove it :-).

Bala said...

>>I don't see why readers should have to accept this without any protest.

I believe the target audience of Rajesh Kumar would not have had any complaints. We are fed on a staple diet of "modern girl getting her comeuppance" plot points in Tamil fiction and Tamil cinema. As as long as we got our dose of weekly titillation, we never had any thoughts for the social side. My own thoughts were along the lines of "the bitch got what she deserved" till i got older and started reading something other than pulp/romance/historical fiction.