Book Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II (trans. Pritham Chakravarthy)

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There’s a certain brand of Tamil kitsch that has been in style, both regionally and nationally (and beyond, in some cases), for a couple of years now that is fundamentally antithetical to America’s hipster subculture. Both phenomena can be read, at first glance, as based on revival or reappropriation of the “authentic” – making the obscure or the lowbrow populist trendy. But hipsterism is self-conscious, reliant on posturing said to be “ironic”. The beauty of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II – a perfect example of contemporary Tam-kitsch – is that it contains no irony at all. It isn’t possible to enjoy these stories if there is a hesitation to enter their particular moralities or engage with their brassy sensibilities. Delightfully, however, they are so thrilling that it is very easy to.

The first volume in Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series carried seventeen pieces; while this one features only six, its stories are lengthier and by and large rewarding. The anthology kicks off on a spectacular note: Indra Soundar Rajan’s gripping novella “The Palace of Kottaipuram”. Originally serialized over 31 issues of Anantha Vikatan in 1990, this perfectly-paced mystery has all the elements of grandiose narrative. A royal lineage is thwarted by a curse dating to colonial times that avenges a raped tribal woman: all its male heirs die on or before their thirtieth birthdays, and its female ones do not survive infancy. The educated and urbane young prince Visu begins to believe in the curse after the death of his elder brother leaves him next in line, but his rational girlfriend Archana is not at all convinced that supernatural forces are at work…

The character of the intrepid female investigator is carried forward into “Highway 117”, the collection’s only major non-prose offering and its weakest link. Written by Pushpa Thangadorai and illustrated by Jeyaraj, its promising storyline – of Karate Kavitha, who pursues a temple-plunderer along a train route with her handsome sidekick Umesh – doesn’t translate well into the form. The illustrations are uninspiring, and seem mainly to serve the sequence in which the heroine, tied up in a chair with her blouse torn open to reveal her breasts, delivers a series of karate kicks to her assailant. Even this, unfortunately, isn’t done with particular panache. To this end, in terms of visual mediums, the lurid magazine and book covers – full of fanged creatures, sexy women and other titillations – and vintage advertisements which intersperse the stories are far more interesting and striking. The covers from the 1960s and 1970s are colourful, expressive and arguably even objects of a certain beauty – by contrast, the four covers featured from the 1990s seem markedly depleted in taste or attractiveness; no comment is offered on why, but one assumes they are representative of the aesthetic of that era.

Indumathi’s “Hold On A Minute, I’m In The Middle Of A Murder” suffers a little bit for its melodrama, but has enough bloodshed and black magic (“gained in the forests of Iran and Iraq”, no less) to entertain. The occupants and staff of a mental hospital come under the influence of spirit possession, vendettas beyond the grave, and a hodgepodge of faith systems that incorporate everything from Christian-Satanic binaries to Tantric rituals.

Two brilliant stories follow in this predominantly horror-based anthology: M.K. Narayanan’s “The Bungalow By The River” and Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning!”. The first is a ghost story set in Malaysia, and successfully evokes, without literary pretensions, a milieu and society that might be lesser-known among local readers of Tamil pulp fiction, and is more convincing both in its gore and supernatural themes than Indumathi’s piece. Kumar’s police mystery set in Coimbatore, meanwhile, contains a twist which – although translator Pritham Chakravathy and editor Rakesh Khanna say might be familiar – is quite ingenious to those who do not regularly consume crime or mystery fiction.

Both these stories are racy by the standards of the eras they describe: in the first, an “adamant” young woman consents to staying overnight on holiday with her fiancé, in the second, a jeans-clad, moped-riding woman and her friends watch pornography together in the mid-80s. The latter story in particular is traditionally problematic when it comes to that old bugbear: the desirous female (and her inevitable punishment), but pulp is hardly the place to expect otherwise. For those overly concerned, however, the anthology’s final piece, Resakee’s “Sacrilege To Love”, offers some minor consolation: it has two alternative endings, one for “diehard romantics”, and the other for those who, disgusted by the chauvinism displayed by all its male leads, might root for an offbeat happily-never-after.

There are two ways to read pulp: you can read it incredulously, lamenting the cause of beautifully-turned prose and rolling your eyes at all the rolling heads. Or you can read it without any self-consciousness, giving in to all its gaudy, gory glory. There’s really only one good way to do it though, and that way, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II is an absolute treat.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

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