Cheap Thrills


Sorry for the long silence but things have been quite hectic at work, as a result of which the blog writing has suffered. Did this piece - a sharp, slightly provocative critique of vernacular pulp fiction in India - for TimeOut Delhi. Read on.

Nadia is a bad girl. In Rajesh Kumar’s Hello Good Dead Morning, she is a young, sexually aroused woman who must douse “the fire burning in her body” after watching a blue film. So she seduces Nirmalkumar, the AC technician, then turns around and accuses him of rape. Ultimately, however, it is Nadia who is raped and filmed after receiving a “sex-inducing injection so that her senses are aroused to every male hand that touches her”. And another loose female receives her comeuppance in the world of Indian pulp.

India’s vernacular pulp fiction has shimmied back into the limelight with the recent release of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction – Volume 2. The first volume, also translated by Pritham Chakravarty, caught fire in the literary salons of metropolitan India when it came out in 2008. It was the instant conversation-piece in Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore bars, the ideal cool gift for anyone with a sense of irony. Blaft’s anthology rose to become the cigar-chewing don of a pack of translated and pulp-inspired creations, from the translated fiction of Surender Mohan Pathak to the grinding, tectonic body-mass of cartoon porn goddess Savita Bhabhi on the web.

Pulp – cheap thrills printed on cheap paper – has always referred to risqué or violent fiction to be read on train journeys (it’s easiest to find at railway platforms) or in the bathroom. It is popular culture in its truest form, and stays popular by offering sheer entertainment and the simple reaffirmation of conservative values. But now the new wave of Indian pulp is being devoured by the kind of Indian reader who would, in the same breath, dismiss a John Irving novel as middle-brow. Nobody is objecting to the prose, as mediocre and melodramatic as ever. Nobody is troubled by the fate of loose woman. Come on, man – it’s hilarious, they say. Even translator Pritham Chakravarthy, who worked on both the anthologies, agreed and said that pulp is “positively sexist”. But the purpose of the genre is to make people derive “vicarious pleasure” from these stories, she said.

Our new enthusiasm for pulp could spring from the fact that Indian writing in English has long failed to produce books which were written simply to entertain. “I’d like to use the joker’s dialogue from Batman: why so serious?” said book critic Nilanjana Roy. “For 30 years, Indian writing in English lacked books which were meant to be read just for pleasure and entertainment and pulp fiction – whether in English or in translation – has been filling that gap.” But the fact that it’s popular doesn’t mean anyone is mistaking it for quality literature, she says. “It’s like saying that Chetan Bhagat’s popularity makes him India’s greatest literary writer – one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.”

Roy noted that pulp and literary fiction both look at the same issues affecting society, though through different lenses. “The first volume of [the Blaft anthology], for instance, gives an insight into the role of women in Tamil society at that time,” she said.

However, Roy is wary of how easy it is to “fetishise” pulp fiction, pointing to the adulation it has received in the media. She likens the new pulp fiction to the kitschy design products such as tote bags emblazoned with Bollywood poster icons. “These products were staples of our households at one time and are now being sold back to us with a wink,” she said.

Shruti Ravindran, a Delhi-based journalist and fan of pulp fiction, is the kind of reader who discovered vernacular pulp after its “glossification”. Though she finds it “jarring to see retrograde sexual politics reproduced in shiny paperback form”, Ravindran attributed her enthusiasm for pulp fiction to “nostalgia for the world lost to our childhoods and youth and its [the fiction’s] perceived innocence”.

Reading these stories ironically, of course, is merely an excuse for metropolitan readers to avoid engaging seriously with the stories. “Irony is a deflection of critical awareness,” Ravindran said. “But as we’re unaware of the cultural background of the original readers, we don’t know whether they read it sceptically, or alongside feminist poetry.”

Maybe their favourite character was actually Karate Kavitha. Kavitha is always being captured by villains and having her clothes ripped off, but always comes back to kick their asses (“Amma! I’m dying!” they yelp) and save the day.