Blood, gore and a deadly story

Sruthi Radhakrishnan traces the growth of Tamil pulp fiction into its present golden age.

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:44 pm IST

Published - August 29, 2014 06:36 pm IST

Tamil pulp retains the basic tenets of pulp fiction — printed on cheap paper, lurid tales, deception, betrayal, a generous dollop of murder or thieving thrown in, and in some cases, a bit of the supernatural too. Photo: R. Ragu

Tamil pulp retains the basic tenets of pulp fiction — printed on cheap paper, lurid tales, deception, betrayal, a generous dollop of murder or thieving thrown in, and in some cases, a bit of the supernatural too. Photo: R. Ragu

“Together, J. Sylvester Jones and his butler Hawker ascended the wide oak balustraded stairs. There was a heaviness in the atmosphere; a gloom that permeated everything. There was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary, but both knew that something was wrong. ‘It is dreadful, sir,’ sighed the old butler. ‘I peeped through the keyhole, sir. I could just see the top of his head, slewed around in a most peculiar angle — and it never moves, sir.” (From the September 1920 issue of The Black Mask magazine)

Welcome to the marvellous world of pulp fiction. Not the Tarantino movie by the same name, which is inspired by classic pulp magazines and was supposed to be named Black Mask, after one. But the pulp magazine itself, which has created and supported writers whom we now consider greats, and characters who are still close to our hearts.

Not only did pulp make the commonly ‘dreadful’ story mainstream, it brought to the literary world authors such as Isaac Asimov, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.P. Lovecraft, Agatha Christie, and even famed (or notorious, depending on which side of the line you’re on) Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The golden era for pulps in English, sadly enough died out in the 1950s. But in India, specifically in Tamil, pulp acquired a new life in the form of monthly magazines. Before the 1980s, serialised stories in weeklies were and remain cult hits (these are now successful novels). Readers of that generation would wait every week for a new issue of Ananda Vikatan or Kalki for the next installment in the story they’d been following with avid interest, a kind of fan following unimaginable by those very magazines today. But the 80s saw a change in the market, and thus the Tamil pulp magazine was born.

Tamil pulp retained the basic tenets of pulp fiction — printed on cheap paper, lurid tales, deception, betrayal, a generous dollop of murder or thieving thrown in, and in some cases, a bit of the supernatural too.

But cultural differences have had a significant impact on the themes in Tamil. In English there was that which was considered horror, a mythical monster or such which devoured only young, virginal women. This was quite passe for Tamil where the commonest of plots had the most chilling depictions of dark arts and such.

Take, for example, Indra Soundarrajan. His stories deal with a sub-genre that is almost exclusively his — mythological thrillers — most based on true stories or reported occurrences in and around Tamil Nadu. Most of his pulp writing, both of magazines and TV, has divine intervention, reincarnation, ghosts, supernatural phenomena all woven in as if it were the most mundane. One famous story of his was made into a successful TV show by the same name, Vidathu Karuppu, the story of a vigilante with dissociative disorder.

Tamil pulp, has also had the distinction of giving equal billing to its female protagonists. While in English, pulp covers were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, with monsters for company, in Tamil there were many male-female crime-solving duos — Suba’s Narendra and Vaijayanti, Pattukottai Prabhakar’s Bharat and Susheela, Rajesh Kumar’s Vivek and Rubella. There was a certain ambiguity in their relationship, at least initially in Vivek and Rubella’s case, a bit of romantic tension to keep the story’s pace going, and a strength in the women that is unusual in this hard-boiled genre.

The volume of writing in Tamil is also incomparable to what English has produced in the same novel. The average Tamil pulp writer has at least a 100 books to his or her credit. Rajesh Kumar is said to have written 1,500 books. Every month, one can see a new set of books by Kumar at the local newsstand. Ramani Chandran has written lesser, only in comparison — 120 or so books — still a number most authors in any language may never get to. There seems to be a contest in writing more of these novels, though novellas would be better description given the size of each book.

Pulp in English, though, has given us characters that are still being reinvented, one for each generation by movie studios whose budgets know no bounds. In a while, we may even forget that pulp gave us Zorro, Conan the Barbarian, and Tarzan, and of course the story that crystallised the hard-boiled genre — The Maltese Falcon. Maybe Tamil pulp has years to go before achieving this sort of cult status, seeing as how the current format has been in vogue for only 30 odd years.

Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon has received the highest praise an author can get, that from a contemporary. Raymond Chandler once wrote, “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse… He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Tamil pulp too, until now, has been in a golden age of sorts. A loyal reader base, a great option for light travel reading, just the right length for a 90-minute bus or train journey, and most importantly, scenes that seem fresh every time.

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