Down memory lane with Kerala’s pulp fiction writers

The pulp fiction of the 1970s was a reflection of the reading and entertainment culture, where novels tided people over lulls in the day. The Hindu takes a trip on a time machine with a generation of writers and publishers to understand why they were the rockstars of the age 

November 09, 2023 07:46 pm | Updated February 08, 2024 04:03 pm IST

Illustration for The Hindu

Illustration for The Hindu

There’s a mismatch between the name Batten Bose and the man going by it. Sunk into an armchair, the potbellied man in his mid-60s with a receding hairline, is waiting for the plot to evolve in his head. Then he puts his pen to an A4 sheet of paper and writes in Malayalam: “The midday sun slowly descends on the Western Ghats. The sky looks like a blue vessel placed upside down over the earth. Wispy clouds float through it, resembling blood-thirsty vampire bats!” 

At his modest two-storey house near Kudayampadi, a few kilometres from the hustle and bustle of Kottayam town in south-central Kerala, Batten Bose, who was born Kochukunnel Mathayi Chacko, is trying to painstakingly gouge words out of himself for the latest of his dime novels, the 171st in a long writing career that spans many genres.

This year marks 50 years in Batten Bose’s literary life. One of the biggest pulp fiction names in Malayalam, who once enjoyed rock-star status among the readers, Batten Bose has written novels, a handful of screenplays for movies and television serials. His inspiration is drawn from real life — anything from a money heist in Europe to the recent serial killings in Kerala’s Koodathayi village.

Like a professional wrestler, he always keeps the next fight in mind. “Writing has been my business. I have always had a nose to sense what readers want,” he says. “I grew up in a remote village in the Western Ghats, Adimali, so the settings of many of the novels took inspiration from this.”

He has about 1,000 books at home, including classics, poetry, anthologies of essays, and even a book on anthropology. On the bookshelves, they jostle with Arthur Conan Doyle, James Hadley Chase, and Durgaprasad Khatri.  

Boom time  

Batten Bose was born in a world where fiction was mass entertainment. Popularised through paperbacks in village libraries and scores of Kottayam-based popular weekly magazines, readers could immerse themselves in fantasy worlds. With only the radio for a rival through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, novels became a money-making proposition with some publishers churning in several lakhs of rupees on a weekly basis. 

In tandem with the proliferation of mass-market weeklies and paperbacks during the 1970s, a new crop of writers was born. Inspired by Muttathu Varkey, Kanam E.J., Vallachira Madhavan, and Kottayam Pushpanath, the pioneering writers of thrilling pulp fiction in Malayalam, this young bunch of writers branched out to a multitude of subgenres, from sweeping love stories to family dramas, fantasy, and investigative thrillers. Their literary output, which channelled complex emotions into stories on relationships, caught the imagination of regular, often barely literate readers. 

“For long, these weeklies had been the lone medium for women like me to stay connected with the world outside. It was common for people to loan copies or exchange them among themselves. Much of the neighbourhood discussions those days revolved around the story plots of such novels and their protagonists,” says Alice Thomas Pengttu, a 65-year-old from Kumuli in Idukki and a reader for some 40 years.  

Jacob Varghse, who runs Regal Publishers, taking a look at a copy of Chembakam, a pulp weekly published by him in the 1990s.

Jacob Varghse, who runs Regal Publishers, taking a look at a copy of Chembakam, a pulp weekly published by him in the 1990s. | Photo Credit: VISHNU PRATHAP

Buoyed by the readers’ responses and steady income from publishers, these writers moved from interior villages of central Travancore to settle down in Kottayam, the site of a flourishing trade in pulp fiction. Such was their scale of literary productivity that they started to serialise novels for competing publications under different pseudonyms at the same time.

Batten Bose, for instance, took up the names of Elsa Jacob and Moses, his wife and older son, to reach out to a family audience. Joicy, the doyen of family drama, assumed the pseudonyms of Jossey Vagamattom and C.V. Nirmala while dealing with crime and women-oriented stories respectively.

“It’s a mistake to regard this strategy as a mere hack. We approached each subject after carrying out extensive research on the plot, characters, and on the landscape so that the work will reflect social reality of the period. The narratives unfolded in a particular pattern of trials and tribulations to tears of joy,” Joicy explains adding that speed was of essence.

Like Batten Bose, Joicy, whose given name is C.S. Immanuel, started writing at 19 and established himself in the pulp industry during the mid-1980s. A recipient of the Kumkumam award in 1983, Joicy was keen to follow in the footsteps of modernist writers in Malayalam but soon turned to fiction for a living.

“By the latter half of the same decade, I was recruited by one of the frontline weeklies with a reasonable salary. But the revenue from novel writing, which grew steadily to reach ₹600 per chapter or week, was still the key attraction,” he adds.   

The publication industry in Kottayam, which too played a role in helping the region earn its sobriquet ‘the land of letters’, blossomed on the back of this burgeoning market for pulp. A new set of weeklies and paperbacks started production in Kottayam on an industrial scale to cater to a newly empowered set of rural readers.

Over time, their popularity breached the geographical boundaries of Kerala and reached the diaspora comprising mostly the blue-collar workforce in the Persian Gulf. People began to develop an intense bond with the protagonists of their favourite novels, finding a connect with their own lives. The readers were transported to unfamiliar places by capturing the joy of falling in love as well as the painful heartbreak that often ensued. 

Jacob Varghese, 80, a college professor-turned-publisher from Payyappadi, near Kottayam, was among the last in an array of businesspeople to tap this demand. He is credited for making the sensuous sketches of pin-up women and men, a key component of these novels. First a publisher of comics from 1978, Regal Publishers under him entered the pulp fiction trade in 1985 by launching a new weekly, Chembakam.   

While the product came out with a similarly profitable series of pulpy narratives for the local market, the publisher prompted his illustrators to abandon surrealism and embrace anatomy drawing. “Artists Mohan Manimala and Suresh, who later went on to become the most revered names in the sector by chalking out their own styles of sketching, debuted with Chembakam,” Jacob says.    

“The editors wanted us to draw figures with lurid details and it would take up to six hours for us to complete each sketch. The effort was very rewarding as each picture fetched us up to ₹600. That was some money about four decades ago,” says Manimala, smiling.

A change of entertainment  

But the death knell to this pulp-fiction culture came in the next decade as cable TV networks slowly started bringing fantasy worlds to living rooms. Suddenly, these populist authors became unwanted.

Joicy regards this shift to a subtle change in the kind of stories that people want to hear in an age defined by intense involvement with electronic media. With pulp novels well past their golden age, the magazines that thrived on their mass appeal shut shop one after another. The pandemic drove the last nail into the coffin and Kottayam, the much-vaunted land of letters, currently has just one weekly publication offering populist fiction.

Some populist authors migrated to fresher pastures with ease. Joicy, for instance, is now busy writing screenplays for TV serials and shifted his base to Kochi, where a handful of TV channels are headquartered. Batten Bose, on his part, worked for a handful of movies and TV serials and is now in consultation with a production company for rolling out a web series on crime. A couple of leading publications have also proposed to turn his earlier works into web-novels and audio books. 

Mohan Manimala and Suresh are now freelancing for various publications. Manimala retains his old habit of sketching manually before emailing it, while Suresh has switched completely to digital art. Regal Publishers has scaled back its business to just the comics as Chembakam tanked in circulation and revenue. The downward spiral had begun in the mid-1990s when, apart from a few leading magazines, most of the dozen-plus weeklies wound up.

A new wave  

Meanwhile, the demand for consumable fiction was taken up by another crop of young writers who soon came up with a subgenre called upmarket fiction. These books, according to publishers, hold an unprecedented commercial appeal along with a literary feel and are now selling like hot cakes among the youth. Two of the leading weeklies in Kerala sell over 25 lakh copies every week, with a cover price of ₹5, though this can vary with different issues.

“These fictional works follow a particular pattern as the narrative sometimes shifts back and forth straddling multiple points of views of characters and leaps back in time to tell the story. The language, however, is breezy and vibrant while the characters are simple and do not explore the intricacies of life,” explains A.V. Sreekumar, editorial head of DC Books, a leading publishing house. 

Despite being simplistic and sentimental, the pulp literature that was once dismissively characterised as painkili (a little bird) in Malayalam, is nonetheless credited with establishing a literary appetite for the regular person. “The wave might have come to an end but had it not been there Kerala would not have had such a large community of readers or several of those village libraries. Branding this literary stream as painkili was an intellectual construct. In fact, these writers were in no competition with those who pursued modern literary fiction around the same time,” points out Paul Zacharia, eminent author. 

The writers of pulp fiction in Malayalam, according to him, have done their job. “They served well the interests of commercial publications and offered entertainment to common folk,” he says.

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