This book is an attempt to claim the status of “literature” for a huge body of writing that has rarely if ever made it into an academic library, despite having been produced for nearly a century. While a good deal of Tamil fiction has been rendered in English, it has primarily been members of the literati who have enjoyed this distinction. Even the recent translations of more popular authors such as Sivasankari and Sujatha seem to be selections of their most serious, “meaningful” work.
As a schoolgirl in mid-sixties Chennai, I grew up on a steady diet of Anandha Vikatan, Kumudham, Dhinamani Kadhir, Thuglaq, Kalaimagal and Kalkandu. These magazines were shared and read by practically all the women at home. ‘Then there were other publications, less welcome in a traditional household, with more glamorous pictures and lustier stories. These we would regularly purloin from the driver of our school bus, Natraj, who kept a stack of them hidden under the back seat. I doubt if he knew what an active readership he was sponsoring on those long bus rides.
So, from the days when our English reading consisted of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys up until we grew out of Earl Stanley Gardner, Arthur 1-lailey, and Hadley Chase, we also had a parallel world of Ra. Ki. Rangarajan, Rajendra Kumar, Sivasankari, Vaasanthi, Lakshmi, Anuthama... and especially Sujatha, who rocked us back in the seventies with his laundry-woman jokes. As school kids, though we did not understand what they actually meant, we were definitely aware of the unsaid adult content in them. His detective duo Ganesh and Vasanth were suddenly speaking a kind of Tamil that was much closer to our Anglicised language than anything we had seen before on paper. We were completely seduced by the brevity of his writing.
Households would meticulously collect the stories serialized in these weeklies and have them hard-bound to serve as reading material during the long, hot summet vacations. We offer an excerpt from one of these serials in this collection: En Peyar Kamala, by Pushpa Thangadurai, with sketches by Jayaraj. I remember when this story was being serialized in the mid-seventies. The journal was kept hidden in my mother’s cupboard. The subject matter was deemed too dangerous for us young girls. Since I was not allowed to read it at home, naturally, I read it on the school bus. Thanks to Natraj.
Then came college days, my political awakening and my increasing involvement with theatre activism, during which I consciously distanced myself from reading pulp fiction and moved to more “serious stuff”. Two and a half decades of marriage, two daughters, many cigarettes and a lot of rum later, I got called upon to return to it. When Rakesh—a California-born, non-Tamil-speaking Chennai transplant who had developed a burning curiosity about the cheap novels on the rack at his neighborhood tea stand—approached me with the idea of doing this book, it was fun to discover that the child in me is still alive and kicking. I used to think of this as my literature. I still do. I just took a little vacation from it.
Of course, time had passed, and things had changed. The latest pulp novels were thin, glossy, ten-rupee jobs with bizarrely photo shopped covers. Actually, they weren’t new; they had been around for three decades—I just hadn’t read one yet! It took some time to catch up; I spent a year searching through library records for the most popular books, going on wild travels to strange book houses and the far lung homes of the many different authors, artists and publishers, taking many crazy bus journeys and visiting many coffee houses, and doing a kind of pleasure reading I realized I had been badly missing for the past thirty years.
The corpus of pulp literature that has been produced for Tamil readers is vast, and there is no hope of providing a representative sample in a single volume. We decided on a selection of stories from the late l960s to the present; a few notes on the earlier history of the genre follow.
‘The Tamil people take great pride in speaking a living classical language, a language which had written texts even as early as the 6” century B.C. Two things were necessary prerequisites for the reading habit to be spread throughout the general population. The first was printing technology, which until the early 19” century was available only for government agencies and for the printing of the Gospels. The second was education. In ancient society, education was privileged cultural capital, available to only a few caste groups. For fiction to move from the sole preserve of the “patrons of literature” into the hands of the masses took three centuries from the time when the European colonists first stepped on this soil.
Yes, the colonists brought us “literacy”. But even after the British democratized it, it took a whole century to grow into the larger public. Four decades after printing technology became available to more than jus the state government and the missionaries, novels became a hit among the middle classes—though this new form of fiction still encountered some opposition.
The first books for popular readership, besides translations of the British literary canon, were typified by Prathaba Mudhaliar Sarithiram (1879), an ultra-moralistic Christian novel about the dangers of a hedonistic lifestyle. This and other early Tamil novels were usually serialized in monthly periodicals. In the early 2Orh century, the literary journal Manikkodi was at the forefront of a Tamil renaissance driven by leftist, humanist writers such as Pudumaipittan, Illango, and Ramaiyya. At the same time, in a wholly separate sector of the readership, the British “penny dreadful” (and after World War I, the American dime novel) inspired another crop of Tamil authors, including Vaduvoor Doraisami Iyengar. His Brahmin detective hero, Digambara Samiar, held a law degree and a superior, casteist morality which set him apart from the gritty underworld in which his investigations took place. The criminal the big names. These writers churn out literally hundreds pages of fiction every month. The speed of production has the effect of making the plots somewhat dreamlike, with investigations wandering far afield, characters appearing and disappearing without warning, and resolutions surprising us from out of the blue.
Yet, for all their escapism, these works in no way leave behind the times they were created in; they contain reactions to, reflections on, and negations of what was going on. Our selection by no means exhausts the ocean. But hopefully the bouquet we finally managed to put together can give the reader some sense of the madness and diversity of this flourishing literary scene.
Rakesh and I would like to thank the following people for helping to put this book together: the authors and artists and their families; Gowri Govender, who opened her library for me to freely borrow from; Dilip Kumar, who put me on to authors popular before my time; Candace Khanna, Sheila Moore, and Kaveri Lalchand for their valuable feedback; Rashmi, for all her support and suggestions; and Chaks, who brought Tamilvanan into our text and also patiently waited for the many hours we spent in the nights to finish.
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