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Monday Original Content: Interview with Blaft Publications

This week, we interview Blaft Publications, publisher of Tamil Pulp Fiction.

How did you get involved in the anthology?

Rakesh Khanna: I moved to Chennai from California in 1998 to do a master’s in mathematics.  I didn’t know any Tamil, and it’s a tough language to learn, so in attempt to learn a little more about the place I was living in, I tried to read some Tamil writing in translation. But all I could find was either really heavy literature about serious social issues, or else long and intricately plotted historical epics about the Chola Empire, and I couldn’t manage to wade through any of it. What I needed at that time was something to give my mind a break from partial differential equations, something fun and fast-paced. And apparently they just didn’t translate stuff like that.

I knew it existed, though, because I kept seeing these ten-rupee Tamil pocket novels, strung up on a nylon cord above the counter at the tea stall, and the titles were written in English in Tamil script (which I did manage to learn): things like Super Bumper Horror Detective Novel, or Today Crime News: Thrilling!! And they had these insane covers with photoshop montages of Wes Craven movie stills, Iron Maiden album covers, Hindu religious calendar art, and Tamil TV serial cops. So I was madly curious.

A few years after college, I met Pritham–here was a fan of Tamil pulp who was totally gung-ho about the project AND could translate.  So we cooked up the plan for the book and she started reading a lot and sending me sample translations.

Pritham Chakravarthy: Like Rakesh said — cook was what I did first when Rashmi [partner of Rakesh & Blaft] came over for dinner, which is when she sounded me on the idea.

Well, I was hooked. But, given my other interests, I had not read any pulp in a long time. So, I had no clue about the present scene.

I made a quick visit to my sister’s lending library to check on the most popular in the recent times [2006-07] borrowed a pile and spent the next three months reading pulp. The process was so absorbing that it was time to revisit my old favorites too. That was how we were able to get some clue to a period.

On the selection process, I visited four other popular lending libraries, friends in the publishing business and authors for more names. Like I say in my Translator’s Note, given my family background, my exposure was limited to approved authors.

For instance, I had never read a Tamilvanan when I was a child. But my husband grew up on it.

Rakesh himself had collected some; only because he was seduced by the lurid covers.

I translated many more stories than what appeared in the first volume. Some we put aside for future volumes, some where discarded because they did not fit into our design, or where too difficult to retain the cultural references without tampering with the original. Some simply because it was too elaborate and there was no way of checking on the historical accuracy [like the quasi-historical romance of Chandiliyan].

What is about “pulp” that appeals to you? To you personally, how is Tamil pulp unique from other types of pulp?

Rakesh: There are lots of different styles within Tamil pulp… but I think one thing it all has in common is how fast-paced it is.  It totally outstrips American pulp; each chapter is usually only a page or two long, and each chapter usually has at least one murder or explosion or someone getting eaten by a cheetah or attacked with black magic.

Pritham: Tamil Pulp? Well, it is closer [to] home. I know the places they speak about. After all we did read Holmes without ever knowing if there was indeed a Baker Street, and guzzled Blyton, with no knowledge of what lacrosse was.

Believe me I come from a place where if you know English, then it is infra-dig to be reading Tamil pulp. It doesn’t matter if you are reading the more literati stuff.

Honestly, I was a part of that clan too, until Rakesh made me read them.

Shameful, but true — for a person who is teaching cinema.

Pushpa Thangadurai: 1. ANTHOLOGY

Regarding ANTHOLOGY so far as the original story is not abridged or maimed but published as a whole, it is quite in order and does not infringe copywrite act..

2. PULP FICTION

Ghost stories, fantasy, science fiction can all be put into PULP categories.

But many “High Brows” among us will thrash them as trash.

I created lot of stories on this category.

In the West, when Detective and Sex stories came in abundance, literary people used to term them as useless.

After many years, many discussion, and many debates these stories were also considered as literary.

Here in India, these things were settled long ago. Long Long ago! That is our genius!

A Novel or KAVYA as it was call constituted Nine RASAMS.

They are           SRINGARA

HASYA

KARUNA

RAUDRA (ANGER)

VEERA

BHAYANAKA (That gives you fear)

BHIBASTH (A Drama RASA)   A kind of fear, (I suppose)

So this is the way our wise ancient people, have looked upon a story.

Our  “High Brow”s do not know them or bother to know..

Also the Western and as European Ideologists have said that Short stories originated from India. Also our tales have depicted about birds and animals taking part as real characters.

I repeat again I kindly note that all these things have been told by American and Europeans Ideologists.

Pritham: Some background for his answer #1: We had some misunderstanding about the fact that we were going to take an excerpt from his novel My Name is Kamala for the anthology… somehow he got the idea that we were going to use the whole thing (250 pages!) and is still slightly peeved at us.  I think he will be happier now that his complete “Karate Kavitha” story is appearing vol. 2.

Here is a link to explain what he’s talking about with the rasams in answer #2.

Lavie: Can you tell us a bit more about the format of the books? Size, number of pages? Are they more like short stories, or full novels, or something in between?

Also, how are the stories usually told? Are they first person, third person? Do they follow one hero throughout the story?

Also, can we get a picture of something like the tea stand Rakesh talked about?

“and each chapter usually has at least one murder or explosion or someone getting eaten by a cheetah or attacked with black magic”

That sounds so awesome, makes me want to write one too!

Rakesh: These days, pulp “novels” (which are actually more like magazines devoted to one author’s work, published bi-weekly or monthly) generally come in a 175 x 95 mm format, usually 96 or 144 pages.

The length of a story can vary widely… A typical “novel” might contain one longish story, what Americans might call a novella, in the 15K-20K word range, with some jokes or readers’ letters or poems or fan fiction shorts stuffed in at the back.  OR, it might contain two shorter stories of about equal length.

OR, a longer work can be serialized in successive monthly “novels”… Indra Soundar Rajan does this quite frequently. Some of his stories are really massive and epic, I think the complete Sivamayam is around 200,000 words.  These later get collected and published in a single volume (or in the case of Sivamayam, 2 volumes).

In older days, I think this concept of the monthly publication devoted to one author’s work was not so common… Novels (American usage now) were serialized in variety magazines. For instance, Pushpa Thangadorai’s My Name is Kamala was serialized in Dhinamani Khadir over 43 weeks in 1974-75, and later released as a book.

3rd person storytelling seems most common — Indra Soundar Rajan’s stories generally follow a single hero (actually usually a heroine — his stories revolve around Goddess worship and woman power), with occasional departures, say, to check out what’s going on in the villians’ lair.  Rajesh Kumar (a spectacularly prolific Tamil crime writer who has currently got a bid in with the Guinness Book to dethrone L. Ron Hubbard as the world’s most published author) has a standard trick of switching scenes back and forth between two or three sets of characters, who seem to be unrelated until the mystery wraps up at the end.

Pushpa Thangadorai has done some first-person stuff, including My Name is Kamala, an excerpt of which is included in our anthology.  Also, detective writers Suba (two authors, one name) have a series of novels starring a retired army colonel hero, and those are all written in first person.

Pritham:

Wow… this is a lot of information.

Single have been published since 1920s.

Besides these singles are those serialized in popular magazines. It is only after DTP became cheap and available to many — in the early 80s, did single novels prolifically  hit the market. They are around 6 to 8 inches in length and three in breadth, about 94 to 120 pages long.

In the 80s the most popular single publication was Ranimuthu [Queen’s pearl] that published very popular authors, and sometimes advertised the next months forthcoming issues as well. Authors vied with each other to come out in this journal.

Popular authors like Kalki, Akilan, Sujatha, Maniyan, Saavi, Sivasankari, Tamaraimanalan,  Indumathi, Cho have all been a source for commercial Tamil cinema, before the new breed; many of them who are a part of our volume, entered the scene.

Writing very long stories did not come only with Indra Soundarrajan; with his Sivamayam and  Vikrama Vikrama. Thillana Mohanambal and Thyaga Bhoomi ran for years and abridging them for movies was quite a task indeed.

Rakesh:

Attaching some not-great photos of a Chennai newsstand (without associated tea stall)  – Siva News Mart in Indira Nagar – with some Tamil and English mags and pulp novels.  Siva, the proprietor, is in one of the pics.
Here is a link to a short movie clip of behind-the-scenes at a Tamil press…

For Pritham, I just want to clarify what infra-dig means as I’m not familiar with that expression.

For Rakesh and Pritham, what’s the collaboration process like? Who has the final word on which stories get included in the book?

And for Pritham, what were the challenges in translating the stories?

Rakesh: We have had plenty of arguments, but not so much about which stories should go in the books, we’ve been pretty much on the same wavelength there.  For the first anthology, I remember we had a hard time deciding how to represent the romance/chick-lit genres, and Pritham went through a lot of stuff and did a lot of sample translations before she found the Ramanichandran novel and the Vidya Subramaniam stories that eventually went in. Deciding on things for Volume 2 was easier, because we weren’t so worried about being representative of Tamil Pulp as a whole, and got to sort of focus on horror/supernatural and mystery stuff.

Once Pritham has finished her first draft of the translation, then we sit together and try to tweak the English so that it isn’t so American as to bug Indian readers and isn’t so Indian as to bug American readers.

Pritham:
With our long colonial history, when you are educated in an English-medium school, you will deny your Tamil roots.  To be seen reading a Tamil pulp book is “lower than a dig.”  It’s lower than a worm.  Your servants can read it, but you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to read Ian Fleming (or these days, Chetan Bhagat), and feel classy.

Pritham: I think I have the last word, he thinks he has the last word.

Pritham: A few of the authors, like Pattuokkottai Prabakar and Rajesh Kumar, use so many English words mixed in with their Tamil that the job was easy — it was basically just “correcting” their grammar.  The toughest author was Indra Soundar Rajan, who uses a lot of cultural references.

In Tamil (and most Indian languages), there are many social situations in which people would never address each other by name. For instance, a younger brother will never refer to his older brother by name, but would instead call him Anna. For Indian readers, even Indian English readers, it would sound very strange for a younger brother to call his elder brother by name, so we had to keep the Tamil word in this, and other cases.

But it gets more complicated: for instance, a wife will call her husband Baava, Maama, Enna, Machchan or Anna, depending on their caste. But Machchan can also mean brother-in-law.  How do you convey all this?  The word Amma is used for “Mother”, but “Mother” sounds strangely British and formal, and “Mom” sounds strangely modern and American.  So we kept the Amma and put it in the glossary. A person would always refer to a woman employer or woman politician with the same word, Amma; in this sense it might be translated as “Madam” — BUT using the word “Madam” makes the speaker sound either overly formal or sarcastic. Confusingly, the same word Amma is also used to invoke the goddess (any goddess).  It was occassionally tough to juggle all these considerations.

One of the fun challenges was deciding which of the onomatopoeia and sound effects to keep–Tamil authors use a lot of them.  They’re very different from English sound effects.  Check this sentence from a story by Medhavi in the upcoming sequel anthology:

“When the fourth man caught the purse—labak!—and turned around to run, there was a hard punch—pateer!—on his face, and—veduk!—the purse was snatched from his fist.”

With selecting the stories and the problems of translation in mind, who is your target audience for the anthology?

Pritham: The first idea of the reader was the likes of Rakesh in India, who were fascinated by the covers, but couldn’t read the inside. As the material grew juicier and heavier, we began looking at the larger English speaking world as our readers. When that scale came into the picture, it also altered the selection of the stories, and the other interests, what to put on the endnotes, how much of research goes into the Translator’s note, and what kind of intro blurbs we give the authors themselves.

The authors themselves were enthusiastic about our efforts, for as Ramani Chandran said, “Oh good. Now my granddaughter will be able to read my stories.

Lavie: I just wanted to ask, as well, how has the reception for the book been? It seems to have been widely reviewed outside India? And how has it been recieved in India?

Pritham: About reviews from outside India, I have no idea. At home it has been well received. Numbers, Rakesh can give you.

Rakesh: When we started this, I had it in my head that the book would be easier to sell abroad than in India.  I was proved wrong.  We got wonderful press in India (if I may brag, see here and here for super great reviews we got early on) and tons of enthusiastic support from Indian bloggers and tweeters. And it’s still selling at a good clip all around the country.

Outside India, we have been mentioned or reviewed on a few blogs, but I think the word is still getting out there… it’s tricky for a small press to get international distribution, and we are still learning the best ways to do it.  Though now our stuff is available from Small Press Distributors in the US, from MarketAsia Distributors in Singapore/Malaysia, and from Motilal Banarsidass in the UK.

What is it about the text that you think will appeal to international readers?

Pritham: Doesn’t sex, crime, drugs, and corruption have an universal appeal?

Rakesh: If there’s room for it, you can mention that aside from Tamil, Blaft has also been doing translations from one of the top Hindi pulp authors… Surender Mohan Pathak.  We released The 65 Lakh Heist last year and Daylight Robbery last week.  Tehelka magazine did a nice article on him:

http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=hub200210do_you.asp

March 15, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

  1. DDD: I am a terrible person for not having written a review for this anthology yet, despite enjoying it thoroughly, utterly, immensely. I’m so happy that there’ll be a sequel anthology! Can’t wait!❤

    Comment by Jha | March 15, 2010

  2. Infra dig.: Latin ‘infra dignitatem’ – beneath one’s dignity.

    Comment by Grizzly | March 15, 2010

  3. […] – Charles A.Tan talks to the publishers of an anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. […]

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  4. femei perfecte…

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