A Tamil pulp-fiction anthology from a small independent publishing house in India ranked among my best books of the year, as revealed in this week's Express Holiday Guide.
That publishing house is Blaft, founded in 2007 by Berkeley native Rakesh Khanna. Blaft's output is eclectic and intelligent, ranging from English translations of vintage mass-market thrillers from India's bestselling authors to Kuzhali Manickavel's absurdist short-fiction collection Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, with the eerie graphic novel Moonward an a colorful book of postcards based on pup-cover art further expanding the spectrum.
Curious about the company, I interviewed Khanna, who attended Berkeley's Berkwood-Hedge school, Oakland's College Preparatory School, and UC Santa Cruz.
"My mom is from a Madera, California ranching family; my father was born in Multan, in what's now the Pakistani part of Punjab, to a Hindu family that relocated to Delhi after partition in 1947. I was obsessed with music for a long time and wanted to be a drummer when I grew up; I played in local youth orchestras and punk bands and stuff. Then halfway through college I switched to a math major, and afterwards I worked as a math teacher in Oakland and Richmond."
He first visited India at age ten.
"I think I knew on the first trip, at some level at least, that I wanted to live in India. I made a few more trips in my teens and early twenties. I was largely just attracted by how complicated it is. I started out as the dumb American cousin who couldn't spell his own name in Hindi, couldn't order in a restaurant, didn't know what languages were spoken in which states, missed all the pop culture references, was scared to drive a car here or to eat panipuri from roadside stalls. I really badly wanted to be able to do all that stuff.
"At some point I traveled south and discovered I liked the southern part of the country even better. Chennai is not the best city for tourists, and a terrible place for nightlife, but it's still got a lot going for it: great food, a long beach, absolutely kickass local music, nearly zero tension between religious and ethnic groups, no guns. There's a nice mix of tradition with an international worldview. The primary language here is Tamil, but there is lots of English and some Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam."
While earning a Master's degree in math at Chennai's Indian Institute of Technology, Khanna met his future wife and decided to stay.
Blaft "started with three friends with some ideas about books and t-shirts and other designy things we wanted to make.
"One of the first book ideas was to translate the awesome-looking Tamil pulp novels that we saw in front of all the tea shops. I had been eyeing these for a long time, and I had learned the Tamil script well enough to read the titles, which were mostly English words: Super Bumper Horror Detective Novel! with photoshopped montages of Iron Maiden album covers and Kollywood movie stills. ...
"Then we discovered Kuzhali Manickavel's short stories online, and contacted her. Our artist friend Natesh put together a book of really great surrealist sketches of elephant-motorbike-nipple-hand creatures. So pretty soon we had five books out, and several more in the pipeline, and we got a bunch of good reviews in big magazines in Delhi, and oh, look, we're a publishing company.
"Lately we've gotten into 'visual books.' The latest release is Kumari Loves a Monster, which is a picture book featuring Indian girls in love with gallant and gruesome monsters, rendered in Tamil-weekly-magazine-illustration style by artist Shyam."
Indian pulp fiction, the kind read by tens of millions, is little known outside India. That's a pity, given the wild action and gritty characters energizing such bestsellers as Surender Mohan Pathak's Daylight Robbery, a huge hit in 1980 and now out in English from Blaft.
"One of my favorite things about the Tamil-language pulp scene is how many of the authors have these insane outputs: three novels every month for Pattukkottai Prabakar, five for and Rajesh Kumar," marveled Khanna, explaining that a "novel" in the Tamil pulp context "means about 15,000 words, about a quarter of the length of an average English novel — but that's still like doing NaNoWriMo, consistently and successfully, every month, for decades," with the manuscripts actually published.
"Neither the author nor the reader takes the stuff terribly 'seriously,' but the authors still have to entertain — which means the stories are deliriously fast-paced, and pumped with style."
Blaft's latest project is the translation of some novels by the Urdu-language pulp author Ibne Safi:
"He was also prolific, though not in the same league as the Tamil guys, but he has a very different approach and appeal. He is kind of an absurdist. He has these recurring characters, Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed; Faridi is bit Sherlock Holmes-ish, deadly with a revolver and having an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Hameed, on the other hand, is an inveterate womanizer whose dialogue is usually completely off the wall. He'll go totally mad for pages at a time and rant nonsense and throw furniture around. Safi's 'Jasusi Duniya' — 'World of Detection' or 'World of Espionage' — series has its own universe, centered around an unnamed city, which is sort-of-Karachi-but-not-really, packed with seedy nightclubs and drug dealers, circus dwarfs, North American supercriminals, and secret agents from Zeroland with their armies of mutant apes."
Well, of course: mutant apes.
India has a literary tradition far older than those of nearly all cultures and countries on earth. Yet Westerners are not very familiar with recent and current Indian literature — with a few trendy exceptions such as Arundhati Roy and Anita Desai. That's a pity.
"A lot of people seem to think of contemporary 'Indian literature' as people like Salman Rushdie (who is a British citizen), Rohinton Mistry (Canadian), Jhumpa Lahiri (American), etc. etc. It's true, there are not too many contemporary Indian writers known in the West, and those few that are well-known nearly all write in English. India's English-speaking population has been getting a lot of press lately, through call centers and all that, but the vast majority of people speak and read other languages — dozens of them.
"There are fabulous writers in all of these languages, who are generally ignored outside their linguistic community until they're 80 years old, at which point the Sahitya Akademi — the Indian government's literature agency — gives them a prize and publishes some of their most boring work in a poorly edited English translation with an ugly cover that's impossible to find outside of Delhi."
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