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'Tamil Pulp': Sexy, Gory Fiction, Now In English

Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host ofNew America Now on member station KALW in San Francisco.

Forget The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- Indumathi's Hold On A Minute I'm In The Middle of A Murder is coming to America. Here's a quote from this foreign best-seller:

"Suddenly a trickle of blood began to flow from a crack in the stone tomb. How could fresh blood come out of a tomb built in 1977?"

The story is part of a collection of Tamil pulp fiction that's been translated into English.

Tamil has always been the language of high culture in India. Its literature is 2000 years old, its poetry exquisite.

But some of the most widely read stories in Tamil have titles like Sweetheart, Please Die.

You see these books everywhere in India. The covers are lurid, mustachioed men menacing women in tight nurse's uniforms, knives dripping blood, and lots of cleavage. Rakesh Khanna, a Californian living in India, wanted to find out more about the stories. So he hired a translator. Now, they have put together Volume II of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.

Indian pulps have been around since the early 20th century. They borrowed freely from American dime novels and British penny dreadfuls. But because this is India, there are also kings, ghosts and mythological serpents.

In The Palace of Kottaipuram, Indra Soundar Rajan writes, "one of the mob stepped up with a flower garland, ready to put it around Visu's neck. Woven into the strands of flowers was a cobra …"

<em>Tiger Police Diary, </em>by Rajeshkumar
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<em>Tiger Police Diary, </em>by Rajeshkumar

It's Eat Pray Love and Kill for 10 rupees -- about a quarter.

The translator of the American collection, Pritham Chakravarty, told me they were considered so racy, her mother hid them away in a cupboard. Luckily her school-bus driver had a stash.

The sex isn't really very explicit. But the detectives are often unmarried couples. There's room for lots of banter in between murders, as in this exchange from The Palace of Kottaipuram:

"Archana shook her head in disappointment. It was an act of beauty; her pallu fell off her shoulder and Visu's gaze swooped down to her chest like a jet landing on a runway. Archana followed his look and adjusted her sari."

The woman asks, "I can't even let it slip a bit, eh?" and giggles.

It's mostly suggestive. As one pulp writer said, exposing a navel is sexy. Spinning a top on it is vulgar.

And the pulp writers are no top spinners -- these are solid middle-class respectable Indians.

<em>Ten Murders By The Demon</em>
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<em>Ten Murders By The Demon</em>

Chakravarty remembers one meek old woman who let her husband do all the talking, even when negotiating rights to her books. She made coffee, switched off the stove and took her granddaughter to dance class.

Just a typical gray-haired grandmother.  Until she picks up her pen and writes:

"A picture formed in her imagination: Gunaseelan lying on an ornate bed, surrounded by liquor bottles and a harem of scantily-clad women. She began trembling."

That's from Dim Lights, Blazing Heartsby Ramanichandran. Coming soon to a bookstore near you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.