Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pulp fiction in Tamil

My colleague Satya blogs about Mukul Kesavan's glowing review in Outlook of an English translation of Tamil pulp fiction from a new publisher called Blaft.

Mukul says,
When I was in college, railway station bookstalls were crammed with Hindi novels by Gulshan Nanda. I never read a novel by him, which I regret because it’s strange to be cut off from someone that so many are reading. But like many Anglophone Indians, I find reading in an Indian language a chore. The reason our reading lives aren’t nourished by popular novels set in locales we know is not because they aren’t written, but because they aren’t translated.
I am reasonably aware of the pulp fiction scenario in Tamil Nadu. Popular weekly magazines provided a fertile ground for the pulp fiction writers. Fiction was serialised through these magazines. Once the serials were completed, they were published as books, but never sold in large numbers. Most avid readers will tear the pages from the magazines and bind them together. Such bound volumes were even circulated by the lending libraries.

In the late 1980s when computer aided typesetting and offset printing flourished, several pulp writers found new avenues for publishing. They started writing full-length "novels" - which were mostly 80-90 page, 20,000 word stories, as opposed to weekly serials. Thrillers, murder mysteries, sex crimes, problems faced by a young married woman in her husband's house, mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law, people possessed by demons, tantriks and witches and what not - these were the themes. A new crop of publishers came up to publish these novels in the form of monthly magazines. They acquired single print run rights from the authors. These magazines contained other features too, in addition to the novel. There were one or two page short stories, a few (badly written) verses, some jokes etc. Exclusive monthly magazines were started to publish novels from a single author, month after month.

The authors had the right to take the same novels to other publishers, after 5-6 months, for long-term print rights.

In the magazine format, the novels cost Rs. 5 to start with and then moved up with the inflation to Rs. 10. Even now, this format is alive and typically they cost between Rs. 8 to Rs. 20 and sometimes even Rs. 25. They were and are printed in fairly low quality newsprint paper, badly edited and poorly packaged with lurid, brightly coloured wrapper. After the single print run, the same novel was made available normally at around Rs. 50 or so in a slightly better quality maplitho paper with a cardboard wrapper, perfect bound.

In the magazine format, in their heydays, these novels sold as many as 50,000 copies in a single print run - in some cases even more, within a period of 10 days. As is the case with India, these books were read by multiple readers, so the readership could be as much as 200,000 or more. Then they were sold in the seconds market, and resold till the newsprint crumbled. Even after that, it was sold as packaging material for grocery shops!

In the mid-1990s, cable television started spreading fast across India. Their soaps and serials captured the imagination of people. This impacted the pulp market substantially. The space for serialised stories in weekly magazines started coming down and now in 2008, the space has shrunk to zero. Short stories were also killed over this period. Pulp writers as a breed started vanishing. Several have become old and write little or nothing. New pulp writers have not come up or have not become popular enough for want of space.

Even now, a few monthly magazines publishing pulp continue their business. The best print runs are around 10,000. Only Ramani Chandran continues to get 20,000-25,000 print runs.

Blaft's anthology consists of stars from yesteryears. Rajesh Kumar doesn't write much any more. Pattukottai Prabhakar and Subha don't put out many. Indira Soundarrajan has found writing screenplay and dialogues for television serials more lucrative.

Pulp fiction is an important genre. It creates more readers for the more serious literature.

In Malayalam, the dominant book publisher DC Books also publishes pulp fiction under an imprint 'Janapriya Sahitya'. It is time, serious Tamil publishers too focus on publishing pulp and create good pulp writers.

If good pulp is available in the Indian languages, they will get translated into English and Anglophone Indians like Mukul Kesavan can have their fill too!


  1. Nice post, but I beg to differ on the current output of the Tamil pulp writers. Rajesh Kumar is still churning out 5 novels a month, in addition to frequent short stories in the weeklies. Indra Soundar Rajan still has I think 2 monthly novels -- Today Crime News and Crime Story -- and Suba and Pattukottai Prabakar seem to come out with at least 1 new novel a month.

  2. Hey Badri, Interesting post. I must add to Rakesh's comment about Rajesh Kumar, who in a personal interview with us said he does not do any serial or film writing only because he will not come out of Coimbatore and he wants to continue to write his novels. You should meet up with K. Kumaravel or A. Ashokan to understand what a thriving business they do as publishers of monthly crime novels.

  3. Yes Badri, it is true that now a days novels and story books have lost the attraction of people. I still remember during my school days, my elder brother Paramesh used to read a lot of novels and story books, borrowed from the neighbour. In fact, certain novels he will ready it at a stretch and then he will wait for the next edition which will be weekly or fortnightly. Later he also wrote a few stories but never got it published or sent to any competition.
    My brother has great liking for lyrics and wrote a lot of "pudhu kavithai" in Tamil and a few English lyrics too. I had copied all of them into a note book and maintained it, since I liked them most.

    Those days are gone. Now we are living in a fast forward motion and the priorities and styles got changed to the compelling demands of modern life. But when I look back, I enjoy those times.

  4. Rakesh/Pritham, congratulations on Blaft and the translations. Indira Soundarrajan was in our office yesterday. He says he writes novels regularly still, at around 2-3 at his own pace, and not at the pace demanded by the publishers. If Rajesh Kumar is writing 5 a month, that is amazing.

    Pritham: As far Rajesh Kumar, he actually need not come to Chennai for writing in serials. He needs to merely employ a PC and write the scenes and send them over.

    Yes, I do plan to meet Ashokan and others in the industry to learn more about the changes that have happened there in the last few years.

    There is an interesting article in Business Standard today by Nilanjana Roy. You might have seen already seen that.

  5. I have to agree with RK and PC.Great work guys.Its nice you have come up with the transalation in english.I dont agree the works of writers like rajesh kumar and PKP are not famous as they used to be.In fact i would say their popularity has increased.They are prolific and they have the capability to give the tamil readers great stories.Can't wait to read the book


  6. Hello Badri,

    Nice post and good points. People have become fast and they expect instantaneous zing flavour.With books it takes a while to tastethe zing.
    On another note i have to ask you for suggestions....i have written a couple of fictions....that i would like to publish and get peoples views. Can you suggest websites where i can publsh them.Currently i have blogged them as chapters in wordpress.


  7. i am also searching for a good publisher or agent but dont know whom to contact

  8. Rajeshkumar still continues to write novels. His novels are available as ebooks in