We’ve heard plenty about Bollywood and movie-loving Indian culture. Now we’re starting to hear about India’s reading culture, and I’m eager to learn more:
Some years ago, I took the train from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. At every station the train stopped at on that long journey, the local snacks changed, shifting from pakoras to vadas as we moved further south. But at every bookshop, the electrically lurid, inviting covers of local pulp fiction stayed the same.
There were minor local variations. In the Hindi heartbelt, banshees and ghosts battled for space with damsels in various degrees of distress and dishevelment. As we crossed Punjab, pulp fiction occupied equal space with guides in Gurmukhi offering tips on how to get a Green Card. Towards the end of the line, the bodacious women who graced Tamil pulp fiction covers were severely challenged by their far more risqué counterparts in Malayalam pulp fiction. There were whole worlds enclosed in these ridiculously cheap paperbacks, printed on either the thinnest or the most coarse paper one might get, that were unavailable to the English-speaking reader.
Blaft’s new publishing house in Chennai has just come out with an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction, translated into English, and plans to follow up with anthologies of Urdu and Bengali pulp fiction. It’s the kind of obvious, brilliant idea that no one else has thought of doing before, and it should put this young publishing house on the map.
Inspired by their anthology, I spent the last few weeks researching what I could of pulp fiction in India. Most of it seems to have grown organically in regions that have a strong tradition of oral storytelling (folk and protest songs, folk tales), and languages that have a history of addressing the ordinary person as well as the scholar. Though this isn’t reflected at the pavement markets, there is also a strong, parallel history of stories written by women, but these are often confined to the women’s magazines.
There are already plenty of bookstores stocking manga and graphic novels. I wonder when some enterprising bookstore owners will start stocking street-level Indian fiction? Sounds like a lucrative sideline for a smart independent bookseller.