LETTER FROM INDIA

English-language pulp fiction translates to success in India

Blaft Publications, based in Chennai, has put out several well-selling anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction, meticulously collecting old stories.
Blaft Publications, based in Chennai, has put out several well-selling anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction, meticulously collecting old stories. (Emily Wax/the Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 16, 2010

CHENNAI, INDIA -- Hindi and Tamil paperbacks, the gaudy equivalent of American dime novels and British penny dreadfuls, were a staple of old India, sold at the country's railway stations, bus depots and chai stands. Now, a push to translate them into English is creating new fans for the genre among middle- and upper-class Indians.

Thousands of such titles were published starting in the 1920s. Many are household names. They include campy vampire serials, supernatural thrillers, and a slew of Hindi crime novels featuring fast-talking detectives, multiple murders and crowds of prostitutes. Pulp fiction written in Tamil, a major language of South India, is peopled with Hindu sorcerers, overblown evil scientists and tortured inter-caste lovers.

"These stories are from the heart of India," said Kaveri Lalchand, co-director of Chennai's Blaft Publications, which has issued several popular English-language anthologies of Tamil yarns rounded up from household cupboards and coffeehouses. "What's great about them is that they're not being written abroad or by people sitting in universities."

The healthy sales of the nostalgia-infused collections show how big India's English-language book industry has grown and how willing it is to take risks with more avant-garde publications, according to Pritham Chakravarthy, who translated the 17 stories in "The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction."

"This is the first time these authors have been translated into English," Chakravarthy said. "You understand a culture through the popular culture. Studying mainstream literature gives you only one side of India. This is the common man's perspective. This is what 60 percent of Indians are actually reading."

The niche industry's success is fueled by the expansion of India's middle classes, who often read in English. To cater to them, a wave of 50,000-square-foot, air-conditioned English-language bookstores have opened in recent years, complete with cafes and children's play areas. Traditionally, Indians have bought their reading matter from thousands of closet-size bookstores operating in markets across the country or from neighborhood book-wallahs -- salesmen hawking bestsellers at street intersections.

"In India, you have this emerging middle class, and people have more disposable income," said Anantha Padmanabhan, 35, vice president of sales for Penguin Books India. "The mall mania caught on, and retailers are investing in good bookshops."

The Tamil pulp fiction anthologies are also being marketed in the United States along with other Indian crime and romance novels, often in counterculture stores or on Web sites such as Amazon, according to publishers, who added that their popularity is part of the growing American interest in all things Indian.

The success of English-language publishing here reflects the prosperity of the domestic industry as a whole. Books are relatively inexpensive to produce in India, where labor costs are low and cheap recycled paper is widely used. And while many U.S. bookstores are losing business to online or digital alternatives, the Internet has reached only a small percentage of Indian homes. The result has been a new Indian book culture, far broader than the staid math and science textbooks, epic family novels and religious mythology that used to sustain the industry.

"A lot more books are being reviewed," Padmanabhan said. "There's been a significant change in the way book are being positioned as consumer products."

The Indian publishing market has grown by 60 percent in the past five years and is estimated to be worth more than $2.9 billion, experts say.

Many publishers expect the industry to keep growing, arguing that the recently passed Right to Education Act will put more children in schools and boost literacy, said Anand Bhushan, president of the Federation of Indian Publishers. The literacy rate in India is about 70 percent, according to Bhushan.


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