(Published in the Business Standard, June 2012.)
One of the perks of the reviewer’s job is that you will find deathless prose in the most unexpected places, even when it arrives concealed as, say, a weight-loss manual.
“Trying to lose weight? Running around in circles where you Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. Lose. Gain. No wonder it’s difficult to stay in shape. Because circles go on and on…. What if losing weight doesn’t begin with what’s on your plate but with what’s on your mind? Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind.”
Two decades on, “Eat.Delete” will probably be considered a classic example of vintage Indian pulp, right up there with Now That You’re Rich Lets Fall In Love or Anything For You Ma’am. The terse prose, the one-word sentences, and the attempt to grab the reader’s attention are all typical of the current pulp bubble in Indian English writing. The inadvertent, febrile surrealism may be easily lampooned, but it’s also the hallmark of the current crop of Indian bestsellers.
(Image from The Harappa Files, by Sarnath Banerjee)
Each month brings its new, derivative haul of books; if Chetan Bhagat inspired a slew of writers trying to capture the voice, love affairs and angst of contemporary urban Indians, Amish Tripathi is to blame for the current spate of terrible mythological-historical writing. But despite the effortless badness of their imitators, Indian pulp may have a larger story to tell.
If you’re trying to understand a country, pulp is far more useful than literary fiction. No matter how good it might be, the hallmark of what’s called literary fiction is its self-awareness. Pulp fiction is its sloppy, belly-scratching twin; pulp fiction is where a nation leaves the contents of its messy cupboards on display. If the job of serious fiction is to make sense of secret histories, or to shape our sense of history, what pulp fiction does is hold up an often mercilessly accurate mirror to what a nation really is, in all its ugliness and strangeness.
In India, it was the printing press in Pondicherry that began producing first English and then Hindi pulp—steamy, mildly pornographic paperbacks that would be called “Pondies” in tribute to the presses. The English Pondies, popular in the pre-Independence decades, were said to be written by Anglo-Indians, perhaps because they featured half-caste heroines called Helen and Linda. They were rapidly overtaken by their Hindi counterparts, which brought the attention back from vamps and cabaret dancers to more homely objects of lust—sahelis and bhabhis. The English Pondie died in about a decade, reviving only recently as an online cartoon strip that featured a well-endowed lady called Savitha Bhabhi; the Hindi pondie thrived, spawning sub-genres in detective and horror fiction along the way.
The two most interesting shifts in pulp fiction worldwide are happening in Japan and in Mexico. Japan’s long tradition of manga comics—cheap, poorly produced but enormously cross-categorised—is evolving yet again. Manga briefly went respectable as an American import, but the vogue for manga appears to be flickering out—and in Japan, mainstream manga publishers are increasingly challenged by the rise of self-published comics.
It is also impossible to talk about the manga industry—or manga comics—as though they represent a single, identifiable genre; instead, manga in Japan caters to an incredible variety of needs, from very dark porn to innocuous super-hero tales, romance or fashion-oriented manga for schoolgirls. This might be one of the directions that Indian pulp will take—more specialization, and as with Japanese manga, very little focus on quality.
Indian pulp is revealing in its prejudices and obsessions—weight loss, sex, money and arranged love marriages are all desirable and replace any political engagement beyond the superficial, stereotypes (of different communities, Americans, foreigners etc) crop up often and remain unexamined. But Indian pulp in English retains a kind of primal innocence—so different from contemporary Latin American writing.
The Latin American pulp market was once ruled by soap opera fiction—books that derived their plots from the “telenovellas”. Now Jorge Volpi writes about the “contamination” of the new narco-literature. The rise of the drug novel started in Colombia and has taken root in Mexico. Volpi’s grouse is with the shallowness of the genre: it “teaches no lessons, passes no moral judgments, and is barely an instrument of criticism”.
In both cases, Japan and Latin America, pulp thrives alongside good and often great literature. But Indian writing in English is in one of its periods of uncertainty and flux. Pulp takes up more space than any other kind of writing in English at present. It’s changing form and shape at high, almost viral speed. In another decade, perhaps this will be as dead as the English pondies of a previous era—unless it finds a way to evolve beyond today’s weight loss and arranged marriage clichés.