Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Speaking Volumes: From Pondies to Weight Loss

(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 clich├ęs.

Speaking Volumes: "The Babu's style is clear and good"

(Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2012. Happy Revolting Season.)

The Revolt of 1857 broke out on “a stiflingly hot Sunday” in May, as Christopher Hibbert writes. Summer was Mutiny season, and the British papers of the day mentioned both the unbearable heat and the unexpected betrayal.

The more seasoned British Indian papers were less surprised by either the weather or the fact of the Revolt itself. As historians of 1857 have chronicled, the warning signs were everywhere. Two tracts, in particular, would become part of the larger history of Indian writing in English—Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty Eight Hours on the Year 1945 (published in 1835), and Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s The Republic of Orissa (published in 1845).

The Dutts were a fashionably literary family; Shoshee and his brothers were collectively dubbed the “Rambagan nest of singing birds”. Kylas was a cousin; the young poet Toru Dutt was also related to Shoshee Chunder; and Shoshee’s nephew, Romesh Chunder Dutt, was a well-known economic historian, whose first publication in 1877 was a history of the literature of Bengal. Shoshee and Kylas were Macaulay’s children, from Shoshee’s glad embrace of Christianity to their mutual belief (not shared by Romesh) that English was far superior to their native Bengali.

Indeed, Macaulay’s infamous Minute (“we have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated in their mother-tongue”) came out in 1835, the same year that Kylas Chunder Dutt’s work of speculative fiction was published. “The languages of western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar,” Macaulay observed.

And yet, the first serious work of fiction, speculative or otherwise, in English by an Indian writer was Kylas’s destabilizing vision of an India in 1945, rising up against the “subaltern oppression” of British rule, where “the dagger and the bowl were dealt out with a merciless hand” by the “British barbarians”. His projected rebellion fails; but the man who leads the Indians against Governor Lord Fell Butcher is a graduate fluent in English, using his education against the British.

In the light of the way in which the Revolt of 1857 garnered public support in India just 22 years after Kylas penned his fantasy, it’s interesting that he imagines a rebellion supported by “many of the most distinguished men—Babus, Rajas and Nababs”. And he is prescient when he writes that the “contagion of Rebellion would probably have infested every city in the kingdom, had it only had time to perfect its machinations”.

Ten years later, Shoshee could imagine a happier ending for those who would rise up in revolt. “The Republic of Orissa” is written as a page from the imagined annals of the 20th century, an alternate history imagined as the truth. Orissa is independent, and extending its borders into British India, ruled by “untamed men”, tribes who combine great strength with intrepid courage.

In Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s reworking of the Noble Savage theme, the tribes rise up against the British after a Slavery Act is passed in 1916. They are goaded into final action by the imprisonment of publishers, printers and the suppression of a free press. (Present-day governments might want to take note of Dutt’s assumption that the curbing of free expression would bring on rebellion faster than a Slavery Act, in his vision of India.) As the fierce and courageous Bheekoo Barik confronts “drunken John Bull”, the question the tribals aim to answer is crucial: Are the Juggomohuns and Gocooldosses, the Opertees and Bindabun Sirdars fit persons to be intrusted with the management of a vast empire? Shoshee’s answer is a stirring yes, and the rest of The Republic of Orissa introduces a full-scale tribal rebellion, aided by beautiful women disguised as fakirs and other little flourishes of the novelist’s art.

“The Baboo’s style is clear and good,” said The Englishman. “It will be a grand thing indeed for India when all her most influential families can be as much Anglicised as this Hindu gentleman,” wrote the Calcutta Literary Gazette. They were responding, however, to Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s poetry, and his articles on Hindu caste and practices—not to this vision of triumphant native rebellion that ends with the overthrow of the British.

In many ways, Shoshee was exactly the kind of Baboo Macaulay had imagined—in a rant that praised the superiority of English over Bengali literature, he also refers to the native press as “servile, low and indecent”. But as time went by, his writings made the British who had praised him for being such a good Baboo more and more uncomfortable, whether it was his diary of a Keranee (published in Mookerjee’s Magazine), or this subtly subversive early work. The natives had taken to English, as Macaulay had hoped, but they were restless. As the first two works of speculative fiction in Indian writing in English prove, what they had to say in that tongue was not just prescient, anticipating the events of 1857, but also unabashedly subversive.

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