DON’T WORRY, there was plenty of bad-assness to go around for everyone last year. Just see some of TEHELKA’s headlines: did you hear of The Chief Minister Who Would Not Stop Scamming? That the General is At Ease with Grease? That the Measure of a Man (even a Superstar) is Just a Moustache? That A Woman Must Not Earn Sweat Equity? Or of The Rent-A-Riot Rogue? The Lady of the Sinister Ring Tone? The Hoarder of Common Wealth? How about The Hell Diggers? Miss Alleged Sedition? The Doctor of Sweet Angst?
Concluding a year of reporting hectic facts, TEHELKA strives to capture the zeitgeist with imagined fictions in its annual Fiction issue. After offering the themes of Excess and Injury the last two years, we bent our attack for this third edition — Pulp & Noir is not only a theme, it’s a genre.
It’s also a way of ambushing the culture’s demand that we find lucidity only in speed. Trying to tempt and hold readers who swing moodily between being obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit, writers must heed the literary value of pacing. To this end, Pulp & Noir sets an apt condition — plot, please.
So what should we expect? Rough chat, grime, aggression, sex; moral brinks; observations of surfaces; larger than life characters who are marginal, anti-authority, street smart, unsentimental-untosentimentality, detached-unto-dysfunctionality; no-return-ticket emotions like cruelty, revenge, greed, pity, horniness; stylistically, one gets stark lights and shadows, blood as glamour, the affectation of effortlessness.
There’s a shortcut here if you’ve been following the hints — Pulp & Noir requires a fetishizing sensibility. Extravagance is encouraged. Overvalue something enough and it becomes stylish. The anxiety of style is a beautiful thing.
And what, might you ask, about the coarseness? Genre fiction needn’t be formula fiction. It gives us the solace of formulas and clichés, but we still need our writers to be nimble enough to provide the succour of articulation, of music, of truth-telling. Pulp & Noir is particularly satisfying because it provides an illusion of hyper-reality with a firm sense of fun, of enjoying itself, and engages with the reader’s — rather than just the writer’s — world.
It may or may not be your thing. What it isn’t is boring. The pressure to create mood, to grapple with morality and the imperative to be fast-moving require something sorely missing in most Indian writing: energy. They also bleed out the writer’s self-indulgence and solipsism and force him pay attention to readability. Pulp & Noir is one way to save our literature.
This year we present some superb literary talents like Siddharth Chowdhury and Patrick Bryson, both of whom invest their racy stories with a strong local settings — Delhi for Chowdhury, Shillong for Bryson. We have legendary genre kings like Surender Mohan Pathak (Hindi) and Rajesh Kumar (Tamil) alongside the crime fiction writer Zac O’Yeah (Swedish and English). And the graphic novelist George Mathen, aka Appupen, has contributed a gorgeously macho depiction of end-game greed and avarice.
Pressing into the genre’s possibilities, we also hunted furiously for some counter-intuitive choices — the late Bollywood filmmaker Pankaj Advani submitted a script with graphic storyboards while television writer/director Atul Sabharwal (of Powder series fame) wrote a searing revenge tale. Then there is the acclaimed mythologist and columnist Devdutt Pattanaik, who provided an old-school blood-and-guts tale of a devi’s wrath — with a delicious twist at the end. And the anthropologist and academic Shiv Visvanathan has written a lushly imagined, noir set piece about one Bengali man’s lifelong quest to document his and Calcutta’s dreams, only to finally shrink from the glower of feminine imagination.
Given their brilliant shadow upon the subcontinent, we also have three stunning contributions from Pakistani writers — for all three, Karachi is their shiny egg of dreams and dread. Both HM Naqvi and Uzma Aslam Khan plumb the darker difficulties of the Saddar locality while debutant Shehryar Fazli takes a retro, bruising peek at the city’s high-society nightlife of the 1970s.
Almost all the stories include physical violence. Half involve murder. Writers like Advani and Pattanaik tackle taboos of violence with glee and brio. Some, like Pathak, Kumar and Sabharwal, provide the familiar pleasure of a conventional genre sensibility. Even those who deny the need for a neat genre ending to their stories — like Khan and Naqvi — still provide the gratifications of a story’s contours; we’re a far distance from formless (and often twee) literary fare. All 13 write local stories for a local readership rather than peddle exotic family sagas or immigrant heartburn for foreign readers.
The subcontinent’s publishers have found a winning streak in genre fiction in English — from chick-lit to mysteries to thrillers — and one hopes the competition will galvanise our higher literary writers too. They can certainly expect many more local dents around them. If nothing else, they might just behoove Forster’s wicked dictum — “Only connect” — and tear open the Velcro of storytelling. Who knows, they might even rip out something more.
First published here.