On a rather dull June morning this year, I was surprised to receive a large box wrapped in brown paper which was delivered with a note saying it was from D. She hadn’t mentioned anything about it during our weekend zoom call which has now become an enjoyable routine since the lockdown began last year. It was a bigger surprise to see the contents of the box, which turned out to be twenty-five books of Tamil pulp fiction by an author whose books I vaguely remembered seeing in the engineering college hostel dorm, along with the ubiquitous M&B romances and commercial English pop-novels. I had never felt inclined to read any of them.

D assured me that those novels would help me feel better. I did not tell her that I had no feelings about the passing of a parent who had been an Indian version of the character Theobald Pontifex, said to be modelled after the writer Samuel Butler’s father in his semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh. Years after going no contact with my birth family, I remember how memories of what I went through for years came flooding back on a beautiful summer evening when I was sitting in my tiny college room in Oxford reading Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. Suddenly I found myself hyperventilating and shaking all over and I let go of the book and lay down and curled into a ball under the duvet, crying uncontrollably and silently, afraid to read another line because I could relate too well to the sentiments Kane’s narrator in the allegedly autobiographical play expresses about her parents.

I never told D about this, though she has a fair idea of what I have gone through for we have shared much of our life stories over long cups of hot chocolate sitting in cafes overlooking the vibrant, crowded beaches of Chennai, in cold parks during a winter in Tokyo and in parks and beaches in the hellhole of a small coastal town in South India that I have completely erased from my mind, including the years that I worked there. D told me much about her own dysfunctional family during these quiet afternoons and our empathy was mutual.

Over the phone, D insisted I try reading some of the novels she sent, promising me that I would feel better afterwards. Each one of those novels would only take an hour or so to read, and they really help to clear the mind, she said, reminding me of an alcoholic offering a drink to anyone and everyone as a general panacea. I did not reply and looked at the novels which had a mixed set of cover images, some of them photographs of young, pleasant-looking girls while others were rather crude pencil sketches of homely, smiling women. All twenty-five novels had similar titles that have been parodied to death by writers like Wodehouse and others of his ilk. Something on the lines of You are mine, I am only for you, We two are one now, Oh My Love My Dove, and so on. I was uninterested in reading romance novels even in my teens (here is something I wrote about my experience of trying to read an M&B book when I was 18), and I think I attempted to read D’s thoughtful gifts mainly due to the warmth of her gesture and because I wanted to read Tamil after a long time. As much as I love my mother tongue, the only Tamil book in my library is The Collected Poems of Subramaniya Bharati and I haven’t had the chance to read a Tamil book since I was in Class Ten, when I topped the country in Tamil which was also my second language at school.

I chose a book from the box at random and trying not to wince at the ugly front cover or the schmaltzy title, began to read, and found that I had finished seven or eight of the novels in quick succession over the weekend. Beyond which the plots became so repetitive that there was no point in spending more time over the box which I quietly asked the domestic help to take away along with the leftover vegetables, though I warmly thanked D once again on our weekend call.

These were my observations from the novels:

The stories are written in simple, conversational Tamil and flow smoothly. Though they are marketed in the romance genre and the author, a genial lady who has penned more than 150 such novels affirms in an interview that her novels are ‘pure romance’, the stories were primarily about the journeys of young women who run away from their parents’ house or are forced to leave their birth families for some reason and find themselves on a quest for a home of their own, and how they ultimately find it.

There was very little actual romance in the stories, and thankfully nothing explicit about the implied intimacy that was always within the boundaries of conventional morality. The characters, both the female protagonists around whom the stories are constructed and the men portrayed as their partners never stepped beyond the two dimensions of the page. But what interested me were the aggressions the heroines faced which feed into the plot conflicts the author uses to develop the storyline.

For the antagonists were not just the usual suspects of jealous aunts and uncles who treat the orphaned heroine as an unpaid maid, depriving them of both necessities and comforts so that the beautiful and intelligent heroine remains second rate to their own often ugly and less talented children, providing a Cinderella effect to the inciting incident which kickstarts the heroine’s journey. More often than not, the heroine was oppressed by her own siblings and in one or two cases by her entire family including her parents who sought to exploit her, not always from jealousy but also driven by the need for security and creature comforts that are better provided by a family member who they selfishly feel are better compared to paid domestic help. The moral that comes through is that to be happy, a woman needs a husband and a home of her own.

I found it curious that while some of these heroines were artists and professionals, there was no exposition of how they self-actualised themselves through art or work, their professions merely serving to provide props for plot developments. Each story propels the heroine towards a goal of establishing a significant relationship within a comfortable environment and a family life centered around cooking and enjoying good food, intimacy and regular pleasures like buying good clothes and jewels, dining in classy restaurants, travelling to exotic locations, and going on picnics and parties, and they appear to find eternal happiness and fulfillment in these small worldly bubbles and baubles of existence.

On the other hand, it was good to see the heroines characterised as feisty and self-respecting women who were not money minded even when they were poor, always stood up for themselves, were self-aware of their own strengths and limitations, and aware of negative vibes from either their birth family members or unwanted outsiders. Other than remembering and chanting God’s name as soon as they wake up each morning, none of the main characters express any other aspects of their spirituality. As I turned the pages of the seventh or eighth novel, the plotlines, titles, heroines and even the side-characters started to blur into each other revealing the cookie cutter template used by the author to produce these stories.

When I reflected on the value addition from the few hours spent in reading these pulp novels, I realised there were more than a few:

  1. The first few books were page-turners and a harmless, distracted way of spending a few hours.
  2. I enjoyed the narrative in simple, colloquial Tamil for the novelty of the experience.
  3. Going beyond the classic fairy tale influences on the plotlines, the stories did not hesitate to expose the selfishness, jealousy and malice that certain characters feel towards their close blood relations. While it is easy to understand the envy of an aunt or cousin towards the main character, it could as easily be the real mother or sister filled with jealousy and spite and expresses it overtly or covertly, wounding and traumatising the main character who has no option but to flee her birth family to heal and thrive. An aside: As always, real life stories are stranger than fiction. One of my Uncles, who was Police Chief of one of the largest cities in India for many years, once told me that he suffered from clinical depression from a young age having been traumatised by his father’s tyranny, and his kind and gentle stepmother had been his source of strength and love when he was growing up. Uncle had a perfect life with a charming wife and a lovely daughter and a solid reputation for honesty and integrity while holding a position of immense power and social influence, so it was surprising to hear how his father’s behaviour in his childhood had scarred him for life. But it was easy to relate to it.
  4. While it is easy to spot and avoid the English equivalents of such pulp romances, many contemporary bestsellers in English set in countries around the world tend to showcase a similar limited and materialistic worldview of life. Even many of those artsy novels about writers writing novels are not above this.

That gave me my epiphany. When my Professors at Oxford asked me why I wanted to formally study creative writing, I remember mentioning that one of my reasons was to find the meaning and purpose of fiction in life. As I reflected on the value addition these pulp novels may have given me, I realised I had known all along that fiction is not just a means to explore the many dimensions of life, characters and relationships, it is a measure of one’s spiritual evolution and a means to connect with the higher self within. It takes all sorts of readers and writers to make a world, and I assume that regular readers of these novels I have analysed above (like my dear friend D) connect to these books and find value from them in their own individual ways.