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Pulp fiction, an unlikely peacemaker

Varsha Venugopal | Updated on July 26, 2019 Published on July 26, 2019

That 90’s show: A still from Marma Desam, which was based on Indra Soundar Rajan’s novels

Fondly remembered: Each season of Marma desam was based on one of his novels. The show came to an end in 2001

How reading the novels of Indra Soundar Rajan brought a family together

Independent publishing house Blaft recently launched author Indra Soundar Rajan’s TheAayakudi Murders, a translation of his Tamil novel Olivadharku Vazhi Illai (No Way to Hide). Since 2008, Blaft has been putting out singularly entertaining translations of Indian and Pakistani pulp reads such as the eponymous Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. It was thanks to them that I discovered, for instance, the delight that is Ibn-E-Safi, the 1950s’ Urdu writer of whimsical noir thrillers, such as The Laughing Corpse or Doctor Dread. So I was overjoyed that Blaft had translated a book by Soundar Rajan into English.

Soundar Rajan is perhaps one of the most prolific thriller writers in Tamil alongside Rajesh Kumar and Pattukottai Prabakar. His novels are usually set in the present day, characterised by a blend of mystery, suspense and the supernatural, often featuring themes related to divine relics, reincarnation or ghosts. He is best known for his work on the TV show Marma Desam, each season of which was based on one of his novels.

The Aayakudi Murders; Indra Soundar Rajan, translated by Nirmal Rajagopalan; Blaft Publications; ₹495; Fiction

 

The Aayakudi Murders, translated into English by Nirmal Rajagopalan, focuses on the adventures of journalist Rajendran, who is lured to the village of Aayakudi by a mysterious letter alerting his magazine to paranormal activity in the village’s foothills. Trademark Soundar Rajan fare, the book is a racy tale involving serial killings, ghostly spirits, black magic and lost treasure.

When I was a child, my family hardly ever did anything together. Somehow, we had each ended up with widely different, irreconcilable interests. Appa largely focused on tennis or PG Wodehouse; Amma stuck to her Tamil magazines and Carnatic music; my elder sister was disappointingly studious; and I was mostly on my own, discovering how much fun books could be.

What ended up bringing us together was Soundar Rajan’s Marma Desam (This Mysterious Land), the cult TV show which aired from 1996-2001. Its first season, Ragasiyam, a nail-biting thriller about the magical healing power of mysterious navabhashana Shiva lingams, was based on his novel Ragasiyamaaga Oru Ragasiyam. Every week, I looked forward to that magical half-hour in which the four of us stepped out of our silos to enjoy the show together. A heady, addictive mix of crime and mythological fantasy, Marma Desam achieved the highly improbable — it made the Venugopals spend quality time together.

Author Indra Soundar Rajan   -  BLAFT PUBLICATIONS

 

Soon, I realised that Marma Desam was an exceptional icebreaker when I didn’t know how to talk with classmates or strangers — its cryptic plots about obscure village traditions, arcane arts such as palmistry andNadi Jothidam and divine treasures provided ample grist for endless speculation. This included my grandfather, a rather stern lawyer who didn’t believe in small talk or overt displays of affection. But talking was crucial for me, so I ended up spending an afternoon narrating the story to him, successfully pulling him into my little family squad of Marma Desam fans. There followed a golden period of Venugopal family bonding until the Marma Desam series came to a sudden end with the unfinished season, Edhuvum Nadakkum (Anything Can Happen).

It was around this time that I started reading books in Tamil. I was beginning to appreciate the earthy beauty of the language. Of course, I began my Tamil adventures with Soundar Rajan’s esoteric mysteries, alongside Bakkiyam Ramasamy’s Appusamy series, Sujatha’s science fiction and the Tamil editions of Chandamama. While I enjoyed them all, it was Soundar Rajan’s books that my mother would read along with me.

We started with Vittu Vidu Karuppa, the dramatic story of a village under the rule of a powerful demigod. Amma corrected my pronunciation and taught me new words along the way, often adding to the story anecdotes of her own — I ended up learning a lot about my mother’s family this way.

Soundar Rajan’s women were so refreshingly different from the women in mainstream Tamil entertainment — bold and logical, they questioned traditions and investigated age-old superstitions without allowing themselves to be intimidated by the weight of their legacy. In many ways, he introduced me to feminism. His books created a conversational conduit between my mother and I to explore what independence meant to each of us. We decided, through many lovely hours reading Sivamayam, Krishna Thandhiram and other thrillers, that it was important for women to study, always learn new things and be financially independent.

When I left Chennai to work in Hyderabad, it was our reading sessions that I missed the most. One of the first things Amma and I did when I moved back five years later, was to read Rajan’s Vanathu Manidhargal (The Sky People), a riveting tale about the legendary Kalpavriksham, a divine wish-fulfilling tree that walked in the woods. A year later, I went on a rebellious scuba diving trip to Puducherry and returned home sheepish with a broken foot. While I was bedridden, we reconciled over Rudra Veenai, a story about a search for Lord Shiva’s veena. We loved two of the main characters in Rudra Veenai in particular — a devadasi woman and her daughter who sought to break away from the traditions thrust upon them and lead normal lives. It was during this period that I introduced my boyfriend to my parents.

Now, my 60-year-old mother and I are reading Iraiyuthir Kaadu (Forest of Divinity), Soundar Rajan’s serialised fiction currently being published in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan. I married my boyfriend, and our early wedded days were marked by frequent quarrels over which movie to watch. It ended when I introduced him to Vidaathu Karuppu, the second season of Marma Desam.

We’re planning to read The Aayakudi Murders together over the coming weekend.

Varsha Venugopal is a Chennai-based writer

Published on July 26, 2019
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