Sujatha’s risqué, edgy and out-of-the-box oeuvre

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 09, 2018
Name’s sake: Like many other male Tamil writers of the time, S Rangarajan too did not write under his name, and instead used his wife’s name as his allonym. Photo: N Balaji

Name’s sake: Like many other male Tamil writers of the time, S Rangarajan too did not write under his name, and instead used his wife’s name as his allonym. Photo: N Balaji

Anita: A Trophy Wife; Sujatha (translated by Meera Ravishankar); Westland; Fiction; ₹199

Anita: A Trophy Wife; Sujatha (translated by Meera Ravishankar); Westland; Fiction; ₹199

Nylon Rope; Sujatha (translated by Suganthy Krishnamachari); Westland; Fiction; ₹175

Translations of two Tamil thrillers by cult writer Sujatha aka S Rangarajan have been released, and a fangirl is disappointed

As Independence dawned, Tamil magazines such as the literary Kalki, the purposeful Ananda Vikantan and popular Kumudham saw their birth and quick rise to popular consumption. The weeklies or fortnightlies were colloquially called “family magazines”, a euphemism for content that did not make its bourgeois readership uncomfortable.

Literary content in these magazines was in the form of serialised novellas and short fiction. They dealt with social dramas, family problems and historical romances (read swashbuckling Tamil Pandya or Chola princes and princesses) or mythologicals. Domestic values were cherished, feminine morals were upheld, and women and their codes of conduct and chastity as virtue remained under constant scrutiny in many.

These magazines and their fiction, accompanied by charming illustrations, were part of domestic conversations, their humour was harmless and their viewpoints strait-laced and upper-crust. The stories contained modest tropes where the romantic ideal was deified, sexual content was frowned upon and women’s beauty described in botanical terms.

This comfortable world of ‘family magazine’ entertainment underwent a shake-up in the 1970s with Sujatha (1935-2008), whose works provided a sharp contrast. In his thrillers, the women seduced, wore clothes after the latest American fashion, and sashayed in mini-skirts, the men swigged their poison in style and danced to Ventures, and their references were more Dylan than desi. Young men and women flirted with each other and killed with smiling ruthlessness. His fiction was often accompanied by the illustrations of artist J aka Jeyaraj, whose line drawings of curvy women and lean men fuelled naughty thoughts in strait-laced Madras girls.

As was common among many male Tamil authors, Sujatha was not the writer’s real name and he used his wife’s name as his allonym. This, until he was outed, only added to the intrigue: here was a woman writing in a style that was risqué and spicy, and offered a modern take on things.

Sujatha and his works, especially his first two detective fiction, Nylon Rope and Anita: A Trophy Wife, grabbed instant attention and were noted for their racy style and dime novel pace. Both the novels — Nylon Kayiru and Anita Illam Manaivi in Tamil — were serialised in the weekly Kumudham in 1971.

Sujatha’s entry into the magazine world was welcomed by the youth, while the older readership warmed to him after he mined his Vaishnavite heritage for its spiritual content or wrote about modern science in everyday life. To his fans, he was a young, urbane upper-class Iyengar who brought into his writing elements of his own scientific temperament, engineering background and the travel experiences of his generation of Tamils who were moving to Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay for work.

Sujatha’s writing, with its youthful recklessness and wicked ideas and smattering of sex talk that would be deemed unfeminist today, went with the prevalent misogyny of the day, and his naughty asides in his pulp fiction, lured many anglicised Tamils back to reading in Tamil. Both Anita and Nylon Rope followed the tested trope of young women preyed on for their beauty by lusty men who exploit them only to face death as a consequence.

An electronic engineer from then Madras and college-mate of former president APJ Abdul Kalam, Sujatha is also credited with the development of the electronic voting machine (EVM). His accomplishments in his day job, rightfully or not, were minuscule in comparison with the rocketing fame his writing career fetched him.

Sujatha is credited with many firsts in a literary career of over four decades. His works were eclectic, and his voluminous output included pulp fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, social dramas and plays, novels and more. In later years, his non-fiction found an audience eager to read anything by him.

Science (yes, a Chennai reviewer once called him the Isaac Asimov of Tamil), Sangam literature, haiku, literary essays, and disseminating the world of computers in accessible language — Sujatha’s output included them all. The Chennai film world was quick to sponge on the youthful vibe he exuded and from Mani Ratnam ( Roja) to Kamal Haasan ( Vikram) and Shankar ( Mudhalvan, Anniyan, Sivaji), Sujatha’s works have found their way into Tamil movies. He was engaging, intelligent, informative, witty, wicked, provocative and profound as the occasion demanded or as his muse dictated him. He was the only contemporary writer to have a cult following and adulation that rivalled a movie star.

The slim volumes of translations of Sujatha’s thrillers produced by Westland Publishers are special as they introduced the famous lawyer Ganesh who became a regular feature in many of the whodunnits.

Both Nylon Rope and Anita introduce Ganesh, who is in a different avatar here: he’s flirtatious and easily seduced by flesh. In his later thrillers, Sujatha had him turn respectable, with Ganesh’s assistant, Vasant, playing the foil as a cheeky rascal with sex on his mind. Ganesh was based on James Hadley Chase’s California private detective Vic Malloy and Nylon Rope and Anita featured Ganesh chasing girls and guns.

Given Sujatha’s formidable output, it’s a little disappointing that these two books, though popular in their time but seemingly simplistic in their moral outlook today, seemed to have been chosen for translation over the many other gems.

Hopefully his better works, such as his sci-fi fiction or his childhood novels, would make their way into translation for a non-Tamil speaking readership. As Vasanth would probably say, “Boss, that would be a good idea!”

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on November 24, 2017

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