An independent publishing house that serves up Super Bumper Horror Thrill Novel, stupid guys and girls who love monsters
It can’t be easy being a publisher in India. By all accounts, the market is awfully fragmented and competitive – one estimate claims there are over 19,000 publishers in India! And yet, it is also a market that is extremely varied and vibrant – and most importantly, one of the few places in the world that is witnessing growth. No wonder then that several international publishing houses are focused on increasing their presence in India.
Within the diverse world of Indian publishing, perhaps the most interesting segment is that of English fiction. Until a few years ago, it was dominated by international bestsellers and the occasional Indian author of global repute (Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh). And then came a man called Chetan Bhagat and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, Indian bestseller lists were crammed with books for the masses – the masses being the massive segment of previously neglected readers who did not care about the hallowed world of English literature with its literary tropes and wily puns. This section was much more interested in stories that reflected their struggles and aspirations, such as the possibility of love happening twice and what happened one night at the call center.
Given all this, an outsider who dares to enter the world of trade publishing (industry lingo for non-textbooks) and steers clear of what was popular (“literary” fiction) and what is popular (mass, or as we like to say, pop fiction) is either foolishly brave or exceedingly wise. When it comes to Chennai based Blaft Publications, we fervently hope it’s the latter (doesn’t wisdom include at least one shot of dare devilry anyway?). For we can’t help but admire an independent publisher who hit upon the brilliant idea of bringing pulp fiction, street art, folktales and other stories from all over India into the lives of English language readers.
Blaft’s roster also includes the famous Jasoosi Duniya series of crime writer Ibne Safi, Nigerian soyayya fiction, tales of a “stupid” Japanese guy who came to India and “picture books about girls who are in love with monsters” – all served up with dollops of humour and a dash of irreverence.
My Big Red Bag in an email conversation with Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, one of the co-founders of Blaft.
Rashmi, Thanks for chatting with MBRB. When did you start Blaft and what was the motivation?
Blaft began in 2007, and our first books came out in 2008.
The motivation behind Blaft and what it does is simple—we just feel the kind of books we publish really need to exist and we do our best to make that happen.
Who are the people behind Blaft?
There is my husband Rakesh Khanna – mathematician, drummer and book worm.
There’s me – writer, filmmaker on sabbatical, fan of monsters, vampires, zombies and Batman.
And then there are the contributors to the books: authors, illustrators, translators, even a few photographers and models. One person who worked on a lot of the books is Pritham K. Chakravarthy – activist, director, performer, playwright, film critic, independent researcher and Asst.Prof of Dramaturgy at the Ramanaidu Film School in Hyderabad. Pritham translated four books for us: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Where Are You Going, You Monkeys?—Folktales from Tamil Nadu by Ki. Rajanarayanan, and Zero Degree by Charu Nivedita.
Can you tell us a little more about your first publication (The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction)?
Rakesh had moved to Chennai from Berkeley, California in 2002. He was doing night shifts working for a U.S. company, and at around 4.30 am he would head out to the tea kadai for a coffee. There he noticed these strings of slim, rectangular booklets hanging like enticing streamers of literature; they all had the most lurid, fantastic, crazy covers. He can’t speak Tamil but he can read the script, so he could make out the authors’ names—Suba, Pattukotai Prabhakar, Ramani Chandran—and the titles: “Super Bumper Horror Thrill Novel”, for example.
The auto stand down the road from our place had some avid pocket novel readers and he asked them for recommendations. And then he tried to find translations of these writers, who were clearly the best-selling writers of the state and among the best-selling writers in the country. But there were no translations to be had, and that kind of blew his mind.
He met Pritham through my theatre connections and told her that he wanted to bring out an English translation anthology of these pocket novels. Pritham jumped right in as she herself is a long time, die-hard fan of these books. Trips were made to Pritham’s sister’s library and to other old lending libraries in the city. Tea stalls and newsstands were periodically emptied of their streamers of pocket novels, writers were contacted, and trips were made to Madurai, Coimbatore and to various neighborhoods in Chennai to get the authors signed up.
Then came the process of translating and editing and the really hard task of keeping the page count down to something reasonable—we had so much great material!
The amazing Chennai-based artist Shyam was called upon to create what has become our mascot of sorts: the gun-toting beauty on the cover of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. 1 (and the skull drinking beauty of Vol. 2). Malavika PC took Shyam’s femmes fatales and created the rest of the cover designs.
Indian bestseller lists are crowded with self help books and what we like to call “pop fiction”. What does it take for a young & niche publishing house like yours – that seems to have steered away from these categories – to survive?
Hollow laugh. We are, for sure, a few kaju katlis short of a complete Diwali sweet box. There is no other explanation.
This can’t be an easy time for Indian publishing houses. Many more people are moving towards reading books electronically, and a host of digital self publishing platforms also appear to make the traditional role of publisher & editor redundant. Given this scenario, what are your views on the future of publishing in India, and the changes that traditional publishing houses need to make?
There are lots of these ominous predictions. When the eBook arrived everyone went around shouting ‘the book is dead’. But more new books seem to be out there. Definitely a lot has changed – huge book store chains both here and abroad seem to be taking a solid beating from both online sales and eBook sales. But the regional language pocket book industries haves probably been more affected by the onslaught of a gazillion TV channels and their armies of serials than the advent of eBooks. There are so many nearly disconnected publishing worlds in this country, I think this sort of cause and effect happens differently in all of them.
Personally, I would like to see way more Indian indie comics, maybe a new pantheon of home-grown superheroes, and more desi monsters. Writing for children and Young Adult fiction also need a HUGE adrenalin shot to the heart.
It’s interesting how graphics & images appear to be a key element of many of your books – we really can’t imagine enjoying these books on the Kindle. Is that a conscious decision, and a subtle way of “fighting” the growing might of the e-book industry?
We are not fighting anything We are peaceful only, like a homely Labrador named Monty. We also do have a few ebooks for sale, including Kuzhali Manickavel’s short fiction, Ki. Rajanarayanan’s folktales, and Ibne Safi’s Urdu detective novels.
We adore the concept behind the Obliterary Journal – of bringing together street art, comics and other forms of graphic writing, and banishing the “boring” written word. We also love the title, especially the Non Veg part in Volume 2! Can you tell us a little bit more about putting these two volumes together?
We are BIG comic book buffs. We especially love comic anthologies as you get a smorgasbord of amazing work to feast your eyes on, and that’s what we had in mind when putting together The Obliterary Journals Vol.1 and 2. We asked around for submissions, some pieces were commissioned specifically for the journals, and there were a few where we had a concept and worked with the artist to bring it to life.
Who amongst the current breed of Indian writers and illustrators are you most excited about? Anyone that you are dying to work with?
Too, too many people.
What are you future plans for Blaft?
Trying to find a friend with a submersible, so we can go searching for giant squid in order to harvest ink to print limited-edition folios of woodcut prints of superhero cetaceans.
This year will be one of much reflection. That is all we can say for now.
Since we are in the midst of our humour issue, who are your favourite humour writers, in India and abroad? Any comic strips or humorous graphic novels that you enjoy?
Mario Miranda and R.K. Laxman—their entire, colossal bodies of work. The Bunny Suicide series. The monsterized-Jane-Austen books: Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The Star Trek Book of Opposites. The Vigil Idiot’s movie reviews. Kuzhali Manickavel’s “Conversations” blogposts.
Lastly this is something we ask all our interviewers – if you could go back in time and have dinner with one person from history, who would it be?
The person who invented biriyani.
You can buy Blaft titles online from their website http://www.blaft.com/ or from Flipkart. Good bookstores are a dying breed, but Blaft’s books can usually be found on the shelves of these stalwarts: Blossoms in Bangalore, Either Or in Pune, Loose Ends in Mumbai, and People Tree in Delhi and Goa.
All images are the property of Blaft Publications