Interview with Rakesh Kumar of Blaft

Following up on the earlier post on Indian publishing at the ADIBF and LBF, it seems like as good a time as ever to post this interview with Rakesh Kumar of Blaft Publications that I conducted a few months back when I was researching the article on Indian publishing that I wrote for the Frankfurt Book Fair newsletter.

Akshay Pathak of the German Book Office New Delhi was the person who introduced me to Blaft as one of the most exciting new publishing ventures in India. Blaft Publications (supposedly named as such because that’s the sound a 20kg weight makes when dropped on a pomegranate) is a relatively new house that specializes in publishing an interesting range of Tamil texts translated into English. The first Blaft book was a collection of Tamil Pulp Fiction which quickly sold out its first printing and is available outside of India through Amazon.com.

Chad W. Post: What prompted you and your two partners to start Blaft?

Rakesh Kumar: It kind of started with the first book, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. Tamil pulp novels have these wild-looking covers on them . . . photoshopped images of Christina Aguilera with vampire fangs, or people getting eaten alive by giant kittens (we included a selection of cover art in the book). My Tamil is pretty lousy but I can read well enough to make out the titles, which are typically things like “Super Horror Bumper Detective Novel”. I’m a night owl and I kept finding myself standing at the tea kadai at four o’clock in the morning with a cigarette and a coffee in my hand looking at these covers thinking What the Fuck, I absolutely have to know what’s in these things. Our friend Pritham [Chakravarthy, translator] had been a big Tamil pulp afficionado in her youth, and she enthusiastically launched into the process of selection and translation, and travelling around with me to sign everybody up.

In the process, we just realized there were a lot of books like that, books we’d like to see on the shelves of bookstores that we weren’t seeing. So we decided to start a company to make the books ourselves and put them there.

None of the three partners, Rashmi, Kaveri and myself, read any language fluently other than English. My excuse is, I’m only half-Indian and was raised in California; my wife Rashmi is Tamilian, but was mostly raised in the Hindi-speaking North; Kaveri is a Sindhi who was raised in the Tamil-speaking South. There are more and more Indians with mixed-up backgrounds like ours all the time, who default to reading English. Also, I think a lot of English-speaking Indians are finally getting over the colonial hangover and getting more interested in what’s going on in the regional language literatures.

CWP: How long have you been around, and what editorial plans do you have for the future?

RK: We launched with our first three books in May 2008; the Tamil Pulp Fiction book, Zero Degree, and a book of drawings by a local artist named Natesh. We came out with a fourth in July, a book of short stories by Kuzhali Manickavel (she writes in English), and we have at least two more coming out before the end of the year: a book of Tamil folktales, and a translation of a Hindi pulp novel.

We want to do more pulp translations from different Indian regional languages, and also try to bring out some graphic novels. I would love to bring out some good science writing, especially on environment and ecology, subjects which don’t get nearly enough attention here.

CWP: Distribution is a huge issue/problem for small American presses—how are your books distributed in India and abroad?

RK: It’s a big problem here too, though we don’t have the kind of chain-bookstore monopolies you have in the US. We were lucky to get picked up by a major distributor . . . they are not so great about paying on time, though.

CWP: The decision to publish Tamil works in English translation sounds very odd and daring to a foreigner, especially one living in a country that publishes less than 400 works of literature in translation every year. Is this common in India? What are the reasons behind this decision?

RK: I’m not aware of figures, but yes, there are lots of Indian presses publishing translations—mostly into English or from English (I have read several articles recently lamenting the lack of translation between Indian languages). I suppose it’s natural since we’re a much more linguistically diverse society with a lot of polyglots. There’s actually an amazing variety of stuff translated into Tamil and Malayalam, especially; I got shocked on my first trip into a Tamil bookstore, they had Hans Christian Andersen, Isaac Asimov, Charles Bukowski, Kerouac, Calvino, Marquez, you name it. As for the translations to English, some of it is government-sponsored, like the Sahitya Akademi publications.

There are a couple of problems with what’s out there, as I see it; there is a tendency to focus on the most “respectable,” “literary” stuff, which is also the hardest to translate and often comes across kind of boring in English. Also, I think many Indian presses don’t put enough emphasis on careful editing.

CWP: What is your impression of the Indian book market at this time? Things are horrible—almost catastrophically so—in America, but it sounds like the situation in India is very, very different.

We’re all completely new to the business so we don’t have much to compare with. It seems to be thriving!

CWP: Outside of India, the Indian authors that are most well-known are the writers who originally write in English and frequently live abroad, such as Rushdie, Ghosh, Mistry, etc. For someone promoting Tamil writers, how do you feel about this situation? Do you feel like writers working in Tamil (or any other Indian language) are at a disadvantage and more often overlooked than their English-writing counterparts?

RK: Well unfortunately when outsiders think of “Indian writing” it is the names that you mentioned—Rushdie / Ghosh / Mistry—that come to mind. But what is the majority of India reading? Books written in regional languages. Just going by the numbers, these authors—and I don’t just mean Tamil authors, but Hindi / Marathi / Malayalam / Bengali etc.—sell in hundreds of thousands. Yet, these books are not even considered when one talks about contemporary Indian writing. But are they at a disadvantage? I don’t think so. They have such a huge readership and loyal following. But yes, it is disheartening to see that this writing is not given the importance, acknowledgment and recognition it deserves. And we hope to change that.

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