Talking Peys, Pisaasus, and Pulp Fiction: An Interview with Blaft Publications

Anjali Alappat

Nobody does book covers quite like Blaft Publications. I can personally attest to their appeal. I vividly remember spotting the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Volume One at Odyssey bookstore (Chennai readers know what I’m talking about), and knowing I had to buy it. After all, who doesn’t love saree clad women carrying guns, sipping delicately from a skull—and my personal favourite—donning a cybernetic arm and breastplate while wielding a machete? Blaft has published three volumes of the anthology, and each cover is more striking than the next. 

That’s not to say that the covers overshadow the stories. The anthology features English translations of stories by prominent Tamil writers, and runs the gamut of romance, crime, and science fiction. There’s something thrilling about themes that transcend language—especially if those concepts are homicidal robots and mad scientists!

Fittingly, these are also the books that shot Blaft Publications into the spotlight. Years later, and with several other celebrated books under their belts, the Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies remain representative of what Blaft Publications is trying to create. Co-founders Rashmi Devadasan and Rakesh Khanna started the company in 2007, and have since made it their mission to find the zaniest and wackiest regional pulp fiction, and introduce these stories to an English-speaking audience. 

Additionally, they’ve published graphic novels, comic books, sci-fi short stories, and thoughtfully crafted anthologies. Their Mizo Myths anthology features 15 stories from Mizoram, retold by Cherrie Chhangte, focusing on local myths and legends. More recently, they published Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, which was co-written by by J. Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna (the best way to describe the book is a diabolical encyclopaedia of nightmarish creatures from all around the country). 

In a literary landscape that is slow to change, Blaft has made it their business to champion stories that have mass appeal, but not the level of recognition that they deserve. Despite the popularity of pulp fiction amongst regional readers, they’re still dismissed and considered too fringe by the larger publishing community. After more than a decade of curating the bizarre and unusual, Blaft has carved out a very intentional niche in Indian publishing. 

We chatted with Rakesh and Rashmi about their work, why translations are so essential in Indian writing, what they look for in a book, literary influences, and what the future of Blaft Publications looks like. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Devadasan, co-founders of Blaft Publications, based in Chennai.

1. Blaft Publications has been in the business since 2007. What brought you and your partners together, and inspired you to start a publishing house?

Rakesh: I was curious about all this stuff that I saw happening in Tamil publishing that wasn’t getting translated—pulp, folklore, experimental writing. Rashmi was coming out of several years in the Tamil film industry, and wanted to explore different sorts of narratives. We were both vaguely annoyed at what was being celebrated as ‘Indian writing’ in English. It’s changed a lot since then, but back in the mid-aughts, everything seemed heavily skewed towards vermillion-mango-saree exotica, written by authors that came from a narrow range of backgrounds. 

We were also both reading a lot of new and interesting comics-for-adults—mostly from the US and Europe—but Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor had come out a few years before, and we were both excited to help an Indian scene get off the ground. We’d heard of the even earlier, super rare Indian graphic novel River of Stories by Orijit Sen, and we wanted to publish that for about 15 years. And finally last year we got to do it!

Celebrated graphic novel, River of Stories, written and illustrated by Orijit Sen, and republished by Blaft Publications in 2022. River of Stories is centred around the resistance, environmental activism, and folklore surrounding the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the early 90’s.

2. Was there a gap in the publishing world that you felt strongly about before starting Blaft Publications? And did that play a part in wanting to form the company?

Rakesh: The biggest gap, I think, was the way pulp fiction in Tamil, Hindi, and lots of other Indian languages were completely ignored in English. Not just by translators, but by everyone, including journalists and academics, people who were professionally studying Indian culture. I’ve still never seen a printed mention of any of those books in English anywhere prior to 2008.

"And we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of novels, which have been published since the 1920s, many of which sold millions of copies. That was a weird blind spot. It felt important to make noise about it."

3. Did you have a vision for Blaft Publications when you started out, and if so, do you feel like you’re still on track?

Rakesh: I studied mathematics, and taught mathematics in school, and before Blaft and alongside Blaft I’ve worked as an editor for textbooks and e-learning websites. My original vision for Blaft included a more academic and educational imprint—textbooks, workbooks, that kind of thing. I gave up on that idea because that kind of publishing, at least in India right now, is 99.9% about marketing and 0.1% about making a quality product, and that’s just no fun. I did write a maths book for Blaft—Math Problems with Dinosaurs—but it was kind of self-indulgent and didn’t do very well. 

Rashmi wanted Blaft to make movies and shows. She still does. We developed a show for one of the major streaming services, but they’re sitting on it and we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we’ll do more.

4. Many of your books are translations from regional languages. Why is that so important to you as publishers?

Rakesh: In 2009, when we were very new to publishing, we travelled to the Frankfurt Buchmesse, which is the biggest book fair in the world. The governments and publishing consortia of all these small European countries had beautiful setups where you could sit on fancy couches and browse through brilliantly designed full-colour catalogues and learn about the greats of Croatian, Hungarian or Swedish literature, and knowledgeable literary agents would try to sell you translation or adaptation rights. I remember Estonia’s stall had yummy snacks and free champagne. They were SO well funded! 

By contrast, India’s National Book Trust stall was super tiny, and it had zero decoration, and there was nobody manning it. All you could see were a bunch of unopened cardboard boxes because the delegation hadn’t been able to get their visas in time. In the whole Buchmesse, among those millions of books, there were hardly any Indian-language books on display at all.

There’s something so fundamentally wrong about that. Estonian has around one million speakers—less than, say, Mizo Tawng, or Kangri, languages that even most Indians have never heard of. It’s SO much harder for Indian language poets, comic book artists, essayists or novelists to get their ideas out into the world than it is for a European, a North or South American, or even most other Asians. It’s not fair, and I think it’s the duty of any Indian publisher to work towards making that situation better. The good part is that a lot of us are working at it, and we see more and better translations coming out all the time.

5. You’ve published a lot of books which are a blend of sci-fi, horror, and speculative fiction. Were those the kind of books that you read as a child or were drawn to as an adult? How do your personal tastes influence the kind of stories Blaft publishes?

Rakesh: Yes, Rashmi and I both read a lot of science fiction, horror, and speculative fiction. I grew up on Daniel Pinkwater, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and the anthologies of the Hugo Award winning short stories. Borges, Calvino, and Ballard in college. Mostly white authors—my childhood reading wasn’t very diverse. That changed as I got older, thanks to a lot of people’s hard work in opening up the field, and calling attention to work by pioneers like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. 

I found Amos Tutuola at some point, I don’t know if you can call him speculative fiction but he is amazing. I have a wonderful anthology called Cosmos Latinos of Latin American science fiction that I read to pieces; there’s great stuff in the Apex World SF anthologies, the KL Noir series from Buku Fixi in Malaysia, Joyce Chng and Jaymee Goh’s The SEA Is Ours, and the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. In newer writing, I’ve loved N.K. Jemisin’s work, Sofia Samatar’s short stories, and Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny. 

Thanks to online magazines like Strange HorizonsClarkesworldUncanny,  Lightspeed, Fiyah, and Interzone, you can now find exciting speculative fiction by writers from all over the world. (Also, these magazines need support! Big Tech is causing a lot of problems for everyone—from Kindle axing its subscription system to AI weirdos spamming the submission boxes with dreck. If you can afford it, go give them some money!)

I tend to get impatient with realist novels—even when they’re well written. I feel like I’m watching a soap opera. Exceptions would be hard-boiled crime stuff. Dashiell Hammett is a favourite. My mother is a huge Donna Leon fan, and she’s been trying to get me to read her for years—I finally started the Inspector Brunetti series, and I’m really enjoying it. I also loved Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer.

6. Do you have a checklist for choosing a manuscript to publish? What kind of stories are you drawn to?

Rashmi: It is kind of difficult to give an answer to this question that covers everything, but I will do my best. First: translations of regional language horror, science fiction, and fantasy. And when it comes to original English fiction: an authentic voice, and stories that are not weighed down with forced ‘edginess’. I am partial to surreal tales, old-school horror but with a new take. Like Desi GothIf that is a thing. I feel like it should be.

"I would love to see some well-paced and plotted women-led space action sagas or stories about imagined futures with women-specific themes. Yes, I am specific about that and not abashed about it."

7. Your book covers are really striking, and you often collaborate with local illustrators to create them. Can you tell us a bit about the artists you work with, and the process behind creating these covers and book illustrations?

Rakesh: The Tamil Pulp Fiction anthology covers are illustrated by Shyam, with the rest of the design by Malavika P.C. Shyam is a really prolific illustrator for Tamil weekly magazines. He also does novel covers and film storyboards and he illustrated our book Kumari Loves a Monster, and contributed to Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India. Shyam is old school in a lot of ways. He doesn’t like to do things by email. You have to go and sit with him, and talk him through the rough sketch. He’ll work on it and send you the final version later. Recently, he’s been hard to contact. He travels a lot.

One of the book covers that Shyam has illustrated for Blaft Publications. Shyam has built a name for himself illustrating for serialised Tamil magazines.

Things We Found During the Autopsy, short stories by Kuzhali Manickavel. The book cover was illustrated by Prabha Mallya, who is best known for her work as a children’s book and comics illustrator.

Some of the other designers who have done covers for us are Radha Sunder (who did Kuzhali Manickavel’s Conversations), Prabha Mallya (The Obliterary Journal Vol. 2 and Things We Found During the Autopsy), Appupen (Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, as well as the cover for his own graphic novel Moonward), and Alyssa Pachuau (the new edition of Mizo Myths).

8. One of your more recent releases, Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India is an anthology of Indian myths and legends. It must’ve been a giant undertaking, working with a variety of writers and artists, and compiling folktales from all over the country. Can you tell us about the process and inspiration behind it?

Rakesh: I first started thinking about it in 2009, when I was working with Pritham Chakravarthy on her translation of Ki. Rajanarayanan’s Nattuppura Kadhai Kalanjiyam, which we published as Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu. That book has a Peys and Pisaasus chapter that includes several ghostly entities that are very different from anything I’d read about before. Ki. Rajanarayanan talks about the difference between Mohini Peys and Kaniam Peys and Kanni Peys. 

He talks about how there are “lots of theories about which sorts of twigs should be used to drive out which sorts of Pey, and which percussion instruments should be played during the exorcism to control them.” There’s a story about a Bootham, which was very interesting to me, because although the word is cognate to the Hindi ‘Bhoot’, the Tamil entity is totally different. It’s less like a ghost and more like the shapeshifting Jinn from Aladdin, super powerful and always hungry.

Pritham Chakravarthy’s translation of Ki. Rajanarayanan’s Nattuppura Kadhai Kalanjiyam.

Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India by J. Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna, details Indian myths and folklore from all over the country.

I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, and I spent a lot of time with Gary Gygax’s Monster Manual, as well as the Fiend Folio and Deities & Demigods. There was some clumsy cultural appropriation going on in those 1970s and 80s books, but it was also a fun way to learn about mythological creatures from around the world. Indian ghosts were not very well represented, though; there was a kind of a weird version of a Rakshasa, shown as an aristocratic tiger-headed man smoking a pipe. And that was about it.

So while working on the Ki. Rajanarayanan book, I started thinking about how it would be cool to have a ‘Monster Manual’ of Indian creatures. And over the years, as I learnt more about folklore from across the country, I started adding to the catalogue. I worked closely with Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte on Mizo Myths, and I learnt a lot about the folkloric creatures of her state. 

Mizoram might have my favourite pantheon of all—there are so many and they’re super-duper weird! I read Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih on Khasi demons; Onaiza Drabu on Kashmiri lore; and Musharraf Ali Farooqi on the supernatural entities of the Urdu dastans. Meanwhile, we were also trying to publish pulp translations from other languages—there were a lot of projects that didn’t pan out, but I read synopsis after synopsis of horror novels from Hindi, Konkani, Telugu, Malayalam, Odia, and more, so I got somewhat familiar with the ghosts of those traditions too.

9. What are some of the challenges you faced while compiling these anthologies? What is your takeaway from these experiences?

Rashmi: We would love to continue to bring out more anthologies of popular fiction not only in Tamil, but in other Indian languages as well. Finding a translator who is fluent in an Indian language and in English, who is able to capture the nuance of the story without too much departure from the original tone and idiom, can be challenging. 

Cost is another hard-to-work-around factor. We are particular about the production quality of our books and while, in the dream version of ‘Blaft’s Publishing World’, we would be working on four or five translation commissions simultaneously, we don’t yet have the financial bandwidth to do so. Pulp fiction translations don’t really make it to VC portfolios.

10. Could you share a bit about your plans for Blaft Publications? Are there any dream projects you’d like to explore or changes you’re undertaking?

Rashmi: We would like to publish more comics. We would also like to write films and shows about giant kaiju stomping through Marina Beach and roaring atop the dome of the Senate House of Madras University (of course, causing zero damage to that beloved example of Indo-Saracenic architecture!) Anyone out there who wants to collaborate on a pop-up graphic novel about legions of marine Mohini pisaasus who ride giant vanjaram fish in the Bay of Bengal, brandishing cybernetic ectoplasmic bayonet rifles, leading armies of glowing poisonous amphibious jellyfish, charging into battle to save our brain-controlled society, and disarming the evil fintech and greenwasher-wellness-pharma bros, so that we may walk the beaches again, free to eat sundal and gaze at the waves, without constantly optimising our output and hacking our REM sleep?

11. Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you’re working on? Anything that we should look out for?

We have two exciting anthology projects in the works, for which we’re planning to launch crowdfunding campaigns soon. One of them, I’m not going to announce yet. But I can tell you about the other one, which will launch on Kickstarter this month—an anthology of Gujarati Pulp Fiction! We have a great translator and some wild stories lined up. It’s going to be fun!