Anniversaries are good occasions to contemplate and reflect on personalities. As the 102nd birth anniversary of the Konkani writer Reginald Fernandes approaches (14 June, 1914 – 13 November, 1994) reflecting on how his books and writings have been perceived and understood thus far would seem fitting for the occasion.
Reginald’s writing, due to a lack of attention by literary scholars and writers in Goa, is assumed to be in the genre of ‘pulp fiction’. This is largely due to the want of a better term to describe cheaply-produced, pocket-sized fiction for mass consumption, and the fact that ‘pulp fiction’ is understood to be literature of low caliber. Within the Romi Konkani readership, the term romans is used to refer to such fiction – to the extent that ‘novel’ is synonymous with romans. With the formation of Goa’s statehood and the official recognition of nagri-scripted Konkani, one could observe not only a shift of modes of literary production from the organic (romans) to an artificial (kadombori, a term believed to be more Indian in its register), but also a rejection of the very form of the romans for a more modern and literary form of writing based on sanskritic culture.
Apart from linguistic politics, scholars of literature point out, the fuzzy boundaries between ‘pulp fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ are due to practical causes as well. The immediate criterion used to classify a book as ‘pulp’ or not is its appearance and pricing. Reginald’s books fit this criterion as his books were published on cheaply available paper and these were modestly priced around 50 years ago at 2 rupees and a few paisas. But even by such a criterion, some books by famous novelists such as R. K. Narayan were published in cheap and affordable editions that had the appearance of ‘pulp’. Thus, the idea that books printed on cheap and coarse paper can be termed as ‘pulp’ can at times be misleading. Moreover, in the case of Reginald, the cheap and coarse print quality – almost lurid – can be explained by the fact that the author and publishers experienced financial difficulties with the rising prices, and hence these books had to be affordably priced.
‘Pulp fiction’ is mass-produced. The cheap pricing is meant to attract a reading demographic across economic divisions. It is largely aimed at making fiction accessible to lower income groups, such as the working class Goan population in Bombay. In this sense, Reginald’s books can be qualified as ‘pulp’, especially since 5000 copies would sell like hot cakes in no time. This mass production of ‘pulp fiction’ is not just confined to the print-run but also extends to the number of books an author churns out in his/her lifetime or career. If one looks at the authors who wrote ‘pulp fiction’ in Hindi and Tamil for instance, then the sheer number of books written would strike one as mind-boggling. Reginald’s oeuvre consisting well over one hundred books can easily qualify as ‘pulp’ in this respect.
Qualitatively speaking, ‘pulp fiction’ is supposed to be ‘bad literature’. Pulp follows a formula, the story-line is simple and straightforward, and is written in an effortless and accessible language. Scholars point out that many ‘good’ literary works (such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm) are also written in a simple and accessible manner. On the surface of it, Reginald’s writings, although simple and formulaic, make use of the Konkani language in novel and creative ways. Reginald’s descriptions of the scenes invoking the natural beauty of Goa have a poetic quality to them, and his descriptions of the fantastic and the marvelous leads him to use known words in many different ways.
One reason why writers such as Reginald were and are viewed in contemporary Goa as not literary enough is due to the cultural and political marginalization of the Romi script. Any literary production in the Romi script was viewed as lacking in literary standard by the dominant nagri establishment. One cannot deny that in order to make nagri Konkani the official language of Goa, the vibrancy of the Romi script productions were denied state recognition, apparently for a greater good. In such circumstances, referring to the oeuvre of writers like Reginald as ‘pulp’ may end up justifying such an attitude of ignoring the cultural vibrancy of the Romi script.
Considering the fuzzy boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘pulp’ fiction, Tabish Khair, a writer, poet, and critic, attempts to define ‘pulp fiction’ in the Indian context: “[P]ulp fiction is fiction that used largely fixed generic features to satisfy the largely fixed reading expectations of as large a market as possible”. Even if in certain respects Reginald’s corpus of writings can be seen as ‘pulp’, one has to be careful given the fraught nature of language politics in Goa. So is there any alternative category that can be used to denote and understand the writings of those like Reginald? The alternative, I think, has been staring us in the face: romans.
Apart from the fact that romans is an organic term used in the context of Romi writings and has a legitimate tradition and history, it also helps us to do away with the artificial distinction between what constitutes literature and what doesn’t. In many languages the novel developed from a tradition of romance literature, so much so that a novel is synonymous with ‘romance’. Moreover, through the route of romans the pulp-esque features of writers like Reginald need not be entirely rejected. This will also allow us to escape the confusion that results from re-labeling romans as kadombori. In the end we can provide a provisional answer to the question in the title: not ‘pulp’ because we have a better alternative in romans.
For more Reading Reginald, click here.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 8 June, 2016)