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April 30, 2019

A Closer Look At The Vibrant And Kitschy World Of Hindi Pulp Fiction

Text by Huzan Tata. Photographs by Debarati Sanyal

The niche industry of fast-paced Hindi crime fiction was slowly on its way out, but publisher Minakshi Thakur remained convinced that these novels could find a wider audience. Rebranding the pulp fiction ‘pocket books’ of prolific mystery writer Surender Mohan Pathak, she turned him into a best-selling author in the mainstream market.

If you ever travel by local trains in certain parts of the country, you can’t miss the vibrant, kitschy covers that line the stations’ book stalls. From titles like Dulhan Maange Dahej (The Bride Asks For Dowry) and The Colaba Conspiracy to Apne Qatl Ki Supari (A Bounty For One’s Own Murder) and Blackmailer Ki Hatya (The Murder Of The Blackmailer), these Hindi pulp fiction books were once devoured by vernacular readers who remained devoted until the ’90s. But the page-turners were always missing from stores in large metropolises due to their publishers not being big commercial players. That was until Minakshi Thakur, who till two years ago was heading the Hindi Publishing Programme at HarperCollins, saw the potential of the genre. She signed on crime fiction writer Surender Mohan Pathak in 2013, introducing the cult icon to mainstream shelves and increased his reach in a short span of time — his book The Colaba Conspiracy sold around 25,000 copies under the HarperCollins imprint soon after its release. With this move, Thakur (who now heads the languages division at the Amazon-owned Westland) managed to make Pathak a recognised name among a tier-1 audience, and even in elite literary circles. And although the pool of Hindi pulp and its authors is still gradually growing smaller — with the exception of Pathak, and the late Ved Prakash Sharma (two of his books made an appearance in 2017’s small-town-set Bollywood hit Bareilly ki Barfi) there aren’t really any other writers who’ve had much success — Thakur can be largely credited for their increased visibility in urban locales. Snippets from her conversation with Verve….

While Hindi pulp fiction used to be quite the rage at one time, it has seen a steep decline, even among its niche audience, in the last few years. What is the reason for this?
It was deeply entrenched in its locales, appearing only in local crime magazines and as pocket books based out of Meerut. Some authors even had imprints of their own, and published their books. But by the early ’90s, the number of writers dwindled. Television could be one of the reasons; the quality of writing could be another. The time of Ibn-e-Safi, Gulshan Nanda, Om Prakash Sharma and Ved Prakash Kamboj was long gone.

Two names that stood the test of time are Ved Prakash Sharma and Surender Mohan Pathak. Around the end of the ’90s, the tier-2 and tier-3 towns developed a preoccupation with learning English to get jobs, in order to keep up with the liberalised world. Chetan Bhagat opened a window to the new, changing India for them; he wrote in simple English that everyone could understand, and stories that could be everyone’s story. Writers like Ravinder Singh and Durjoy Dutta followed. They wrote romances that felt real, that youngsters could relate to. These books were priced at less than 200 rupees, and were made widely available. Their writers visited literature festivals where they could be seen and spoken to. That changed the market of books in India.

What is the place of pulp fiction in the urban Hindi market, where the likes of Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Bhisham Sahni remain most popular?
I believe there is still a market for pulp fiction. It might be confined to pockets, but the readership for the few writers left is dedicated. Unfortunately, it is a dying art. One can’t think of too many writers of great consequence. There is just Pathak, or Anil Mohan. Sharma passed away a few years ago, but a large body of his work is still in circulation and selling well.

Pulp fiction, as evident in its name, is usually printed on low quality paper and the price points are low as well. Given the evolving Indian market, is this still the case for the books in Hindi?
Well, these works were traditionally printed cheaply on newsprint. The idea was to read and move on; use and throw. So the prices had to be low. Over time, the whole model underwent a change. Publishers could no longer afford to sell books at 40 and 50 rupees. Most of the paper we use now is imported. India doesn’t produce a lot of its own paper, so printing costs are high. Besides, publishing houses have editors whose salaries have to be accounted for. This was hardly the case before in the Hindi publishing world. So prices have gone up at least six times.

What made you so confident that the genre would continue to sell today in its original language? Did you consider publishing more English translations?
We tried, but the books sold in small numbers. That may also be because there has never been a strong culture of crime writing in English in India; and also, the translations of Hindi pulp may have seemed derivative to readers — they were after all inspired by international crime fiction. Why I was confident they would sell in Hindi: they were just great page-turners and the writers have devoted fan bases.

For those not familiar with pulp fiction but want to give it a try, where should they start?
Read Pathak’s books. Read the classics — Ibn-e-Safi’s writings (15 of them are published by HarperCollins). Sharma’s PDFs are available on his website, but they might seem a tad dated to young readers. I feel that translating current international bestsellers might help create a new market. However, rights fees and translation costs will be a task.

Surender Mohan Pathak: A Writer’s Tale

Chapter 1:

A Love For Hindi
I write in Hindi and I cannot imagine myself writing a novel only in English. My last translated book Conman was a bilingual novel written in a mix of Hindi and English. I have written more than 250 full-length novels in Hindi in a span of 60 years and only six were in English, four of which I’ve translated on my own. My solid base as a mystery writer exists only in Hindi.

Chapter 2:

Language Barriers
It’s true that Hindi books haven’t much of a readership in urban markets. Reading books in English has become fashionable, an ‘in thing’. The present generation won’t dream of being seen with a Hindi novel even on a flight as it may make them seem backward. The decline in Hindi fiction isn’t just due to the rise of writers like Chetan Bhagat and Ashwin Sanghi. I think each one has his own place and one is not a threat to the other. It is the language that makes the difference — English is read all over India, while Hindi is read only in 46 per cent of the country. This is a sad situation, which has made Hindi the step sister of English. Though, in states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, Hindi still rules the roost.

Chapter 3:

Getting Published
The only role that big international publishers like HarperCollins, Westland Books, Penguin India and the like have played in my career is that with them I was more acknowledged and identified as a writer, compared to the times when I wrote for small players of Hindi publications. As far as print orders are concerned, I was better off with smaller houses, as their distribution network is spread all over India while publishers like HarperCollins focus only on metropolitan cities.

Chapter 4:

For The Joy Of Fans
I have a dedicated readership which I know will be with me through thick or thin. When a new book of mine is published, 90 per cent of the copies are bought by my regular readers and only 10 per cent is new readership. This is the reason that my books seldom fail in the market, however competitive it may become. I know my readers will stick with me even if, once in a while, I don’t meet their expectations. I’ve never experienced any challenge to my existence as the most famous mystery writer of whodunnits in Hindi. I am very satisfied with what I have done so far. I can never imagine myself not writing. It’s sad that pulp fiction in Hindi is a diminishing — or rather a diminished — trade. I happen to be the sole survivor. There are many writers of my kind in English but in Hindi they are hard to find now.

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