Gulp this Pulp!
The Hindi pulp fiction thriller still entices and enthrals
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
"Beware!" Dolly roared like a wounded tigress as she pointed her revolver at him. "Stop there, you devil! If you move even a step forward I will shoot you without any second thoughts." Lokesh fell silent. He did not expect such courage from a tender beauty.
- Shatranj (Chess), Shagun Sharma
Such is the heady stuff that Hindi pulp fiction is made of. Dishing out a tantalising, cheap cocktail of suspense, crime and sex to readers seeking respite from the tedium of everyday life, this genre of thrillers once ruled the roost in the Hindi heartland.
Made of recycled paper, the kind used for the cheap rough registers in which school students often do their homework, many of these 300-odd-page paperbacks are published from Meerut in western UP also known for its significant role in the 1857 War of Independence against the British.
At any book stand on railway platforms or makeshift stalls on the peripheries of bus terminals, across big, small and mofussil towns, these books can be found neatly stacked in the first row. With loud, melodramatic, screaming covers like box-office Bollywood posters, you just can't miss them. Several generations have grown up reading these pocket books, especially in the Hindi heartland. In train journeys, often, the book companions' are characters like Commander Karan Saxena, Indrajeet or Keshav Pandit - also turned into a crusading TV soap.
Commander Karan Saxena is a RAW agent deputed to solve international emergencies. In Mera Desh, Mere Log (My Country, My People), he is pressed into service to bring back to the country an Indian scientist working on a secret Chinese project. "I thought India needed this kind of a nationalist character," says Mumbai-based Amit Khan, the 'master-mind' behind Commander Saxena. He has penned 50 novels revolving around this character. The commander has a one-of-its-kind dedicated fan club. There is a dedicated postbag that caters to thousands of his fan mails.
This is a trade in which plagiarism and ghost-writing are common, and sometimes, uncannily, old fictional characters end up as new writers of fiction. A case in point is that of Keshav Pandit, a legendary character created by Ved Prakash Sharma in 1986 as the hero of Bahu Mange Insaaf (The Daughter-in-law Demands Justice). Once the character became a hit, another publisher came up with novels apparently authored by Keshav Pandit! Incidentally, Meerut-based Ved Prakash Sharma himself is a big name in this pulp crime literary genre.
Indeed, it wasn't easy for Sharma when he was starting out as a writer. "I wanted my writings to be published under my name and the publishers were not ready for that," he says. He had 24 scripts in his wooden box when he finally succumbed to the pressures of the trade. He used to be paid Rs 100 for each of his novels that were published under the names of other authors. Among these novels, he claims, is the series featuring Vijay Raghunath, published under the name of Ved Prakash Kamboj, a bestseller novelist of the 1970s.
Sharma narrates how simple the plot used to be in the 1970s: "There would be a secret file with classified information. Pakistanis somehow get hold of this file, but before it can be used against India, the hero gets it back."
Times have changed since then. Crime has become hi-tech now, writers feel. Earlier they could manage with a simple murder mystery, now, they say, it has become important to delve into the details of investigations. "Fingerprints, forensics and hi-fi technology have all become an integral part of the plot," says Khan. This means that the writer must have deeper knowledge of the subject.
However, eternally, the motive of crime remains money. "The weapons have changed and so have the ways, but the basic motive remains money," says novelist Dinesh Thakur who lives in Delhi.
The background of criminals has significantly changed. The goondas in the earlier novels were often illiterate and poor, and usually driven to crime as the only way to survive. "Earlier, characters used more of muscle power, now they are driven more by brain power or by technology," says Thakur.
Stories too have evolved. Now, cyber crimes and contemporary issues have caught the fancy of these story-tellers. Sharma's recent novel, Kyonki Woh Biwi Badalte Hain, revolves around six men who frequently swap their wives. His son, Shagun Sharma, who is also a novelist, has recently written a series of three novels on cyber crime.
In the 1990s, as change swept Bollywood, sex occupied the centre-stage in these novels too. At a time when women were getting hooked to TV soap operas, these novels, often overtly sexist and misogynist, had an exclusive male readership, often in small towns and the suburban underbelly of big towns. Female characters were basically used to bring in the "sex angle". "There were nymphomaniac characters as well," admits Raj Bharti, author of the Agniputra series of novels with sex-and crime-laced plots revolving around a macho Herculean character who claims to be the "first man on earth". Ironically, Bharti, who lives in Delhi, accepts that the formula has failed.
Simple language, straight forward narratives, and a near-perfect mix of hyper-emotions, melodrama and filmy action are the elements that go into making these novels popular among the masses. "I am a big fan of Keshav Pandit. His novels are easy to follow and the plots, peppered with sex and crime, are addictive," says Ramcharan, an autorickshaw driver in Delhi.
Many of these novelists have more than 70 novels under their belt. "We are like car mechanics. Once we sit down to write a story, we know how to bring it to a logical conclusion," says Thakur. "It takes no more than 45 days to write a novel," says Bharti, who has written more than 400 novels since 1964. Often inspired by movies, TV and news reports, these novelists say they also have to read law books.
"We are selling entertainment, but at the same time we do convey social messages in a subtle way," says Ved Prakash Sharma. Thakur is clear that their novels can only be called "purposeless, C-grade, footpath literature". "It's like a laughter show on TV. I don't think we are giving anything to society. I don't consider myself a reputed writer," he says.
There are others who rue the fact that writers like Khushwant Singh and Shobha De also write about sex openly, but it is only their tribe that is blamed for churning out "cheap" literature. "We don't keep such cheap books in the library. We only buy classics for our readers," says Anjana Chattopadhay, Director General, Delhi Public Library.
These home-bred Sidney Sheldons are still popular among sections of society that grew up studying in government-run Hindi-medium schools. But these pocket novels are facing tough competition from "other pulp quarters".
Books with semi-nude pictures of girls on the cover and catchy titles like Manto ki Badnaam Kahaniyan (Manto's Infamous Tales) or Vishva Prasiddha Badnaam Mahilayen' (World-famous Notorious Women) are becoming popular. The inside cover of the collection of eminent litterateur Saadat Hasan Manto's stories asks readers to decide for themselves if the stories are cheap or vulgar. The contents page of the other book on 'notorious' women describes famous tennis star Billy Jean King as samlangikta ki pujaran (worshipper of homosexuality).
The toughest competition for Hindi pulp fiction, however, is coming from self-help books that claim to teach the secrets of becoming successful - the 'you can win' kind of books, now mass-produced for the Hindi market as well. "Translations of books by Shiv Khera and Dale Carnegie seem to have eaten into the share of the paperback novels," says a dealer at AH Wheeler sub-outlet at Old Delhi railway station.
In small, arid towns of western UP, bookshops rent out these novels at Rs 5 per day. "This way I don't have to spend Rs 40 for a novel," says Hasan, a Bijnor-based lawyer. This flourishing rent-a-book market gets regular readers who are often not asked extra money even if they return a book late.
However, Shagun, who also runs Tulsi Pocket Books, says that novels by his father Ved still sell as many as 1.25 lakh copies. "True, there was a bad patch, but the sales will pick up again," he told Hardnews.