It is 6 am at Meerut railway station on a blustery morning. The platform is deserted except for a few passengers and stray dogs. A man clad in worn-out corduroy trousers and leather jacket walks up to a kiosk and says: “Give me the new Amit Khan novel.”
Standing a few yards behind the stall is Khan, 41, the cherubic author, one of the youngest exponents of the endangered art of Hindi pulp fiction. “He was the second person this morning to ask for my book by name. I’ll post this on Facebook,” says the novelist, who is visiting Meerut from Mumbai, where he writes screenplays for television serials.
Elsewhere, Scandinavian crime fiction, Frederick Forsyth and Ian Rankin may have their legions of fans. But in Meerut, Hindi pulp fiction country, it is the Surender Mohan Pathaks, Ved Prakash Sharmas and Amit Khans who top the charts. Desi pulp is India’s answer to the West’s airport novel: where the plots are outlandish, the characters over-the-top and the titles out to grab your eyeballs. Think Katil Milega Machis Mein, Main Chanakya Tu Lomdi and 15 Bomb, Pakistan Khatam.
In a time when the Internet, 24-hour TV and shrinking reading habits are impacting publishers around the world, this cantonment town in Uttar Pradesh, one of the birthplaces of India’s First War of Independence, continues to be the hub of publishing for the jasoosi upanyas, a noir world inhabited by rakish secret agents, sensual femme fatales and heist-meisters.
A generation of readers in India has grown up admiring the taut plots and engaging storylines of James Hadley Chase, John Le Carré and Raymond Chandler. And a significant number swears by Henning Mankell and Robert Ludlum. But the protagonists who fascinate the Hindi heartland are as far removed from Kurt Wallander or Jason Bourne as Langley is from Delhi. Whether it is the anti-hero Vimal, a victim of infidelity and circumstance, desi Mata Hari aka ‘dilphenk hasina’ Reema Bharti, legal mastermind Keshav Pandit or superspy Karan Saxena, each has acquired a cult following.
Amit Khan appears to have chosen the venue of his recce to gauge the popularity of his novels well. It is at railway stations and bus terminus that a chunk of Hindi crime fiction books sell, says Khan’s publisher Rakesh Jain of Meerut’s Dheeraj Pocket Books. “Most train passengers step on the platform and get drawn in by the sensational titles and garishly illustrated jackets. Pty paper, literally from cheap wood pulp (hence the nomenclature ‘lugdi’ sahitya) and usually priced for less than a decent cup of coffee but the readers of the jasoosi upanyas are one of the most demanding in the world, says publisher Rajkumar Gupta of Raja Pocket Books, which publishes Mohan Pathak, among other pulp staples. “They want their money’s worth. So, if the books of Pathak, one of our authors, are priced at Rs 100 and the others at Rs 50, they want better production quality and fantastic page-turners,” he adds.
Hindi pulp publishers say profits for pulp fiction are down to just 15 per cent – a huge drop from the almost 100 per cent margins of a few decades ago. This is mostly attributed to the advent of the Internet and a declining market. But the authors tend to disagree. “If there were no market for Hindi pulp, why would our publishers continue to print us?” asks Pathak. “But the nucleus of publishing has shifted from Allahabad in the 1970s to less expensive Meerut in the last two decades,” says Delhi novelist Anil Mohan.
A 10-minute drive from the railway station in Meerut’s upscale Kavi Nagar neighbourhood stays Ved Prakash Sharma, 58, arguably one of the highest-selling Hindi pulp writers in the country. Reclining in a leather chair in his well-appointed study, Sharma says he has no points left to prove to anybody. Over a five-decade career, he has written more than 150 books and churns out four novels a year that sell more than one lakh copies each, he claims. But Sharma has a bone to pick with the mass media. In the early 1990s, says Sharma, his blockbuster novel Vardi Wala Gunda sold more than 15 lakh copies but was never anointed a bestseller. “There is a strong English language bias in the media. When English paperbacks sell 15,000 copies or even 2,500 copies and the media say these are bestsellers, it sounds ludicrous.”
Ask Sharma about the most satisfying moments of his literary journey and he digs into his reservoir of Railways anecdotes. “In 1992, my kids and I were going to Darjeeling. In the coach that we were travelling in, 39 of the 52 occupants were reading Vardi Wala Gunda. Readers ka pyaar hi ek jasoosi upanyas writer ki asli kamai hai,” says Sharma.
The heyday of the upanyas in India came in the 1960s when a crop of good writers – Rajhans, Ibne Safi, Gulshan Nanda and Ved Prakash Kamboj – was encouraged by Allahabad-based publishing houses. During the ’70s, Nanda’s books were adapted in Bollywood for celebrated movies such as Kati Patang, Khilona and Daag. In the same decade, screenplay writers such as Javed Akhtar were influenced by Ibne Safi’s Jasoosi Duniya series. “He had tremendous flair and sophistication,” says Akhtar. “Safi’s novels created an imaginary city that could have been the San Francisco of the ’60s in India. His penchant for villains with striking names like Sang Hi taught me the importance of creating larger-than life characters such as Gabbar and Mogambo.”
Laura R Brueck, assistant professor of Hindi Literature at the University of Colorado, recently visited Meerut for a research project called ‘Jasoosi Upanyas: The Hindi Detective Novel in Late 20th Century India’. “I was impressed with the diversity of writing styles,” she says. “Each jasoosi novelist is individualistic. Surender Mohan Pathak’s writing, for instance, closely mirrors the nuances and complexities of vernacular speech. Ved Prakash Sharma, on the other hand, builds multiple suspenseful scenes that rapidly layer one on top of the other. His use of interjections like “parantu!” and “phir!” gives his writing a delicious cartoonish feel, like older episodes of Batman and other superhero comics,” she adds. Bangalore-based techie-turned pulp translator Sudarshan Purohit, who has translated Pathak’s 65 Lakh Ki Dacoity into English, says the writer, with his James Hadley Chase-like spare prose, is a cut above the rest. In 2010, Time magazine called Pathak a pulp fiction master in their book recommendations for the season. What makes this genial grandfather the Amitabh Bachchan of Hindi pulp at the ripe age of 75? “His stories are more intelligent. He doesn’t spell out every detail from scratch,” offers Purohit. Brueck adds that she is intrigued by how Vimal, Pathak’s famous character, diverges from “a traditionally hyper-masculine noir figure in his self-doubt and occasional soft-heartedness.”Many of Pathak’s heist novels, such as Jaana Kahan, in which Vimal and his team rob an art gallery of Picasso and Van Gogh paintings and plan to sell them to a French diplomat, are set in Mumbai. Interestingly, he has never stayed in the Maximum City. "Where is the need to do so? HRF Keating, the creator of Inspector Ghote, was a British author who was published in America and wrote numerous novels set in Mumbai but didn’t set foot in the city till the eighth book in the series," says Pathak.
Veena Sharma, the creator of Reema Bharti, which has sold more than 500 titles, says the USP of her character is her ability to use seduction as a weapon in the murky world of espionage. “When she moves in the high-octane world of spies, can she stay like a Sati Savitri? That is highly unrealistic,” she says. Pathak dismisses doomsday prophecies about the end of Hindi pulp. There is still an audience riveted by stories where one can escape the drudgery of everyday life. Is Pathak the last doyen of Hindi pulp, an icon of an era that is on its last legs? “I’ve been writing for five decades. Who knows what happens after I am gone. But till the time I am here, I’ll provide quality writing to my readers,” says the septuagenarian.
Still, most of the purveyors of pulp nurse no literary pretensions. “Aaj kal ke writer ko likhne se pehle bikna aana chahiye,” says Amit Khan. “If literature is the good wife, pulp is a harlot,” sums up Pathak.
Pulp's filmy connection
Lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar credits reading Ibne Safi’s novels for helping him creating larger-than-life celluloid villains like Gabbar Singh and Mogambo.
Two of Ved Prakash Sharma’s novels (Lalloo and Suhag Se Bada) were made into movies Sabse Bada Khiladi and International Khiladi respectively, starring Akshay Kumar and directed by Umesh Mehra.
Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap reportedly grew up wanting to be either actor Amitabh Bachchan or writer Surender Mohan Pathak.
Hindi pulp fiction's most wanted
Surender Singh Sohal a.k.a. Vimal, created by Surender Mohan Pathak: An accountant in Allahabad, Sohal’s wife Surjeet Kaur and her lover conspire to get him jailed for embezzlement. ‘An ordinary man kicked around by fate too often’ is how Pathak describes his laconic anti-hero. In his 30s, Vimal has already pulled off audacious crimes like the Shanta Gokuldas murder in Bombay and a 50 lakh bank van hold-up in Delhi. He also has a penchant of coming up with dohas of Kabir and Bulle Shah impromptu.
Reema Bharti, created by Veena Sharma: A globe-trotting spy ‘who would go to any lengths to achieve her mission,’ Bharti is our own Mata Hari. If it means seducing her enemy before killing him, she is game for it. Secret weapon: A strip of colourless poison beneath her bra straps featured in Akhri Mohra Shatranj Ka.Commander Karan Saxena, created by Amit Khan: Commander Saxena is a RAW agent deputed to crack international emergencies. In Mera Desh, Mere Log he is assigned to bring back an Indian scientist working on a secret Chinese project. He is a jingoistic character sold with the tagline ‘100 crore Hindustanion ka muhafiz, aur dushmanon ka kaal.’
Vibha Jindal, created by Ved Prakash Sharma: The heiress of a thriving empire, Jindal begins by investigating the murder of her own husband in Sade Teen Ghante. Now, she takes up the challenge of solving tangled cases. In Biwi Ka Nasha, Jindal probes the claims of a client who says he has murdered a woman for a necklace that he wanted to gift his wife. But the wife owns up to the murder instead. A nose for noose?
Colonel Faridi a.k.a. Colonel Vinod, created by Ibne Safi: A strikingly handsome but reclusive man addressed by his deputy as Father Hard-Stone. He drives a Lincoln, smokes the finest cigars and dives headlong into such daredevil international adventures that it inspired Agatha Christie to proclaim that Safi was the only original detective fiction writer in Asia.
From HT Brunch, April 7
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