The room is illuminated by a pair of lights hanging from the ceiling. There are hundreds of Hindi novels arranged neatly on the shelves, two computers on a desk, and a large table in the middle with a dozen chairs.
Every alternate Friday, this small office of the Hans magazine in Daryaganj turns into a literary salon where writers, young and old, famous and not-so-famous, come together to discuss books, ideas, and everything literary. For the uninitiated, Hans is the country’s best-known Hindi literary magazine, which has served as a launching pad for many famous Hindi novelists and has mirrored the changing socio-political landscape of small towns and rural India.
Interestingly, all top editorial staff, including the editor, works without remuneration. “We are not here to earn salaries, we are rather on a mission to ensure that this historical literary magazine stays afloat and the flag of Hindi literature keeps flying high,” says Sanjay Sahay, a Hindi writer and editor of the magazine.
Sahay is not exaggerating. Hans has quite a rich history and a formidable literary reputation.
It was founded in 1930 in Varanasi by none other than Munshi Premchand, who was called ‘Upanyas Samrat’ (the king of novels) and had Mahatma Gandhi as its editorial adviser. From the very beginning, the magazine has enjoyed an anti-establishment reputation, always inquisitive and provocative. In the editorial published in the first edition of the magazine, Premchand, stated its objectives thus: “Hans will play a major role in inspiring the countrymen to mobilise themselves against British rule.”
Soon after its inception in 1930, it got into trouble with the British government after, true to its stated objectives, it published vehement anti-imperialist literature. It had to cease publication for a couple of months in 1932. The magazine was a loss-making enterprise and pushed Premchand into debt. The situation got so bad that Premchand even dabbled in writing Bollywood scripts to keep the magazine afloat. Hans closed down a few years after the death of Premchand in 1936.
It was, however, revived by well-known Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav in 1986 in Delhi. Yadav, known to be a radical writer and editor, ensured that the magazine generated public debates on various contentious social, political and cultural issues such as gender equality, language, sexual freedom and fundamentalism among others.
After Yadav’s death in 2013, the magazine faced another major crisis of survival, but its editorial staff was determined to keep it afloat - even if that meant working without salary.
Sahay, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, who worked with Yadav as joint editor, flits between his hometown and New Delhi to look after the editorial affairs of the magazine. At Hans’ Delhi office, he works sitting under a large black and white picture of Yadav. Sahay uses Yadav’s desk for work, but not his chair, which has remained unoccupied since Yadav’s death.
Balwant Kaur and Bibhas Verma, who teach Hindi literature at Delhi University, work as editorial associates after college hours. Rajendra Yadav’s daughter Rachana Yadav, a kathak dancer, looks after the marketing, finances and production. “What matters most to me is the pride that comes from being associated with this magazine,” says Kaur, who like his colleagues Sahay and Vibhas works without remuneration.
About 70 per cent content of the magazine comprises short stories, but it also publishes essays, literary criticism and poetry. In fact, it receives over one hundred short stories every month for publication. “We ensure that every story is read properly before we accept or reject it. All of us read the stories and share our opinion on them before they get into print,” says Vibhas.
The issues highlighted by the stories published, Sahay says, have reflected the changing social concerns over the decades. In the 1930s, when it was launched, feudalism and anti-imperialism were the biggest concerns of the stories published in the magazine. “But now corruption, crime, and political hooliganism are the recurring themes in the stories that we receive from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” says Sahay.
A major chunk of the stories still come by post with self-addressed stamped envelopes. Once a story arrives at the Hans office, a slip with the writer’s name, the title of the story and a serial number is pasted on it and assigned for reading to the editorial staff. “There are times when one writer sends us as many as 10 stories in a month, but I read all of them as a matter of rule,” says Sahay.
While the magazine makes a nominal payment to its writers for their contributions, every year it gives Hans Katha Samman, an award of Rs 21,000 to the best story published in the magazine. For the past 30 years, the magazine has also been celebrating the birth anniversary of its founder Premchand on July 31 by organising a symposium on socio-political subjects.
Interestingly, in this digital age when the circulation of major magazines has going down, that of Hans has gone up in the last two years from 9,500 to 11,000, which makes it the largest-read Hindi literary magazine. The bulk of its readers are in villages and small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
“We manage to break even with sales and subscription revenue almost every month. But we are living on the edge; there are months when we face severe financial crunch and it is hard to bring out the magazine. That too when I and other top editorial staff work without a salary,” says Rachana. “Though we get some advertisements from Hindi publishers, we are now aiming to get some advertisements from corporate houses,” she adds.
While the magazines publishes on its cover paintings by the likes of MF Husain, its production quality has not changed over the decades, and it continues to be printed on newsprint. “We cannot bring out a glossy magazine. We will have to increase the cover price and our readers cannot afford that. But one thing is sure, there will never be a Swan song for this Hans,” says Rachana.