Pishaach Sundari Ka Badla: Enter the dark, secret world of India’s horror writers
Horror was a steady seller in the world of Hindi pulp fiction, traditionally dominated by crime stories. Now, e-books & online sales are giving the subgenre new life
On a hazy morning last year, 73-year-old Parshuram Sharma, who runs a music institute in Meerut, was fixing the strings of his guitar when Anadi Shubhanand, author and owner of Mumbai-based publishing house, Sooraj Pocket Books, sent him a friend request on Facebook. They exchanged mobile numbers. Over the phone call that followed, Shubhanand asked Sharma how much time he would take to write a horror novel. Sharma, or Pandit ji, as he is popularly known among his students, couldn’t believe his ears. In the 1970s and ’80s when the publication of pulp fiction was at its peak and Meerut city – 70 km northeast of Delhi – was its hub, a young Sharma had written more than 50 horror novels, originals, translations and adaptations. He gave up writing 14 years ago because of the slump in the pulp publishing sector.
“I thought Shubhanand was joking. My understanding was that the market was finished long back. To my surprise, he told me that people still routinely search for pocket books on e-commerce portals. It was music to my ears,” says Sharma in his deep baritone.
Shubhanand’s publishing house is one among many that is giving a fresh lease of life to desi pulp fiction through online sales and ebooks – and this includes horror novels. Though crime has always been the highest-selling genre within pulp, Manesh Jain of Meerut’s Ravi Pocket Books, a big name in pulp, says that novels about the supernatural and paranormal also always sold well. Today, ebooks and online sales combine the ease of Net shopping with the nostalgic appeal of popular yesteryear authors. They gain from the fact that railway stations, bus stops and neighbourhood bookstores are no longer the biggest sales points of the books. Sanjay Chawla, proprietor of Meerut’s Chawla Book Depot, which traded in pulp fiction, says, “That era is over. People at railway stations and in trains are now hooked to their mobile phones.”
Says Minakshi Thakur, publisher, language division, Westland, “Pulp fiction, you could say, has been pulled from the fringes to mainstream publishing. The genre in English is extremely popular in the West, and there’s no reason why our writers in the languages shouldn’t have been given the respect and shelf space they deserve. We should give due credit to Daily Hunt (news and local language content application) that changed the decline in the industry of pulp writing six-seven years ago. They actively converted print books, old and new, to e-books and made them available at extremely affordable prices.”
Amazon too offers popular horror titles in Hindi along with translations. Self-publishing regional language platforms such as Pratilipi and MatruBharti encourage established as well as new authors. Ravi Pocket Books has developed a mobile app for e-books and that includes horror.
Jaisalmer-based FlyDreams Publishers trades in online books, and has six horror titles in its bouquet.
When Shubhanand started his publishing firm five years ago, he took the digital route because traditional distributors didn’t show interest. For credibility, he wanted to associate himself with established authors. “Getting a popular horror writer like Parshuram Sharma on board was a big value-add for my brand. I plan to rope in more writers who were famous decades ago but are out of work now,” says Shubhanand.
Since their phone chat, Shubhanand has republished three of Sharma’s horror novels from the ’70s – Agiya Betal, Khoon Barsega and Korey Kaagaz Ka Qatl.
Back in his music school in Meerut, Sharma is fighting writer’s block. He is supposed to write a new novel for Shubhanand, tentatively titled Darr Lagta Hai.
When he was in his prime, writing came naturally to him, just like talking. He would finish at least one novel a month. Now, it’s different. Ideas don’t come. He has been buying time to write his next.
He confesses, “Earlier, we could easily fool people. Not anymore. I could show a volcano explosion wherever I wanted. Now, the reader can figure out whether volcano exists on the mentioned location or not,” he says.
He has the basic plot with him though – a real-life incident at RK Studio, Mumbai. Sharma was in Mumbai during 1994-2004 as part of the writers’ groups which penned multiple thriller and horror shows for TV, including Aahat and Thriller At 10. One of his friends, the personal assistant of a yesteryear superstar, told him that a room in the RK Studio was haunted. “That’s the basic idea I want to develop,” he says.
Writing horror is also challenging for Sharma because the story and details have to first scare him. Else, it is not worth pursuing. “I can’t expect my readers to feel a certain way if I don’t feel the same way,” he says.
Many stories that are passed on through generations in Sharma’s village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district have made it to his novels. The author claims that Agiya Betaal, his most popular horror title, is based on an incident he and his friends witnessed around 40 years ago when they were passing by some woods in Pauri Garhwal. He recounts, “It was like a circle of fire which would break into fragments and rejoin again and again.”
Whether Sharma believes in the supernatural or not is irrelevant, he says. “My logic is simple. If something has a name, it means that it exists and has a history. We don’t imagine a being or phenomenon and name it. Do we?”
ABID ALI RIZVI: SPINNING SUSPENSE
Last year, Meerut-based author and translator Abid Ali Rizvi wrote an anthology of stories titled Bhoot Pret Ki Kahaniyan – his first original horror work. He describes it as his return gift to Hindi pulp literature. “I have so many stories in me that it will take me a lifetime to put them all out,” says Rizvi, 77.
Rizvi, who has a Master’s in Hindi, shifted to Meerut in 1974. He did English-to-Hindi translations of best-selling horror novels such as Dracula. He worked with three of the biggest publishing houses of Meerut: Dheeraj, Ravi and Maruti, all of which were run by the same family.
Before Rizvi made Meerut his home, he quit his job as a school teacher in Hamirpur (Uttar Pradesh) to join Nikhat Publications, Allahabad. Mujtaba Hussain Rizvi, who used the pen-name Ibn e Sayeed, was the author of Tilismi Duniya (Realm of Sorcery), a series published by Nikhat. “I used to take dictation of those stories from Ibn e Sayeed,” recalls Rizvi.
It took Rizvi four years to lose interest in taking dictation from Ibn e Sayeed. He shifted to Delhi. Kartar Singh (aka Raj Bharti), who had a stellar career as a horror pulp fiction writer in that era, got him assignments. Ghost stories continued to haunt Rizvi. “Once in two months, I would write a pocket book on the occult,” he says.
But after arriving in Meerut, he did translations, ghost writing and editing. His translation of four novels of the Inka series – a suspense/horror series originally written by Pakistani author Anwar Siddiqui – consolidated his position in Hindi pulp. Inka is the story of a supernatural creature who takes the form of a 6-inch woman who lives on the head of her master Jameel Ahmed Khan.
During the early 1990s, more than 20 publishing houses in Meerut shut shop. Rizvi had to live on his savings. “Everyone was washed away in that flood. No one survived the slump,” he says. But now he is writing again. He sees content as an elaborate buffet. “TV and social media offer regular meals. I serve snacks,” he says.
RAJ BHARTI: THE KING OF DREAD
Kartar Singh was addicted to writing. It wasn’t about any kind of love of writing. It gave him a sense of completion – writing in the wee hours, visualising his characters while drinking more tea than his entire seven-member family in Delhi’s West Patel Nagar could in a day. “He used to go in a trance when he wrote. Just himself in a world only he knew,” Saroj Kanta remembers her husband who died in 2009.
Which is why no one questioned Singh when he quit his job with the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation in 1978 to make a career out of writing Hindi pulp fiction, or when he took four pen-names to write novels in different genres, or when he gave up writing anything else but horror – he churned out 46 horror novels as Raj Bharti in four years.
Bharti became Hindi pulp literature’s dominant horror writer with a cult following. “When an author passes away, readers make peace with it. But Bharti ji was different. I still get at least one inquiry every week from a reader who cites Bharti’s example to demand new horror novels,” says Manesh Jain, owner of Ravi Pocket Books, Meerut, which published all of Bharti’s horror novels. “I tell them that we are working on something. But I know there will never be another Raj Bharti.”
The late author mashed up ideas from mythology, true crime, the paranormal and supernatural, sci-fi, horror and folklore to create a world of ghosts, spirits, exorcism and cannibalism.
Mayaavi Pretaatma is the story of a good spirit in disguise who is out to take revenge. Swaaha, one of Bharti’s most successful novels from 1992, is about a girl who finds herself caught in a supernatural world peopled by evil spirits. Chudail is the story of a witch who wants salvation.
“Whereas horror novels by other writers sold 5-7,000 copies, Raj Bharti’s would often touch 10-15,000 copies,” says Jain.