Final station: Pulp fiction on its last legs, say sellers
Back in the 1980s, most train journeys in north India were spent with Sudhir, Sunil, Vijay, or Keshav Pandit solving perplexing crime riddles or with stories about complex human relationships that were the mainstay of the fascinating Hindi pulp fiction created by its most notable authors such as Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma and Gulshan Nanda. Published mostly on recycled thick paper, the novels were low-priced with outlandish titles and kitschy cover art.
Long before the mobile phones came to the scene and water started selling in plastic bottles, these books were among the essential travel companions, especially on long train journeys.
Besides their amazing popularity, these books had one more thing in common --majority of the sales used to come from book stalls on railway platforms. The genre, however, was struggling to survive with online entertainment taking the centre stage, but with train journeys becoming scarce due to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, it seems to have received the final blow.
The publishers of these books, who are based in Delhi and Meerut--- once the capital of Hindi pulp fiction—say their sales have dropped by 90% compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“The coronavirus crisis could mean the end of our story; it was the long railway journeys that had given rise to this genre of fiction in the first place,” says Manish Jain, owner, Ravi Pocket Books, a firm set up by his father in 1965 during the heydays of the Hindi pulp fiction -- mostly racy noir thrillers peopled by spies, corrupt cops, conmen, seductresses, and heist-masters.
These railways stalls had helped the publishers like Manish Jain sell millions of copies every year till the early 1990s, keeping the printing presses in east Delhi’s Shahdara busy day and night before the growing popularity of TV soap operas in the 1990s began to severely dent their sales.
Over the past two decades, the number of publishers in Meerut and Delhi has come down from over 35 to about eight. Before the pandemic hit, the surviving publishers were bringing out roughly 7 lakh copies a year --- some new, but mostly old bestsellers. “Most of our readers were from UP, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and MP, who travelled in general train compartments. We were selling about 6,000 copies a month of various titles before the pandemic. No long rail journeys mean no sale for us,” says Rakesh Jain, proprietor of Meerut-based Dheeraj Pocket Books, who has been publishing pulp fiction since 1962.
According to Delhi Division of the railways, the combined footfalls at Old Delhi, New Delhi and Hazrat Nizamuddin have come down from 9.75 lakh daily before the pandemic to about 3.2 lakh — a fall of almost 70% . The situation in other parts of the country is much worse, with platforms, once a hive of activities, lying deserted.
On Friday afternoon, there were a couple of customers browsing through books at Pankaj & Company, a bookstall at New Delhi railway station. There were a few passengers waiting for special trains on an otherwise empty platform. “ Our sales are down by 80%. I have run a bookstall at the New Delhi railway station for past 38 years, but have not seen platforms so deserted, ” says Manoj Jain who runs the bookstall. The stall has a shelf devoted to Hindi pulp fiction. “Earlier, I used to sell 200 titles every day, now I am lucky if I sell 200 in a month. I have hardly sold a dozen titles in the past few months,” he adds.
Somit Banerjee, executive vice president, AH Wheeler, a British-era company which has over 325 stalls across the country on railway stations, says, most of their stalls have remained closed as there is hardly any business. “Many publishers such as Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha, grew with us. There is no doubt that publishers of pulp fiction too thrived because of us. But now we are focusing on quality fiction,” says Banerjee. “There are about 5,500 people employed with our stalls”.
The publishers say they are sitting on a large pile of unsold books. “Before the pandemic, we sold most of our pulp fiction titles on railway platforms in cities such as Lucknow, Varanasi, Ranchi, Patna, Mathura. We were managing to survive somehow, but now we are not sure how long we can continue to publish Hindi pulp fiction titles,” says Manoj Gupta, owner, Raja Pocket Books, a Delhi-based publisher.
Gupta becomes cheerful as he takes a trip down the memory lane. “ I remember we had sold about 4 lakh copies of the Kanoon ka Beta by Ved Prakash Sharma in a couple of weeks. In fact, till the 1990s, we routinely sold about 2-3 lakh copies of our top writers, a figure many stalwarts of Hindi literature could not match,” says Gupta. The company set up by his father in 1967 has published some of the biggest names in pulp fiction such as Gulshan Nanda, Rajhans, Ved Prakash Sharma, Surinder Mohan Pathak. In the 1980s, his publishing house, he says, used to bring out 100 new titles.
This was made possible by the prodigious output of pulp fiction writers. Most writers, Manoj Jain, says produced anything between 4 to 12 books in a year. “Some of them could deliver a manuscript on demand in 15 days flat,” says Jain.
Delhi-based Anil Mohan has 259 titles to his credit. He admits the railway station and, to some extent bus terminals, helped writers like him survive. Like most writers of pulp fiction, he has many railway anecdotes to share. “Until the 1990s, whenever I travelled in north India, I would see many people reading my book in the compartment, and that is what kept us going,” says Mohan.
Most of these writers do not get any royalties on the sale as they had sold their manuscripts for one-time payment that could range anything between Rs 50,000 to 3 lakh. “I got paid at least 50,000 for most of my books. I think the railway platforms book stalls had introduced books to millions who would otherwise never visit a bookstall and read a book. They created mass readership for our books,” says Mohan, who in the last week of November announced his new book, his first after five years.
Railway vendors say with sale at stalls down like never before, they are finding it difficult to survive. “Our license fee should be revised and charged according to the footfalls at the stations for as long as the pandemic lasts,” says Ravinder Gupta, president, Akhil Bhartiya Railway Khan-Pan Licensees Welfare Association, an association of platform vendors, which also covers bookstalls. “Railway divisions have been asked to revise license fees for all catering stalls, including bookstalls as per decline in a number of outward passengers and trains. Bookstalls have been permitted to sell miscellaneous items, including Covid-related items such as sanitizers,” says Deepak Kumar, Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO) Northern Railways.
In the meanwhile, it is a bright sunny Saturday afternoon, and Anil Mohan is at his writing desk working on novel number 260. “The pandemic may have stopped trains, but my journey as a writer is far from over,” he says.