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Why Rapidex is still a favourite book of millions aspiring to learn spoken English

Publisher Ramesh Gupta says the book has sold over 50 million copies in various languages ever since it was launched in 1976, and continues to sell nearly a million copies a year in 16 languages, including Hindi Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Arabic, etc.

delhi Updated: Aug 27, 2017 00:14 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times
rapidex,english speaking,spoken english
Ramesh gupta and his son Nipun.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

It’s midnight and Rakesh Kumar, a security guard at the gate of an apartment building in Noida, is furtively reading a thick, album-sized book. As we approach, he tries to hide his tome -- after all he is not supposed to be reading during duty hours. It turns out to be a copy of Rapidex English Speaking Course. “I am a BA pass and I am looking for a better job. I realised it is not possible without learning a bit of spoken English,” says Kumar. “My uncle in my village told me reading this book is the easiest way to do so,” says Kumar, whose father is a farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district.

Kumar may or may not learn spoken English through the book, but in a country where your chances of success have always been considered directly proportional to your ability to use English, Rapidex English Speaking Course ( RESC) —a book promising to teach English in 60 days---has been treated as a passport to a whole new world of opportunities.

Publisher Ramesh Gupta says the book has sold over 50 million copies in various languages ever since it was launched in 1976, and continues to sell nearly a million copies a year in 16 languages, including Hindi Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Arabic, etc. Once endorsed by Kapil Dev, the book has featured in many movies – most recently in Hindi Medium.

English language learning and teaching has moved online with the growing popularity of apps such as Hello English and Duolingo. Hello English, a popular app with 10 million downloads, for example, allows people to learn English from 21 vernacular languages. It boasts of advanced voice recognition technology, allowing learners to speak into the app and hold real-life conversations.

But that has not worried Gupta, whose firm, PM Publications, publishes Rapidex in Hindi. Sitting in his office in Daryaganj, Gupta dismisses the digital challenge. He says his family’s only concern has been how to meet the demand and not to meet any challenge from competitors. “We have published hundreds of titles, but Rapidex constitutes more than 60% of our total sales. I do not see the demand slackening,” says Gupta, whose brothers publish the book in 15 other languages. “The book has taught English to millions of Indians, including housewives, career women, officers, stenographers, students, job-seekers. I believe English will continue to be a key to success in career,” he says.

These are interesting views coming from someone whose family has been closely associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since 1939. Last year, the RSS said English education is not enough to instill patriotic and humanitarian values. So does not Gupta see a conflict in his political ideology and business interests? “We keep business and politics separate,” says Gupta, who prefers to speak in Hindi.

He says Rapidex was inspired by ‘Hindi-Angrezi Master’, a self-learning book that was doing well in the 1970s. “My family realised there was a huge untapped market for English teaching. We thought we could come up with a better book.”

So Pustak Mahal, a family-owned firm, commissioned a team of ‘experts’ to develop content for those who had not gone to English medium schools. “It took us four years to develop the content,” says Gupta.

The first edition of Rapidex was launched in 1976 with a print run of 3,000 copies, which he says was sold within weeks. By the early 80s, the sales rose up to 70,000 copies a year, says Nipun, Gupta’s son.

It continues to sell nearly a million copies a year in 16 languages, including Hindi Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Arabic, etc. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Then the family-owned company roped in Kapil Dev, who had just won the cricket World Cup, to endorse the book. There could not have been a better brand ambassador -- Kapil Dev was a new hero with a rustic accent, worshipped by millions who could not speak English but wanted to do so. Kapil’s endorsement sent sales soaring.

“Those days celebrities endorsed FMCG products and not books. From 70,000 copies in the early 1980s , the sales reached almost 5 lakh copies a year by the late eighties after Kapil’s endorsement,” says Nipun.

The book recorded its highest sales in the 1990s after liberalisation. That was the period, Gupta says, it sold about 1.7 million copies a year in all languages.

Smart marketing tactics played a role in its phenomenal success. Not just on TV, they promoted the book on radio through a jingle in the 1980s, played on a woman’s sense of inferiority because she could not speak English. “Mein party mein nahin jaoogi, wahan sab angrezi mein baat karete hein (I will not go to the party, everyone speaks English there,” the woman tells her husband in the jingle.

Gupta says of all 16 languages, the Hindi version sells the maximum – mostly in UP and Bihar -- and constitutes almost half of its sales followed by the Tamil edition. “We knew the urge to learn English was quite strong in villages and smaller towns. So, we created a network of super-distributors, distributors, sub-distributors, retailers, hawkers. “People in rural areas order books through newspaper hawkers,” says Gupta.

As its popularity grew, many clones with similar-sounding prefixes—Rapidly, Speedx-- arrived. “Rapidex is a trademark and we take legal action against those who try to copy our book,” says Gupta.

Not that the book faces no competition -- there are any number of books promising to teach spoken English in a month or two: Superfast English, Super Speed English Speaking Course, Popular English Speaking Course, etc.

Piyush Kumar, managing director, Prabhat Prakashan, which publishes Super Speed English Speaking Course, admits: “Though our book has been one of the bestsellers in the category, it is hard to replicate the success of Rapidex... we plan to publish four more books that will help people learn English,” says Kumar.

Aalim Dehlvi, who wrote a popular column in a Hindi newspaper and a book based on it -- Aalim Sir Ki English Class, which helps people learn English pronunciation -- attributes the remarkable sales of English learning books on the constraints of cost and access that a lot of Indians face as far as English coaching is concerned.

“These books are not costly, so people just buy them. I keep telling my readers the best way to learn English is to learn grammar. There is no short cut. In smaller towns and villages the quality of English teachers is very bad, one of the reasons why students struggle with the language,” he says.

Explaining why he featured Rapidex in Hindi Medium, the movie’s dialogue writer, Amitosh Nagpal, says, “This is the only book people can relate to as far as learning English is concerned. Somehow millions of people have believed that this book offers some kind of mantra to learn English instantly,” says Nagpal.’

Divya Prakash Dubey, a well-known Hindi writer, says the continuing high sales of Rapidex proves learning English continues to be an aspirational thing.

Recounting his school days in Shahjahanpur, UP, where he grew up in an officers’ colony, he says there was a community of Rapidex readers comprising officers, their wives, students. “Children Knowledge Bank and Rapidex were must-read books for my generation,” says Dubey. “I had crammed many situation-based conversations, which I found to be pretty amusing little stories, but the problem was when I tried practising it with someone, he or she would blankly look at me. Obviously he had not read the Rapidex. So, conversation got nowhere. In hindsight, I believe this is not the best book to learn English, but it can be a starting point for those with no knowledge of English,” he says.

Gupta says they have been updating the book by incorporating new words, sharpening the sentences, incorporating new situation-based conversations, etc., but what has not changed in four decades is its cover.

“We want people across generations to relate to the book. In fact, some of the pictures on the cover are of my relatives: the woman with specs is my sister-in-law and older person is my father’s elder brother,” says Gupta.

Gupta receives many letters of suggestions and appreciation. “We are most happy when people say they have got a job because of Rapidex.”

  • A report by Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy, New Delhi, says those who speak English fluently earn up to 34% more than those who don’t speak the language
  • It says only 4% of Indian population would be considered fluent
  • The report says less than 25% of students of higher education are studying in English medium in the north central region of India, including Bihar and UP, compared to around 75% in south India.

First Published: Aug 27, 2017 00:14 IST