When Pulp Fiction ruled the Hindi Belt
Long before the digital space was flooded with OTT platforms and TV had private channels, the Hindi belt of northern India was ruled by bestselling novels. The name “pulp fiction”—lugdi sahitya in Hindi – is representative of the black or grayish “pulp paper” on which these novels are printed. The white paper used to produce “literary” books was expensive, making it out of reach for most small town and rural readers.
While high-level literati despised the pulp, a great mass market grew out of cheap copies, fast-paced storylines, larger-than-life villains and heroes, who sailed battles judiciary, waged spy wars and fought mafias. . Several characters introduced decades ago, such as Keshav Pandit, the Vijay-Vikas duo, Vimal and Sunil, are remembered fondly and still read today.
With time jumps, character crossovers, ensembles and spin-offs, pulp fiction has developed storytelling techniques that mainstream Indian cinema – arguably the most popular storytelling medium in India – has yet to. product.
Pulp fiction – The Indian airport novel
Pulp fiction novels in India are similar to airport novels in the West. Long train journeys and bumpy bus rides through the dusty outback of North India would be unimaginable without these readings which are available from AH Wheeler stalls on railway platforms and newsstands around bus stops. From these places, the novels made their way to the rural hinterland where a culture of exchange exploded. The stalls acted as libraries where you could rent novels as well as rent DVDs, and people in the outback often traded for each other.
A bookstore with one of the highest footfalls in Meerut – the hub of Hindi pulp fiction – has emerged opposite one of the city’s main bus stops. Janata book stand. Bhupinder Kumar Chaudhary, who ran the store for more than three decades, tells Outlook that in the 1980s-90s there was such excitement that orders were always placed in advance. “Readers used to pre-order us, and we used to pre-order publishers. Publishers were constantly informing us of upcoming titles and reprints. Sometimes the first draw was sold out in the first week,” says Chaudhary.
Although there are no official figures since pulp fiction has always been beyond the mainstream press and investigative agencies, editors and writers tell Outlook that average circulations at its peak were in lakhs. One of Ved Prakash Sharma’s most popular novel Vardi Wala Gunda was said to have sold around 15 lakh copies on the day of its launch.
The recipe for success ?
The simple and logical reason is that the novels clicked with readers. On top of that, most pulp readers were from the middle to lower classes, and cheap paperbacks were all they could afford as a window into entertainment, often a substitute for movies. Other reasons that made the paste popular ranged from the diverse nature of the stories that catered to all segments, from the fictionalization of contemporary politics, to techniques such as the self-insertion of writers that brought the author closer together. readers.
For example, in Vardi Wala Gunda, Ved Prakash Sharma devotes an entire page to making fun of himself through a dialogue between two corrupt policemen. One asks the other if he heard of Sharma. Mocking popular Hindi saying that “sahitya samaj ka darpan hota hai” (literature is the reflection of society), one of the policemen said: “As long as there [Sharma] and the public are fools. These writers are brainless people. Themselves write and announce that “sahitya samaj ka darpan hota hai” and then they write nonsense like that. Now ask these mindless writers that if literature is indeed a reflection of society, wouldn’t their police inspectors be like me [corrupt] instead of the kind of detectives they write about that don’t exist in the real world? »
Compared to today, when publishers and writers say that only a few genres are published and sold, the 1980s and 1990s were a time when a diverse nature of stories were published. If there were thrillers and mystery novels, there were also saamajik upanyas which touched on themes such as women’s rights, dowry and the role of women in society. Besides these, some writers have also written historical fictions, like Om Prakash Sharma.
Chaudhary of Janta Book Stall tells Outlook that while men mainly read thrillers and mystery novels, many women read social novels by Rajhans, Manoj and Ranu. Novelist and translator Kanwal Sharma tells Outlook that 1990s pulp fiction was very diverse. “There were murder mysteries, thrillers and horror stories. Besides novels, there were also magazines and newspapers that published short stories. Pulp was read by everyone from rickshaw pullers to elites. They read stories to their liking because there was something for everyone. Now you don’t have that diversity,” Sharma says.
In their novels, the pulp writers romanticized the contemporary international world order and introduced their readers to the American CIA, Indo-Pakistani intrigues, and even northeast India, far removed from the Hindi belt. Like Sharma’s bestselling novel Vardi Wala Gunda was rooted in the LTTE-led Sri Lankan civil war and it romanticized the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Peter Friedlander of the Australian National University quoted, in his article titled Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction, noted the fictionalization of notable events such as the Indo-Pakistani tensions, the rise of Chinese and American hegemony. Quoting from Dinesh Thakur’s novel Sannata, Friedlander explains: “The broad outline of the story is that India’s leading nuclear scientist is kidnapped by the Pakistanis, and our hero Reema Bharti parachutes into Pakistan and defeats the full force of Pakistani defense on its own, rescuing the scientist and his daughters and bringing them back to India. These books usually responded to world news. Plots related to nuclear weapons emerged when Indians tested nuclear weapons, and plots about wars with Pakistan emerged when there were tensions with Pakistan.
In another novel Savan Ki Badri, the Chinese also make their appearance. Friedlander says, “This publication shows the strange way in which themes and topicality are mixed in these novels. It features a cast of virtuous and evil Chinese characters as well as the usual criminals and heroes, and is a tale of the collaboration between international criminal mafia gangs and the Chinese to destabilize the Northeastern states.
Spin-offs and ghostwriting in pulp fiction
Ghosting is a well-established practice in the pulp industry. Ved Prakash Sharma wrote 23 ghost novels before the first novel was published under his name.
Novels are also published under the names of imaginary writers. They are “commercial writers” in pulp parlance, a euphemism for a ghostwriter who, like a Shiva Pandit, is either created from scratch or characters who are turned into writers. Keshav Pandit and Reema Bharti are the best examples of the second class of specialist writers.
Keshav Pandit is a popular character created by Sharma, but over a hundred novels are credited to Pandit as a writer. Even his son, Ashirvad Pandit, was eventually transformed into a specialist writer. “Once a character becomes popular, the author and the publisher decide to feature him as a writer. As you see Keshav Pandit’s name printed on the novel, the publisher gives a plot to a writer ghost to write it,” a person in the industry advised on condition of anonymity.
Reema Bharti’s story is a bit complicated. Friedlander’s article above notes: “Books by Reema Bharti were authored by Dinesh Ṭhakur and published by Manoj Pocketbooks of Delhi, while at the same time other books by Reema Bharti by Pradip Ṭhakur were published by Rajat Prakashan of Meerut.”
The pulp industry insider quoted above adds that publishers often have a team of ghostwriters to produce quick titles, so Shiva Pandit or Keshav Pandit novels are written by multiple writers. paid by publishers. However, Reema Bharti’s novels are currently published by Meerut-based Ravi Pocket Books, who noted in a Facebook post that Reema exists and is a Delhi-based writer.
Special Mention, Meerut
Hindi and Urdu pulp fiction was already an established genre by the time Meerut became the center of pulp fiction in the 1980s. By then writers like Ibne Safi, Om Prakash Sharma and Surender Mohan Pathak were already become famous. Meerut published three generations of writers and sent many to Mumbai, says Manish Chand Jain of Ravi Pocket Books, founded in the 1950s. They are now well-established film and TV screenwriters, he says.
In the case of Om Prakash, he moved from Delhi to Meerut and became one of the first prominent writers here. Soon, Meerut eclipsed all cities in terms of writers and volume of books published. Ved Prakash Sharma, Rituraj Jain and Parshuram Sharma are other prolific writers who have established their base in Meerut. Some of the best publishers were also from this city. At its height, there were nearly 40 pulp publishers in Meerut; some of the major ones were Tulsi Paper Books, Ravi Pocket Books, Dheeraj Pocket Books, Rajat Prakashan and Gauri Books. Ravi and Dheeraj are still running, but nothing to do with the illustrious past. The city has also published writers across India such as Anil Saluja from Panipat, Surender Mohan Pathak from Delhi and Amit Khan, originally from Ghaziabad but now in Mumbai.