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The sad demise of Hindi pulp fiction

Hindi pulp fiction, with its racy plots and piquant graphics was a thriving industry till 1992. It hit rock-bottom when a heady cocktail of technology, global aspirations and easy-to-ingest English novels dealt a fatal blow to this story-telling mill, writes Pawanpreet Kaur

PAWANPREET KAUR  18th Mar 2012

ne score and ten years ago, long before the invasion of saas-bahu serials and multiplexes, the Indian middle class turned to the world of crime and espionage, beautiful buxomed women and street-smart detectives to escape the more mundane aspects of life. The jasoosi novel, usually described as a 'pocket book', which came to epitomise Hindi pulp fiction, was a hugely popular genre, despite being banned from formal academic discourse. Evoking reactions ranging from unbridled passion to sheer disparage, Hindi pulp fiction was easily the uncrowned monarch of the Indian book industry.

"The origins of pulp fiction in India can be traced back to Jasoosi Panja, an Urdu magazine that was published from Allahabad in the 1950s. Its publisher, Akram Allahbadi, was a prolific writer and trade unionist who produced some of the most popular works in Urdu pulp fiction," says N.K. Verma, chairman of Diamond Pocket Books. Prompted by the magazine's popularity, Diamond started the 'Rs 1 series' of Urdu paperbacks in 1958. A few years later, Hind Pocket Books published the first of its Hindi pulp fiction books, spawning a wave that was to grip the country's Hindi belt. "We had a diverse readership but our primary readers were women," Verma says.

Sold as an attractive well-rounded package with piquant covers, this original kitsch was popular long before the term 'pulp fiction' became fashionable. Authors like Gulshan Nanda, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Anil Mohan, Ved Prakash Sharma and Ranu were household names, and hugely popular with housewives, college students, frequent travellers, old-timers and aficionados. These pocket books did brisk business at A.H. Wheeler stalls at railway stations, book stores, roadside vendors and even grocery stores, where they could be rented for just a few odd paise a week.

"In the glory days, some 50-odd publishers mass produced these books, since people had little access to other media back then," says Surendra Mohan Pathak, the grandmaster of Hindi pulp fiction. Pathak's Painsanth Lakh ki Dakaiti (The Rs 65 lakh heist) sold more than 25 lakh copies over a period of 40 years, a record which remains unbeaten until today.

Today, pulp fiction, on average, accounts for less than 25% of total publishing, a huge drop from its heyday. Although big writers like Pathak are still selling, the overall picture is quite dismal Shelle

"When Nanda wrote his first book in 1962, the initial order of 10,000 quickly ran out, prompting another reprint of 2 lakh copies. By his fifth novel, Nanda's print run was 5 lakh copies," says Verma. Other authors too were clocking first prints at 50,000 to 1 lakh copies. "We used to publish 5 lakh books, selling them at Rs 5 per book. We had a profit margin of Rs 1 per copy, which was really good," he adds.

The covers of these books drew heavily from Hindi films, provocative for some and eye-catching for most. Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui, or Shelle, was the most prominent title page illustrator, creating thousands of pulp fiction book covers. "The publishers would send us a small brief and we would then make the watercolour illustrations," says Shelle. Over time, the books became so similar in their content, characters and even titles (Chembur ka Data, Laal Nishaan, Nark ke Jallad and Pishach Ka Pyar) that illustrations were often made without reading the briefs.Image 2nd

The entire industry was dependent on UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, with Meerut the true Mecca of Hindi pulp fiction. "Labour in Meerut was very cheap and a lot of Delhi-based publishers sent books to Meerut for final printing and binding," says Shagun Sharma, owner of Tulsi Paper Books. Tulsi was started by pulp fiction author Ved Prakash Sharma in 1981 and is amongst the most respectable names in the industry. "At that time, it was not uncommon for an author like Pathak, Nanda or my father to have a print run of 4 lakh copies," says Shagun. "Selling at Rs 15 a copy, these books kept the sales high, with revenue figures kissing a whopping Rs 60 lakh per year."

ut to 1992. Satellite television arrived in India, heralding a slow and painful death for Hindi pulp fiction. Readers promptly shifted from pocket books to the ready-to-consume fare on television; even staple hits from Nanda and Pathak saw their sales plummet. The slump was as sudden as it was unanticipated. The industry witnessed a hard-hitting 80% drop, which prompted publishers to fan out to other genres such as biographies, spiritual and health guides, homecare and self-help books to stay in business. "Today, pulp fiction, on average, accounts for less than 25% of total publishing, a huge drop from its heyday. Although big writers like Pathak are still selling, the overall picture is quite dismal," says Shelle.

Verma says, "To keep up with the phenomenal demand over the years, we had been publishing enough copies to last for months. However, when the sales suddenly dropped, we were left with several lakh unsold copies stacked in our godowns." Earlier, booksellers used to wait for their orders for months because of the huge demand, despite making cash payment to publishers. But today, publishers are sending bulk shipments on credit and chasing book sellers for payments later.

As pulp fiction hit rock bottom, writers and their creations slowly evaporated from print and from our collective memories. Even the holy trinity of pulp fiction—Pathak, Nanda and Ved Prakash—couldn't salvage it. "We were the stepping stones from which readers graduated to higher literature. When television stole our readers, we just watched helplessly," says Pathak, a veteran with more than 270 books in his kitty. Today, he feels, the readership is largely restricted to the lower-income groups and aficionados.

According to Ranjit Banerjee, chairman of A.H. Wheeler, there were many factors that hastened pulp fiction's demise. "Earlier, paperbacks were published on low-quality recycled paper, but now people want better books, even if they have to pay more," he says. Till about 30 years ago, pulp fiction accounted for a more than half of A.H. Wheeler's sales. Today, these books are conspicuous by their absence from their stalls. "Reading is not just about ingesting stories any more as there is an aspirational value attached to it; there has been a gradual shift towards more prestigious English books," he says.

In one of the darkest chapters of the pulp fiction industry, it was discovered that many publishers were employing ghost writers to counter established (and hence more expensive) authors. "Ghost writers demanded peanuts for their work and original authors were gradually discarded," says Pathak.

The second blow came in the form of Chetan Bhagat. "This author has done what television channels could not do. He has single-handedly wiped out the Hindi language reader with his easy-to-read English," says Shagun. Ironically, Diamond Pocket Books, after suffering the onslaught on television, later went on to publish the Hindi translation of Bhagat's 3 Mistakes of my life, which has sold more than 1 lakh copies so far.

Even the illustrators are feeling the pinch. Shelle, who used to design 3-4 covers a month, has stopped painting for pulp fiction novels altogether. "Publishers are not commissioning more work. Instead, they are opting for cheaper, in-house computer designers," he says. Shelle now exhibits his work in the UP regional branches of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

In the past, there have been attempts to translate some bestsellers into English. "But it was not until Blaft Publications' translations that Ibn-e-Saifi's and my books were revived in public memory. Since then, I have received numerous offers for film adaptations and English translations," says Pathak. The Hindi industry, too, is trying to change tracks. Inspired by Bhagat's success, young authors are being encouraged to churn out 300-page light romantic novels; it is a different matter that these writers are required to pay Rs 25,000 as advance payments to publishers to print their books, says Pathak.

In the ocean of pessimism, Shagun is the only one raging against the light. "It would be incorrect to say that pulp fiction is dying. It has survived in spite of television, which is also seeing a slowdown as newer media take centre stage," he says. Interestingly, Tulsi's pulp fiction sales have seen a 6%-7% rise in the last two years in metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, which account for 40% of the market. "But, unless major English publishers come forward to publish these books and help to bring them into the mainstream, our hope cannot be sustained for too long," he adds.

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