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How Indian Pulp Fiction Got Respectable -The Times

Published by The Times on June 15, 2013

HOW INDIA’S PULP FICTION GOT RESPECTABLE

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“I am like Colgate: a reliable brand name,” beams Surender Mohan Pathak over a large “peg” of acrid Indian whisky in the bar of the Delhi Press Club. The self-proclaimed grandmaster of Hindi crime fiction has written 250 novels and boasts sales of 25 million. Yet not one of the 73-year-old’s novels has ever been reviewed. The reason, he says, has little to do with the fact that he pens pulp fiction novels (many featuring anti-hero Vimal, a bank robber who invariably finds himself “playing a deadly game” against a “kingpin of the underworld”).

Rather, Pathak claims, he is a victim of language bias. “Educated people in India don’t want to read Hindi and they would certainly not be seen dead with one of my books,” he says. “Newspapers are also hypocritical. They always review Bollywood films and carry all the gossip. But they take only writers working in English seriously, like that Arundhati Roy.”

A visit to bookshops in India’s new malls leaves no doubt about the reading habits of its burgeoning middle classes. Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh’s books are prominently displayed. Aside from the crowds of motivational business manuals, the greater share of the remaining space is given over to European and American thrillers – and the obligatory Agatha Christie.

“Popular fiction [in English] comes from elsewhere,” says Mukul Kesavan, a historian and critic. “There is no desi [Indian] Nick Carter, no James Hadley Chase, no dime-novel equivalents.”

Punters seeking sex, violence and racy plots in the vernacular must venture to the traditional point of sale for Indian pulp fiction: the same frenetic railway platforms where Kipling’s first collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, was sold for one rupee. Amidst jostling crowds, baggage coolies, chai stands, fortune-telling cum weighing machines and the odd band of robber monkeys, the 1,500 stalls and carts belonging to the venerable A. H. Wheelers groan with India’s answer to the penny dreadful. Priced at just 60 rupees (roughly 70p) and printed on grainy pulp, the covers are nonetheless hard to miss. Bold, gaudy and rendered in the style of pre-90s hand-painted Bollywood posters, they invariably feature a busty sari-clad damsel, a turbaned goonda [thug] with blood-shot eyes and at least one fiery explosion.

“These books have a very devoted readership amongst the rickshaw wallah and the vegetable seller, and you’ll see them reading them in third class on the long train journeys from the city back to the village,” says the critic Mrinal Pande. “There’s a lot of violence in small-town India, with kidnappings and killings, and so they can relate to the plots – only they want a hero going against the system who wins.”

Pande, who unlike most of her peers grew up reading Hindi pulp fiction as well as the English classics, says the characters have adapted to the times: “Up until the 1970s there were a lot of Anglo-Indian women with names like Miss Lily who danced and smoked. The bad guys were all nawabs and maharajas and evil colonels. Now the hero often finds himself pitted against politicians, local mafia and terrorists. One of the bestsellers of all time was thinly based on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.”

American-born Rakesh Khanna stumbled across this literary phenomenon almost by accident when he came to work in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. “When I was looking at Indian literature, I felt like the fun stuff was missing, the pulpy stuff that was there in all the regional languages,” he says, “I used to see all this Tamil pulp on the racks – ‘timepass fiction’ they call it – and loved the covers. Although I could barely read them, I wanted to know more.”

Khanna wasn’t to be disappointed. Tamil pulp is an eclectic mix of racy thrillers, science fiction, hardboiled detective novels and steamy vampire serials. Tantric temptresses, murderous robots and vengeful goddesses abound and there’s not always a clear line discernible between the genres. There is also no shortage of material; 60 per cent of all the books sold in India are written in regional languages.

“The output of some of these writers is insane,” says Khanna, citing the example of Rajesh Kumar, one of the most prolific authors of all time. “He’s written more than 1,300 novels. On average, he writes a new one a week. In the 80s and 90s they were printing a million of his books a month.”

Khanna, who had no former publishing experience, made it his mission to make Indian pulp fiction available to an English-reading audience, not just internationally but also in its homeland. Blaft, the house he co-founded in 2008, has brought out two English anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction so far. Three of Surender Mohan Pathak’s novels are also available in English, including his all-time bestseller, The 65 Lakh Heist.

Pande is concerned that Indian pulp fiction is being presented as “cute, exotic writing”. However, others such as Kesavan welcome the development. “Like many Anglophone Indians I find reading in an Indian language a chore,” he writes. “The reason our reading lives aren’t nourished by popular novels set in locales we know is not because they aren’t written, but because they aren’t translated.”

Blaft’s Tamil anthologies have sold respectably well in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Delhi and Mumbai. Handpicking the material, however, has not been without its challenges. The world of Indian pulp-fiction publishing can often prove as shady as its plotlines, says Khanna, who claims that plagiarism is rampant, especially in northern India. “They’ll take a [foreign] novel and change all the names so it’s set in Bombay,” he says. “Suddenly after ten pages they’ll then splice in some of their own material. The legalities are kind of scary.”

Pathak, like the characters of his potboilers, is blunter still. “Indian publishers are cheats,” he says, tucking into a plate of the Delhi Press Club’s spicy aloo chaat. “They lie about sales, lie about royalties. Most don’t even read the manuscripts they publish. Writers are like the hired help.”

He takes some consolation from the fact that many of the publishers who flourished during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of Indian pulp fiction, are going under. Satellite TV channels with their so-called “saas-bahu” (mother versus daughter-in-law) soap operas are cited by commentators as the main culprit. Still, Pathak, who first started writing while holding down a job as a bureaucrat in government offices – “where no job is demanding” – continues to churn out a novel every few months. Sales are down, but the initial 10,000 print run of any of his books soon disappears off A. H. Wheelers’s stands.

“My fans scoop them up from the railways platforms within hours,” he says. “They pay 60 rupees, read the book and, 400kms down the line, cash it in for 30 rupees so they can buy the next one.”

With the English translations of his books now widely available, Pathak is also getting the publicity that has long eluded him. “I wrote for 44 years and no journalist ever called on me,” he says with a smile. “They translate three of my books into English and now I am a famous personality.”

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From The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing (1933) by Sudhandhira Sangu

1. The title of the book should carry a woman’s name – and it should be a sexy one like Miss Leela Mohini.

2. Your story must absolutely include a minimum half-dozen lovers and prostitutes [and] preferably ten or a dozen murders.

3. If you try to bring any social message, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure your women readers.

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Bush Shirts and Safaris Clarified

Just came across this photo while sorting through my archive.  It’s of one of the notices I found pinned to the board in the  lobby of the Delhi Gymkhana Club in 2006.  I later quoted it verbatim in Vish Puri No.1, The Case of the Missing Servant. I’m still not quite clear what a Bush shirt is. If anyone’e got any examples or know where to get one, do let me know!

A notice I cam across in the Gymkhana Club lobby, Delhi and used verbatim in The Case of the Missing Servant

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Postcard from the Kumbh

Pilgrims making their way to the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, Maha Kumbh Mela, Feb 14th 2013It was 5.30 am. I was standing in the middle of the largest gathering of humanity ever witnessed on the planet. Around me in a surreal half-light cast by rows of overhead halogen lights, millions upon millions of pilgrims were filing past in a remarkably quiet and orderly fashion – a vast multitude that made the crowds of Times Square seem positively puny.

It was Friday February 14th, one of the most auspicious days of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to be held in 144 years.

I had already visited the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and (mythical) Saraswati rivers and watched Hindu pilgrims washing away their sins. I’d seen fathers with children clutched in their arms bobbing up and down in the holy waters; emaciated old men stripped down to their underwear with rib cages prodding through taut skin like partially excavated dinosaur bones; women fully clothed in their saris, dripping wet in the cold night air yet grinning in  exultation.

At the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, Maha Kumbh Mela Feb 14th, 2013

The police had since cleared many of them away in preparation for the arrival of thousands of sadhus. The most celebrated of these ascetics go naked and smear their skin with Vibhuti, or sacred ash. Revered for their supposed spiritual powers, they’re a photographer’s dream. When they charged into the water looking like the cast of 10,000 BC, there were almost as many professional zoom lenses on display as exposed members.

But watching the pilgrims coming and going with bundles of possession propped on their heads and shoulders, all of them engaged in a single, common purpose was profoundly Maha Kumbh Mela, 2013moving. The sight of one family in particular is seared into my memory. Drawn from four generations and numbering a dozen strong, they shuffled along with a rope lassoed around all of them to ensure no one got lost. Their expressions bespoke of utter bewilderment, as if they themselves couldn’t quite believe what they were witnessing. And then they were gone, swallowed up by the hordes heading down to the water and salvation.

Sadhu out for a stroll

I lingered a little longer and a number of pilgrims took snaps of me on their mobile phones. I had unwittingly become a part of spectacle and wondered how I’d be described to people back home people back home. ‘Look at this white guy I came across!’ From then one, taking my own photographs felt less intrusive.

I drank a cup of milky chai sold by a tout carrying a steel pot with a contraption strapped beneath containing hot coals and then made my way back across one of the pontoon bridges leading to the vast tent city which houses millions of pilgrims every night. I passed rows of marquees where, later in the day, gurus and godmen would sit preaching before their adherents – and perhaps perform the odd miracle.

A family of pilgrims trying to keep warm at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, Maha Kumbh Mela, Feb 14th 2013

I stopped to photograph some elderly pilgrims warming their hands before a pile of burning logs. A holy man sporting dreadlocks appeared walking a Labrador pup. A tout offered me a shopping bag full of hashish. Over the loud speakers, an announcer reeled off a long list of names of pilgrims who’d gone missing. Then a young man walked straight up to me and asked, ‘Please which country?’

‘England,’ I replied. ‘Britain – United Kingdom.’

He gave a nod.  ‘Have you anything like this in your country mister?’

I glanced around me.  A dozen villagers were being off loaded from the back of a jeep. In this distance, a procession of floats rolled past with sadhus and godmen sitting atop of thrones while tossing marigold flowers into the adoring crowd. Pilgrims prostrated themselves on the ground in their wake, kissing the sandy soil. A myriad loudspeakers blared a cacophony of mantras and sermons.

‘No,’ I replied with a smile. ‘I don’t think anything quite compares to this.’

IMG_2506Maha Kumbh Mela 2013Maha Kumbh Mela 2013

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Welcome

th1As is befitting at the launch of any new enterprise here in India, I’m hanging a string of lemon and green chillies – a totka – on my new web site and blog. Hopefully they’ll satisfy the desire of Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune, who is said to have a weakness for sour and pungent things, and she’ll refrain from entering the site.

As she’s described as being ‘antelope-footed’, ‘bull-toothed’ and – surely worst of all – ‘cow-repelling’, this seems no bad thing. Everyone else – benign gods and mere mortals besides – is more than welcome, and I hope to tempt you back with regular posts on life in Delhi over the coming months and years ahead!

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