Published by The Times on June 15, 2013
HOW INDIA’S PULP FICTION GOT RESPECTABLE
“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.”
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.