Coimbatore: With his all-polyester clothes, huge half-tinted glasses, and a rising plume of hair, Rajesh Kumar, a short man approaching 60, looks like he wishes the 1980s had never ended—and not just for its rad fashions.
In that decade, an extended purple patch for Tamil pulp fiction, Kumar held a full-time job and still wrote five novels a month, selling more than 100,000 copies of each. “Somebody called it the Rajesh Kumar Yugam —the era of Rajesh Kumar,” he explains, with the matter-of-factness of a man who is arguably the most prolific novelist in the world.
The era of Rajesh Kumar began with a casual college prank. In 1968, when he was studying for his degree in botany, Kumar’s class was asked for fiction contributions for their college magazine. “I had never written a thing in my life, and I didn’t plan to,” he says. “But the boy next to me shouted out and volunteered my name. At the time, I could have murdered him.”
Lurid craft: Tamil pulp fiction author Rajesh Kumar with a collection of his published works at his house in Coimbatore. Samanth Subramanian/Mint
The short story that he submitted reluctantly the next day was the first of more than 2,000 he would go on to write, in addition to more than 1,500 novels. Kumar is, one of his fellow authors says, “the superstar of the Tamil pulp fiction industry”.
In the present age, as original novels begin to dry up and authors direct their talents to the lucrative field of screenplay writing for television and cinema, Kumar is also at the head of a pack of writers that stays faithful to its lurid craft.
The classic Tamil pulp novel runs between 100 pages and 150 pages and is printed on cheap paper as a monthly magazine. In 1987, a novel cost Rs2; it now costs around Rs25, still a price that can call out to browsers at the corner teashop, retirees, homemakers, train passengers and other devoted readers. The flavours of this genre are uniformly sensational but otherwise eclectic. They can include the science-fiction thrillers—more fiction than science—of Kumar, the romances of Ramani Chandran, the detective knockabouts of Pattukottai Prabhakar and Suba, the religious tales of Indira Soundara Rajan and the social dramas of Pushpa Thangadorai.
Allergic to cinema
“But many authors have, of late, shifted to writing for films and television,” Kumar says. “Not me, though. I’m allergic to cinema, and I don’t want to move to Chennai. Plus, I find these movie producers highly immoral people.”
His allergies have worked well for his readers, who can still amble down to the teashop or bus station every few weeks to find a new Kumar novel. For those treading water financially, a teashop will even act as an informal lending library, charging Rs2 to take a book home for a day or two.
It is heartening that people who cannot afford a Rs15 novel are still willing to put down Rs2 to read, and Kumar takes no little pride in that fact. “It was us writers who made sure that there were books hanging from shop ceilings instead of shampoo sachets,” he says. We led people to read, he preens —and he more than others, considering his staggering output. Even in the Rajesh Kumar Yugam, other authors were less staggeringly productive but did just as well. Ramani Chandran, a homemaker, wrote 125 novels in 30 years. “But I type with two fingers, you know,” she says, and even those two fingers are beset by carpal tunnel syndrome. “If I’d been able to type faster, I might have published a novel a month.”
Suresh and Balakrishnan, the two authors writing jointly under the pen name Suba, held full-time bank jobs until 1999, wrote their novels every day till 1am, and sold 70,000-100,000 copies of each of their 40-odd novels per year. “It was all possible—we just had to cut down on our quota of sleep,” Balakrishnan says.
But even as they bemoan losing many readers to television megaserials, Suresh and Balakrishnan have themselves migrated to the promised land of screenplay writing. “Film directors approached us even earlier, but we didn’t want to begin until we’d retired from our banks, simply for stability’s sake,” Suresh says. “Now, we don’t have the time to write fresh stories. We manage maybe six or seven novels a year.”
As authors such as Suba have moved on, they have left huge shoes that are yet to be filled. “It’s very sad that no new writers have come into this field,” Suresh says. “Either they’re not enthusiastic, or they’re lazy—they don’t want to work hard, but they want to see their names on the teashop racks immediately.”
The solution to this sudden drought, on the part of the 10-12 serious pulp publishers who are still in the game, has been to issue reprints of old novels. S.P. Ramu, who publishes Suba and Ramani Chandran under the Super Novels imprint, understands his authors’ dilemma, even if it’s depriving him of fresh fiction.
“It’s human nature—people go where the pay is better,” Ramu says. An author can retain copyright of his work and still earn up to Rs30,000 per monthly novel; a marquee author such as Kumar makes even more, although his publisher, G. Asokan, won’t reveal exactly how much that is. “It was four figures back then. It’s five figures now,” is all he’ll say. But it’s still small change in the face of a screenplay pay cheque for a few lakhs.
“You know, even today, when we print new novels, the sales are good—60,000 or so. It shows there’s still a hunger for that kind of literature,” Ramu says. The reprints sell only 10,000-20,000 copies each. “It’s a profitable business, but there needs to be a revolution in style, in content, in presentation. Otherwise, it’ll just keep getting duller.”
Kumar’s pace of writing, too, has slowed, but only by his steroidal standards. Even today, in a spartan room on the terrace of his large house, he writes 10-12 pages of a new story every day, in perfectly lettered Tamil longhand. “At this pace, I do a novel a month, and some short stories and some serialized stories.”
Every Kumar tale passes through an in-house censor: His wife. “I give her all but the last six pages or so, and ask her to guess the ending,” he says, smiling. “If she gets it wrong, it means the story is a success. Sometimes she even reminds me if I’ve used a particular strategy or plot twist before.”
By his own admission, Kumar’s writing has changed over the years. “Earlier, there would be all sorts of description. The sun rose, the wind blew, that sort of thing,” he says. “Now, nobody has patience for that kind of thing. So I jump right into the action.”
Next to his writing room is the unofficial Rajesh Kumar archive—a little storeroom exploding with his published novels. Books sit in teetering piles on the floor, or cram themselves into shelves. To pick one out, Kumar has to wade gingerly into the room to avoid stepping on books; it’s as if he were walking through a minefield. A few years ago, when his publisher threw him a party to mark the publication of his 1,000th novel (“Many actors came—T. Rajendar, and also Vijayakanth!”), Kumar began to wonder if he was setting any sort of precedent.
Through a fellow Coimbatore resident—a gentleman whose bid for the world record in walking backwards ended abruptly at 7km—he applied to the Guinness World Records to be recognized as the world’s most prolific novelist.
Genre lives on
“They’ve responded that my books aren’t strictly as long as the novels in the West, but that they could be considered short novels, or novellas,” the novelist says. “We’re still discussing that point, but they are certainly interested.”
Kumar dismisses any talk of an imminent decline of the genre. “People still read, don’t they? As long as they travel by buses and trains, they will buy these books to read,” he says. Then, after mentioning that he’d once met a university vice-chancellor who avidly read his books, he launches into what is obviously a favourite, much-told anecdote.
“Back when we built this house, this part of Coimbatore was still deserted, cut off from the city,” Kumar says. Today, a well-maintained white Zen sits on his equally well-maintained driveway. But in 1989, when he was still working a full-time job as a sales executive, he drove to his office every day on a scooter.
One day, on a particularly lonely stretch of road, his scooter broke down, and the only help at hand was a boy, around 14 years old, driving a herd of goats ahead of him. “The boy told me there were some mechanics further down the road, and he offered to watch my scooter for me while I went to fetch them.”
As Kumar set off, he happened to look back once over his shoulder. “Out of his shirt pocket, the boy had pulled out a slim book,” he says. “And he sat down by the side of the road and began to read.”
Even from a distance, Kumar recognized the book.
It was a Rajesh Kumar novel.