In a worst-case scenario the two-night train ride from Chennai to New Delhi can be pretty tedious, with delays adding too many bonus hours to one’s trip, and so one needs to carry a sufficient amount of reading matter. In hindsight, I realize that I would have made a more favourable impression on my co-passengers by carrying a Journal of Subaltern Studies or maybe Frontline to read, but to be truthful, I picked up my favourite magazine from the station news-stand: Crime & Detective. The sure cure for railway blues.
While I derived immense titillation from the pulpy prose and gross gore of stories headlined “Tormented teenager nephew slew paternal aunt” and “Misdeeds of a rapist blackmailer minister”, I gradually became aware of how the cultured Tamils were looking at me as if a Gregor Samsa-sized cockroach had taken my place.
The situation wasn’t helped by the cover photo’s generous display of cleavage. Even more offensively, the cleavage-showing individual puffed on a fat cigar. For the rest of my journey, I tried to look like a serious columnist, and in order to prove myself, the first thing I did on reaching Delhi was to hire a cycle rickshaw to take me up north, to the suburban commercial complex where the office of Crime & Detective is housed.
Fact or fiction? The magazines that Verma publishes. Courtesy Zac O’Yeah
It’s cramped, and despite the lack of an appointment, Satish Verma invited me into his cubicle for tea. He’s a dynamic one-man publishing empire running six different monthlies—including a cricket magazine and a current affairs magazine. When he founded Crime & Detective in 1992, he was already publishing two Hindi crime magazines, one of which was started as far back as 1984. In those days, there wasn’t much crime writing, so Verma had to develop his own format of fictionalized true-crime stories. So how true are they? “Hundred per cent correct! We even give the case file numbers, if you notice, plus actual photographs of the investigating officers and the crime scene. It should read like fiction, but everything is based on real incidents,” Verma asserts.
The dialogues may be fictionalized, but the factual stuff ranges from new forensic techniques to methodical analysis of the modus operandi of Indian crooks. Content is produced by some 40 freelancers. The more explicit material—such as the cleavage of bad-character ladies—goes into the “hard crime” magazine Madhur Kathayen, but there’s also a family-oriented edition, Mahanagar Kahaniyan, with “softer” crime. Crime & Detective was added to the portfolio after Verma started getting fan mail from south of the Vindhyas, where readers had a tough time coping with Hindi. This brought the combined circulation to a staggering 250,000 copies per month, all sold off the stands.
The English edition is a mix of the two Hindi magazines—a cocktail of soft and hard, so to speak. “English readers are bolder,” claims Verma, and secretly I am somewhat relieved to know that I’m not the only reader in the conservative south, but that Crime & Detective has a solid fan following all over India.
Verma at his office in Delhi. Courtesy Zac O’Yeah
In fact, many top cops are among his ardent readers and it is a matter of pride for them to get their photos into any of the three magazines, so they are happy to cooperate with Verma’s writers. The magazines are also the preferred reading of the “crooked thugs” they expose, which was proved when Babloo Shrivastava, currently domiciled in Bareilly jail, contacted Verma and asked if he’d be interested in a gangster’s autobiography. Adhura Khwab is now in its fourth reprint,?with at least 60,000 copies sold—perhaps partly because Shrivastava, a kidnapper and extortionist, forfeited his royalty in order to keep the MRP at a wallet-friendly Rs60.
Truman Capote meets Bollywood? Yes, interestingly, this genre, which was pioneered by the American popular author with his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966) about the apparently motiveless massacre of a Kansas family by two young psychopaths, is being taken forward in India by Verma with his true stories of tough ruffians, damsels in distress and the long hand of the law.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction. Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org