Manohar Kahaniyan, Maya, Apradh Katha, Satykatha — chances are you’ve never heard of these best-selling Hindi magazines from the 1960s and 1970s. They came out of the stable of an Allahabad-based publishing house.
Those of us who prided ourselves on a literary lineage were urged early on to stay away from them and the established Hindi literati (the town as also the University of Allahabad boasted of quite a few) treated them as unmentionables while discussing high art.
Ironically, while some great Hindi writers of the time such as Nirala, Ugra and Bhuvaneshwar were to die in poverty and several highly respected Hindi magazines also folded up for lack of funds, these magazines and their contributors continued to flourish. In time, these magazines begot a thriving pulp fiction industry that for some reason centred on Meerut. Being cheap and easily available, pocket books became immensely popular among readers in the Hindi belt of the 1960s and generated millions of new readers of fiction. But classy literature when brought out as paperbacks remained a niche product.
Most readers were hooked to novels that featured romance, mystery, crime and carried forward the genre spawned by the much sneered at bunch of Allahabad magazines. Hindi paperbacks and the emerging middle class in India’s small towns, one could say, were made for each other. Within less than a decade, pulp fiction from Meerut and Daryagunj in Delhi was selling in hundreds of thousands. It introduced a string of best-selling authors of crime and romance such as Pyareylal Awaaraa, Kushvaahaa Kant, Gulshan Nanda, Ved Prakash Sharma, Rajhans, Ibn-e-Safi, Akram Ellahabadi, Ranu and Surendra Mohan Pathak.
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While established writers continued to struggle for better royalties, fiction by the writers of pulp sold in the thousands at footpaths, railway stations, bus stands and religious fairs.
To understand why literature bombed and pulp fiction attracted so many, one must view the books against the context of the society in which the average Hindi reader lived and loved.
Most readers belonged to upwardly mobile middle classes from (mostly) upper caste families that had moved from villages to small towns. This group lusted after change, but also valued its social identity too much to risk sacrificing it by open rebellion against caste norms and taboos.
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The paperbacks introduced just the right amount of forbidden excitement in the lives of young men and women living in ancient and congested localities with tribal social ties. Here girls and boys got segregated early, and were schooled separately. And marriages were arranged by family elders.
The pulp paperbacks enlivened not only the grim lives of readers but also came in handy during dusty and tedious train/bus journeys and also worked occasionally as ice breakers with female travelling companions.
Crime and suspense with a liberal sprinkling of soft porn and acts of ritualistic black magic, and tales about disunited lovers meeting each other on the sly with childhood friends helping smuggle their love letters with pressed flowers between the pages of novels, also helped millions of homebound married women while away those long and uncomfortable summer afternoons with frequent power cuts, and come to terms with unmentionable affairs of the heart, bad marriages and other allied problems of the Indian family.
In the 1980s, many of these novels were selling 500,000-600,000 copies easily without any pre- or post-launch publicity. Ved Prakash Sharma’s Vardi Wala Gunda (The Criminal in Uniform ), a thinly disguised story based on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination laced with a liberal dose of black magic and tantrik potions, was the first Hindi novel that sold at least a million copies.
And come to think of it, none of these best-sellers was launched in the sense we have now come to understand those wine-swilling, gossip-laced, VIP-encrusted, high-voltage events elaborately hosted in five-star hotels.
The money formula was simple. Each copy priced at Rs40 generated Rs18 in profit for the publisher and Rs5 for the writer by way of his royalty. The remaining Rs17 covered all other costs. The publisher was happy, as was the writer who kept churning out new best-sellers with great speed and so also the many nameless young apprentices who were given a certain lump sum amount to help the master craftsman.
By the end of the 1990s, after TV became Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, and Valentine’s Day became a national festival from Kanpur to Kochi, the fascination for old-style crime and romantic fiction began to evaporate.
Cable television, the new sassy kid on the block, picked up ideas from pulp and began to jazz up romance, crime and soft porn to create soaps and programmes that bore names straight out of the Meerut novels : Sansani, Jurm, Shhhh…Koi Hai. Then came the T-Rex, the reality shows actually featuring those that have rubbed shoulders with the mysterious underworld of crime and sleaze: the Shilpa Shettys, Rahul Mahajans and Monica Bedis.
After such entertainment, who needs pulp?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org