“The origins of pulp fiction in India can be traced back to Jasoosi Panja, an Urdu magazine that was published from Allahabad in the 1950s. Its publisher, Akram Allahbadi, was a prolific writer and trade unionist who produced some of the most popular works in Urdu pulp fiction,” says N.K. Verma, chairman of Diamond Pocket Books. Prompted by the magazine’s popularity, Diamond started the ‘Rs 1 series’ of Urdu paperbacks in 1958. A few years later, Hind Pocket Books published the first of its Hindi pulp fiction books, spawning a wave that was to grip the country’s Hindi belt. “We had a diverse readership but our primary readers were women,” Verma says.
Sold as an attractive well-rounded package with piquant covers, this original kitsch was popular long before the term ‘pulp fiction’ became fashionable. Authors like Gulshan Nanda, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Anil Mohan, Ved Prakash Sharma and Ranu were household names, and hugely popular with housewives, college students, frequent travellers, old-timers and aficionados.
“In the glory days, some 50-odd publishers mass produced these books, since people had little access to other media back then,” says Surendra Mohan Pathak, the grandmaster of Hindi pulp fiction. Pathak’s Painsanth Lakh ki Dakaiti (The Rs 65 lakh heist) sold more than 25 lakh copies over a period of 40 years, a record which remains unbeaten until today.
Cut to 1992. Satellite television arrived in India, heralding a slow and painful death for Hindi pulp fiction. The industry witnessed a hard-hitting 80% drop, which prompted publishers to fan out to other genres such as biographies, spiritual and health guides, homecare and self-help books to stay in business.
As pulp fiction hit rock bottom, writers and their creations slowly evaporated from print and from our collective memories. Even the holy trinity of pulp fiction—Pathak, Nanda and Ved Prakash—couldn’t salvage it. “We were the stepping stones from which readers graduated to higher literature. When television stole our readers, we just watched helplessly,” says Pathak, a veteran with more than 270 books in his kitty. Today, he feels, the readership is largely restricted to the lower-income groups and aficionados.
In one of the darkest chapters of the pulp fiction industry, it was discovered that many publishers were employing ghost writers to counter established (and hence more expensive) authors. “Ghost writers demanded peanuts for their work and original authors were gradually discarded,” says Pathak.
In the past, there have been attempts to translate some bestsellers into English. “But it was not until Blaft Publications’ translations that Ibn-e-Saifi’s and my books were revived in public memory. Since then, I have received numerous offers for film adaptations and English translations,” says Pathak. The Hindi industry, too, is trying to change tracks. Inspired by Bhagat’s success, young authors are being encouraged to churn out 300-page light romantic novels; it is a different matter that these writers are required to pay Rs 25,000 as advance payments to publishers to print their books, says Pathak.