Hindi pulp fiction: With Ved Prakash Sharma's death, genre has received another blow
With the death of Ved Prakash Sharma last week, the world of Hindi pulp fiction suffered another blow. How did it lose its once undisputed status as the biggest mass readers' market?
The ‘90s were a whirlwind time. Before cable television; when newspapers were still what most Indians looked to for information and entertainment; when at a train station, you found books covered as if in enzymes, with gun-toting, skin-baring women and macho, moustachioed men. Love, sex, murder and mystery in one, a no-nonsense orgy for the mind. And this, in small-town India. Guilty pleasures, sold like soap.
The ‘90s, when Hindi pulp fiction was huge, and its popularity seemingly on an endless rise. Just two-and-a-half decades later, its world would be shrinking. And on 17 February 2017, it received yet another blow when one of its most suucessful authors, Ved Prakash Sharma, passed away.
Pulp fiction means many things to many people. It is like a cheap pair of socks. They do the job, rather a job. To many others, it means so much more. Sharma made this world his own — in which murder, mystery, erotica and masculinity all came together. Remember Doordarshan’s uneasy foray into late-night erotic programming in the late ‘80s? In terms of aesthetic, Hindi pulp fiction was a bit like that. However, regardless of its tropes, pulp fiction, unlike English Popular Fiction, flourished because it had, in essence three good friends – the film industry, the railways and the reader – which it has now lost, or is on the brink of losing.
The Film Industry
For generations, the Indian film industry – Bollywood included – borrowed from Hindi pulp fiction. Sharma’s own novels were adapted for film. The cinema of Anurag Kashyap and Srinath Raghvan, and in an earlier time that of Vijay Anand, draw from motifs that – even though unreferenced – populate Hindi pulp fiction; the good-bad heroes, a distinction for framing violence as art and the sexualising contexts rather than bodies (women with guns etc). But the point is that these were merely influences, and even those have now faded. Back in the ‘90s when a Khiladi 420 could be conceived, pulp’s characters were underdrawn, raw and almost always navigating class. Cinema has since then distinctly started looking west, and in Quentin Tarantino etc it has found masters, it is desperate to emulate.
For pulp, the Indian Railways was its ‘business model’. It would be some statistic, if at all possible, to compare the sales from platforms and hawkers across India to landmark bookstores and chains in the country for a day. Hindi pulp fiction without the contextual market of the Railways may never have existed, let alone survived till date. This also explains why most of it has been printed and distributed from small towns like Meerut, where Sharma lived. This democratic structure, however, of publishing and distributing pulp fiction meant almost anybody could sell – worse, it meant anyone could write. It crowded the space, marginalised quality. Then came the cell phone, internet and eventually the smartphone. Today, the Railways is in the process of ramping up tech at its stations and inside its trains which doesn’t bode well for the stalls where these books were sold. That said, there are still millions of people who find it worth their while to peruse these brow-ticking mysteries and obscure heroes. It is safe to say, that India’s stations and trains will remain pulp fiction’s one good leg, but for how long?
The Reader (and the publisher)
The reader is nobody’s friend. To say that readers have let writers and publishers of Hindi pulp fiction down would be like saying it is discouraging to prefer a certain kind of cheese over another. So it is the writer as reader that is to be taken note of. Pulp fiction writers, including Sharma and Surendra Mohan Pathak, never emerged out of the twilight of the ‘90s. Their work stood out because of the way its characters oriented small-town ethos. With populations drifting the other way, dreams, aspirations and even nightmares have come to crowd the cities. Contrast it with the rise of popular fiction in English in the same time. People desperately looking for the answer to the “so what have you read recently” question, found in popular English fiction, not only accessibility, but politically correct self-references. India suddenly wanted to read itself. Pulp Hindi writers, never quite considered this ‘shift’ in the stories and characters they traced.
The publishing industry hasn’t done any better either. Though translations have improved, in quality and in number, the trick of mastering genre fiction still remains elusive to the Indian publisher. Sharma’s peer Pathak has been translated, but still waits recognition in the translations space because a market for pulp in English simply does not exist. And it is worth considering the size of the market, if this space can somehow be sewn and thrown at the desk of the publicist or the sales division. Maybe translation is not the way to go. Maybe it requires for the corrupted linguistic abilities of our time, a translation of Hindi as read in the English alphabet – like SMS, WhatsApp. Maybe an app-based publisher like Juggernaut could do the trick? The possibilities are many but so are the pitfalls. And probably that is the reason why Indian publishers have remained distanced from what is the biggest reading space in India.
Sharma, in an interview before he passed away, said that he believed pulp fiction would come back in a big way through television and film. And it makes sense, because while the reader is upwardly mobile in his or her aesthetic pursuits, and the marketing model shows no signs of evolving, only the visual can embody the audacity of a pulp novel’s opening, like that of Sharma’s Vardi Wala Gunda:
लाश ने आँखे खोल दी|
ऐसा लगा जैसे लाल बल्ब जल उठे हैं|
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