Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Backyard Bestsellers, or, Making it to the front page

As mentioned in my last post, I got asked to write an article on pulp fiction for the Deccan Herald, and the article was published in it's Sunday edition. First page. Lead story. Phew! :)

Here's the article as I sent it, with one minor correction that a couple of readers pointed out.

Gems in the Backyard

U.R. Ananthamurthy said, “Every language in India has a front yard and a back yard – except for English and Sanskrit, which only have front yards.” While the front yard of language grows serious literature and official grammar, back yards are where the fun parts bloom - stories written for entertainment, jokes, cartoons, ever-evolving slang, experiments. In the wildest, most uncontrolled, part of the backyard grows pulp fiction. It consists of tales written purely for entertainment, with literary merit being secondary. Pulp’s customers are the most demanding of all – they want their money’s worth of entertainment for every paisa they spend. Pulp is printed on the cheapest possible paper, produced in huge quantities, sold at the rock-bottom prices at places where people want something to pass time with on journeys– railway stations and bus stands.

A few decades back, pulp fiction used to be a major force in English-language publishing in the west. But English language pulp has gone through a selection process in the US and England. Of the hundreds of writers churning out pulp stories by the dozen in those years, the best have been chosen as favourites by readers, and are today considered classic. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Hadley Chase once started out getting published in the pulp format. Today they’re considered prose stylists and are held up as examples of how to write good, gripping stories.

This filtration process has only just started in India. It is held back by the peculiar contempt that the English media has for other Indian languages, and beyond that, by the contempt that the literary world in each language has for its pulp tradition.

Yet, the best of pulp writing in each language has its own fan base. Surender Mohan Pathak is one such writer who has developed a cult following in Hindi. He’s been writing detective and thriller novels for over 50 years, and has 269 books to his credit. Conservative estimates put his total sales at 2.5 crore copies sold – no mean feat. Most of his books have had an initial print run of 1 lakh copies. Ved Prakash Sharma is considered the largest selling writer in India, and his Vardi Wala Gunda alone is reputed to have sold over a crore copies. Numbers like this are par for the course in most Indian languages – Rajesh Kumar, who’s written over 1,500 Tamil pulp novels, writes 5 short novels a month, and in the 80s, sold over 1 lakh copies of each of his books in the first print run. Ibn-e-Safi is considered an iconic writer in Urdu, so much so that Agatha Christie considered him the only original writer of detective novels in the subcontinent. His books are still in print and selling well in India and Pakistan, 60 years after they were first published.

Like most other English-educated Indians, I was only vaguely aware of the size of this industry, until I noticed and bought a book titled The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction one day. It was an excellently produced work, with a great range of translated stories from Tamil, and a section reprinting the original lurid covers. I wrote a review of it on my blog, and wondered when someone would give a similar treatment to Hindi pulp.

The next day, there was a comment from Blaft, asking me whether I would be interested in doing a translation from Hindi to English myself. After the initial hesitation, I was only too glad to take up the offer. Together, we zeroed in on a book called Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti by Surender Mohan Pathak, which has sold over 3 lakh copies and has been reprinted 15 times, and decided to go to Delhi to talk to Pathak himself.

The trip was a revelation. Pathakji turned out to be a genial old Delhi gentleman who took the translation project as a lark – he gets 4 lakhs for the first print run of every Hindi book he writes, and the amounts involved in English publishing looked tiny to him. Besides him, we also met Mr. Rajkumar Gupta, who runs Raja Pocket Books, Pathak ji’s publisher. He wondered what the hullabaloo was over Chetan Bhagat – was a few lakh copies sold such a large sum in English? We also met Shelle, the cover artist for thousands of Hindi pulp books – he has been in the business since 1971 and takes just two days per cover painting.

Though I was awed by the numbers involved, all of these people said that the Hindi pulp industry has actually reduced in size. In its heyday in the 80s, there were five times as many publishers and writers. This was an era before the advent of cable TV and the new, slick Bollywood, when fans flocked to bookshops to buy the newest book of their favourite writer. At the time, English writing in India hadn’t yet turned into the official representative of India to the world. The world of Hindi pulp has since retreated into the background. It’s still huge and self-sufficient, but it’s unnoticed today by any but its fans.

The 65 Lakh Heist, the English translation of Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti was published in April, 2009, by Blaft, and it’s one step towards showcasing the Hindi language backyard. While it may be the first time Pathak ji has been translated into English, it’s not the only project of its kind. Ibn-e-Safi’s books are being translated as well (by Blaft as well as Random House), and there is a sequel to Tamil Pulp Fiction in the works. Several other publishers are now considering going along a similar path.

Indian Pulp fiction has made in mark on other media as well. Agent Vinod, hero of several 60s pulp books, not only featured in an eponymous 1977 movie, but is also the topic of Sriram Raghavan’s newest movie project, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Several of Ved Prakash Sharma’s books have been made into Bollywood movies, and Gulshan Nanda (though his work lived in the area between pulp and popular fiction) even scripted several movies himself – including Kati Patang and Neelkamal. Several Tamil pulp writers moonlight as scriptwriters for movies. And Parshuram Sharma and S.C. Bedi, who specialized in horror and Young Adult books, respectively, also did many Hindi comics.

Theodore Sturgeon famously said, “99% of everything is crap.” The rule applies to every kind of media and entertainment. But a corollary would be, “About 1% of any media is good.” Dashiell Hammett and James Hadley Chase rose into that 1% of English pulp, and are now immortalized. Are we making any effort to find the 1%, the gems, in our own languages’ backyards?


Shireesh Gupta said...

Hi Sudarshan,
Are you the son of Dr. Sharad Purohit? If so, then I'm sure we know each other (well, sort of).
Regardless, congratulations the book. I look forward to reading them. I could never bring myself to read these Hindi novels as my hindi reading is strenuous at best. Thanks to your efforts, I can now read them. Hoping for more such translations.

Sudarshan said...

Hi Shireesh,
As a matter of fact, I am Dr. Purohit's son, but I can't remember when we met.
Thanks for checking out the book and hope you spread the word!

Shireesh Gupta said...

I'm Mr. P.P. Gupta's son. Rings a bell now? Our dads are close friends. That's why I mentioned that we sort of know each other, through our dads. Considering that we met decades ago when we were little kids, I don't blame you for not remembering if we ever met. You all had visited Bangalore then. I have very faint memories of that time, though.

Anonymous said...

Bought the book from Landmark..I am a first time reader of Surender Mohan Pathak and found the book quite impressive..Hope that u will translate more Pathak books into Hindi