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Why Hindi Pulp Is Not Literature?

By Gagan Rism

21 March, 2011

A casual stroll down the cyber road made me come across a fascinating news about a Hindi pulp being translated into English and published by Chennai based Blaft Publication. My first reaction was - wow! with a tinge of amazement – at Hindi pulp’s translation, belated perhaps! Though it happened in 2009, well two years ago, but the news of Surinder Mohan Pathak’s ‘Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti’ being translated and published into English as ‘The Sixty-Five Lac Heist’ brought back all the childhood memories related to Hindi pulp fiction in my mind. Like most of the others recently initiated into the fancy world of literature in late 1990s, a greater part of my summer vacations would be spent reading the popular fiction by the likes of Surendar Mohan Pathak, Gulshan Nanda, Keshav Pandit etc. The rugged paper with poor publishing would contain so much thrill and hair-raising episodes that I would be awed, musing - this should be turned into a film! Why don’t film producers make film upon these novels, instead of making all that nonsense? Little did I know that it was a trend back in 1970s, but pulp-itself was never considered literary though, ever!

I would wonder and cringe - why don’t people mention these when they talk about literature. It’s true we had to read all these novels hidden by the stern eye of our elders for they considered them ‘cheap and trash’. But, since, these were available on 2/- per day rent from local Karyana (grocery) store, these were the most easily accessible form of literature in contrast to Shakespeare’s’ and Byrons’ which only Libraries could afford! Even if small one-room public libraries would loan them a shelf, their worth was less. For instance, the librarian would be less fussy about 1-2 day return of these novels after due date, but strict about works of real-literature or English novels, even pulp like that of Mills and Boon’s. General readership was no exception. People would scorn at seeing Hindi pulp in passengers’ hands in train, buses etc., but not high profile Sidney Sheldons, for instance. Hindi pulp invariably would be purchased from mobile book stalls on railway platforms where no Sidney Sheldon would venture.

When English pulp fiction, be it, Mills & Boon’s Romances, Silhouettes and Temptations; Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, James Headly Chase, etc. can be assimilated as ‘popular fiction’ genre in English literature, it is a matter of concern that Hindi pulp is left to curl behind the tag of ‘cheap and trash’ and thus banished out of the umbrella of mainstream literature. One reason for this neglect can be diagnosed in the ways in which Hindi pulp is demarcated from real-literature as well as English pulp. Latter is necessary considering prejudicial lenses wore by our colonial eyes whereby we still evaluate our achievements on the parameters set by westerns.

Hindi pulp nourished mainly in the hands of Gulshan Nanda, Ved Prakash Sharma, Rajhans, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Dinesh Thakur, Sarla Devi, Keshav Pandit etc. The industry thrived roughly after the independence till early 1990s and saw a manifest decline in its popularity in the wake of cable television which provided the same thrill and enchantment visually as well, at cheap cost, what these novels provided verbally on their rough leaves – exciting plots, family and workspace intrigues (remember Shobha De’s Swabhimaan!), mythological charms, crime and horror series etc.

In its infancy, the issues the Hindi pulp addressed were no different than what mainstream Hindi writers dealt with before and after independence. Munshi Prem Chand, Amrit Lal Nagar, Jaishankar Prasad, Dharamvir Bharti, etc. were writing the same social realities as Gulshan Nanda was portraying in his pulp. Be it mainstream social novels like Godan (Premchand), Amrit aur Vish and Nachyo Bahut Gopal (Nagar) or Neelkanth and Kati Patang (by Nanda) – all depicting the feminine pathos in the callous society, for instance.

Considering the broad content-similarity, showering laurels to former for major contributions in literature, and relegating the latter to the realm of pulp is a pointer to the cynical literary-vs-pulp gap. The gulf yawns more sarcastically when the same pulp is received and acclaimed in its cinematic transformation by the general public-at-large. Gulshan Nanda was one of the top pulp writers in 1960-70s whose works saw reproduction to some major classics of Hindi cinema at that time. More than a dozen of his novels were turned into movies including hit-makers like Patthar Ke Sanam (1967), Neelkamal (1968), Khilona (1970), Kati Patang (1970), Sharmili (1971), Jheel Ke Us Paar (1973), Daag (1973), Hanste Zakham (1973), Ajnabee (1974), Mehbooba (1976), etc. Not many people know that the lead female protagonist of Kati Patang, Asha Parekh, got her first Filmfare Award for that movie the story of which was penned down by a pulp-writer. How ironic is that Gulshan Nanda got nominations around half-a-dozen times for the category of Best Story in this prestigious award, but not recognized at all by the literary-world! He was invariably a pulp-writer, and not a litterateur.

Content-wise, the usual charge of pulps churning out like stale story lines most of the time, also does not seem to do the justice. Mainstream too had its share of run-o’-the-mill thrillers, social realities, esp. in so-called progressive writing after independence. Even biggies like Amrit Lal Nagar, Manto, Chugtai, (belonging to Urdu-Hindi mainstream) around Independence, can be found repeatedly writing around subversive themes like homosexuality, prostitution, illicit relations etc. These would appear either as core theme or sub-plot of the work, but would appear, nonetheless. Apart from ‘Nachyo Bahut Gopal’, these strands appear as various sub-plots in Nagar’s other works like ‘Amrit Aur Vish’, on which, subsequently, Sahitya Akedmi Award was conferred upon in 1967.

Thus, content-wise, restricting the literary umbrella to mainstream, while banishing the pulp as trash smells of favoritism and prejudiced towards the former. Cliché is not always redundant; in different variations, it has its own beauty. Were it not so, most of the stories on Partition would be superfluous for they are in the end telling the same-old-tale.

Another reason usually given is the form of the Pulp’s presentation – pocket books format, episodic publishing in small-scale, local magazines etc. Well, let’s not forget that mainstream writers too had their share of bad luck. Premchand’s many stories appeared first in small time magazines like Zamana, Awaz-e-Khalq, Kehkashan etc. before appearing in collections. The classics like Kafan was published in a magazine Jamia in 1936 and Idgaah (1933) in magazine Chaand, among many others.

Apart from these, mode of distribution, is presumably the major factor behind pulp being termed ‘cheap’. Undoubtedly, in contrast to what is kept as Hardcovers/Soft-Bind in the library shelfs, and sold in big bucks in specialized book stores, pulp would certainly be cheap which would be kept as pawns in karyana stores and pan-shops and sold for a pittance at railway platforms, bus stands, footpaths etc. One that makes its first appearance on footpath obviously becomes cheap as an orphan that lives and dies on it. Now, that English pulp, and even yesteryears mainstreams have started appearing in pirated ‘paperbacks’ on these same footpaths, making this mode of distribution a criteria of demarcating between pulp and real-literary, seems outrageous! Given the small scale of production costs as well as piteous royalties involved in publishing pulp fiction, selling from Rupees 20-50, one can hardly expect them to show up in AC Book Stores!

However, on the same footpaths and railway platforms, if readers (nowadays, thanks to piracy!) can bargain for Isaac Asimov, J. K. Rowling, Paolo Coelho, Stephen King, or even home-grown Chetan Bhagat or Vikram Swaroop (Slumdog Millionaire fame!) etc. the trouble-stream seems to run deeper than we thought. It is not the alleged runo’themill content or poor presentation then, that pulp is not considered literature, it is the general disregard of the readership towards – Hindi pulp, in particular. What else but our colonial eyes can be blamed?

Content-wise, English pulp is no different from Hindi pulp. English pulp too has its share of poorly crafted dacoities-and-chase stories, love-stories - strangers falling in love, turning hostile and reuniting in the end – almost giving rise to cliché, cheap pornography spreading over dozens of pages and so on. For teenage readers once, Mills & Boon had the charm solely because of its lucid love-making episodes. Almost every work churned out by MBs was once hailed as ‘bestseller’.

However, form-wise, yes, Hindi pulp stands in a stark contrast to its English counterpart. First-rate publishing in alluringly designed ‘paperbacks’, these bestsellers certainly give a stiff competition to poor ‘pocket books’. Their recent evolution from being sold in general book stores to glitzy book corners have changed the dynamics of native pulp market forever.

Thus, whereas we can find bestsellers selling in thousands on high-quality print and sold, that too not on the pavements (only their pirated versions reach the Indian pavements), but in stores like Crossword, Book World, Oxford Bookstores and other glam-sham book nooks in corporate annexes of Hotels, Theatres, Malls, Shopping Centers, Airport etc. where their price could range from 250-1000, Hindi pulp has to rest content with shoddy prints, published in few hundreds and being sold for 20-50 rupees on pavements. Since, no big money is involved in either their production, or earning, it is no wonder that they are never advertised as ‘bestsellers’ by any such-and-such Times. Hindi pulp is relegated to the realm of mere ‘railway platform pe bikne wale’ [that which is sold on railway platforms], hence, ‘cheap and trash’ – not literary!

*All the pictures taken by the author herself!





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