In the narrow lanes of Nai Sarak, which lies cramped between Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar in Delhi, mountains of books lay stacked in compact shops bustling with people. The vendors are calling out to potential customers. These are books for competitive exams or pirated copies of popular bestsellers like Ikigai, I Am Malala, Life of Pi, The Palace of Illusions, The White Tiger, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Harry Potter. In fact, book stalls across metro cities find the same standard set of pirated books everywhere.
Go back a couple decades, before Metro stations cut through the crowded lanes of cities, and life was not yet consumed by smartphones and e-books, railway platforms and roadside stalls stacked and sold Hindi pulp fiction like hot cakes. Small-town Hindi authors became constant companions of thousands of readers who found joy in the narratives of crime thrillers or erotica. No train journeys, or long summer afternoons went by without stepping into the world of these stories— about a murder, an extra-marital affair, a crime that had happened or a thriller.
These books appealed to the masses— young adults, men and women in their mid-thirties or forties and even the elderly —there was a genre for every age group.In Surender Mohan Pathak’s literary world, “She was as beautiful as she was dangerous—a mysterious misery, and death followed her footsteps.” Pathak’s 1985 thriller Hindi novel Woh Kaun Thi was a hit among the masses and an addition to his list of crime fiction and thrillers. The author of more than 300 novels, Pathak remains popular till date. Especially so in tier-2 and tier-3 cities in the northern belt of the country. Hindi novelist Prabhat Ranjan, who is currently a professor of Hindi at Zakir Husain Delhi College in the University of Delhi and is writing another book that will be published in 2023, says books that were being written in the late 1990s and early 2000s are not being sold anymore because the readership has evolved. However, he agrees that the readership in tier-2 and tier-3 cities is still interested in them.
In the 2017 film Bareilly Ki Barfi, Pritam Vidrohi’s character mirrors the mysterious small-town writer of Hindi pulp fiction. In the film, the female protagonist Bitti Mishra (played by Kriti Sanon) becomes obsessed with the writings of Chirag Dubey, who writes under the pen name Pritam Vidrohi, (played by Ayushmann Khurrana). She sets out on a journey to find the author of the novel. In fact, like Bareilly Ki Barfi’s small-time publisher who publishes the eponymous book, many small time Hindi publishers thrived in Meerut, who gave birth to the Meerut model of publishing, thereby creating an environment for small time authors to publish their stories and find a readership among the locals.
Besides Pathak, a few prominent names in the genre—Ibn-e-Safi, Om Prakash Sharma, Gulshan Nanda, Ved Prakash Sharma—penned stories for the masses.
Where did the bookseller go?
Massively popular back in the day, these books are either found stacked in a corner on bookstalls or are completely missing from the new-age Metro-side make-shift bookstalls. Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh, says, “Book stalls present on railway stations and bus stands have been a major means through which literature reached the Hindi readers. Travellers would buy the books of their choice from these stalls and would read these books along the journey. The literature available there comprised books by authors such as Ved Prakash Sharma, Surendra Mohan Pathak on one hand and works of authors and poets such as Shivani, Amrita Pritam, Sharat Chandra, Prem Chand, Manto, Yashpal, Krishan Chander, Ghalib, Meer, Saahir and Dinkar on the other. Hindi literature back then was seen in the binary of popular and great. Both had their own readers.”
Maheshwari shares that to bring great literature within the reach of common people, Rajkamal Prakashan began printing affordable paperbacks in that era. “The textual excellence and artistic presentation of those books is a part of the nostalgia of millions of Hindi readers today. With changing times, this scene has changed too. Online platforms are now a bigger place than bus stands and railway stations where people are getting books. The tradition of book fairs has gained more root. The diversity of subject and curiosity of readers is now more important than the earlier division of literature into popular and great. We have started organising book exhibitions and book fairs in various cities,” he says.Contrary to popular belief, Maheshwari feels that the books have not disappeared. “I think we are reaching readers in more ways than before. By the disappearance of books, if you mean those books that were earlier called popular literature, then, of course, their presence has decreased. Pirated books have replaced them probably because more people are now able to read. Those who read pulp fiction are now onto something else, it seems. English-educated people read those books that you see on the footpath, or they read their translation. These are good quality books such as Rich Dad Poor Dad, or other highly popular books that became bestsellers. The earlier popular literature had a different reader base. The reader today wants books on topics and subjects that are in contemporary discussion. We prioritise their needs and expectations,” he explains.
Aditi Maheshwari, executive director, Vani Prakashan group, says that with evolved readership, there is more diversity in the voices. She says that we have moved from the Byomkesh Bakshi, and erotic books but they excite us. “The way ‘Meerut model’ used to work, it doesn’t produce such books anymore. But today we have writers like Trilok Nath Pandey who has written Khufiyagiri, Vikram Chandra and Suketu Mehta. We recently produced an anthology of erotica called Kamukata Ka Utsav which sold very well. Top Hindi authors contributed stories in it. It was not something we had not read before, but it was a breath of fresh air,” she says.
According to her, people purchase books online more than they do from local vendors and stalls and the demand is market driven and the reading culture has changed. “As far as pulp is concerned, it has transformed now. More than just being below the belt or Hindi version of Mills and Boons, it’s a part of our own society now. There are good books being written. We are also publishing India’s first gay love story in Hindi by Dr Kinshuk Gupta,” she adds.