Ved Prakash Sharma and the ‘pulp’
Awanish Kumar is a social science researcher.
Ved Prakash Sharma, one of the towering figures of popular Hindi novel, is no more. Sharma had written more than 176 novels and most of his novels sold more than half a million copies. His most famous title was Vardiwala Gunda, published in 1993.
Sharma considered himself as the inheritor of the tradition of popular detective novels started by Devki Nandan Khatri, Ibn-e- Safi, and Ved Prakash Kamboj. He also wrote the script and dialogues for a number of Bombay films such as Sabse Bada Khiladi and International Khiladi. Lately, he was associated with Balaji Telefilms.
There are multiple ways of understanding what Sharma and the entire Meerut model represented. First, as senior journalist Mrinal Pande once pointed out: the revenue model of the Meerut publishing was quite simple. The novels had catchy titles and typically sold for 40 rupees out of which the publisher made a profit of 18 rupees and the writer got 5 rupees of royalty. This was the western airport model that got translated into the bus stands and railway stations of small town India.
Secondly, it is important to understand that Hindi literature, unlike the literature produced in other languages, has historically been confined to university departments. This is a direct fallout of the nature of the language itself and its relationship with the people it claims to represent. Hindi, that we know as a spoken language, is limited in geography to Delhi and western UP. Hindi does not represent a Hindi culture. Hindi seeks to represent, for instance in the context of Bihar, a Hindi-Urdu-Bhojpuri-Maithili-Bajjika-Magahi-Khortha-Angika culture.
Even today, a typical book stall in small town north India would sell Premchand and Surendra Mohan Pathak with of course, some titles of Sharat Chandra and Manto. The Hindi belt exists in twin extremes- there is a Hindi high culture represented by what is known as Hindi literature and there is Hindi pulp. In a largely semi-literate context, Meerut publishers filled the gap with their embrace of the popular/filmy/Bazaar language.
Thirdly, even when Nayi Kahani/Kavita sought to speak to the emerging middle classes in towns across north and west India, it was limited in its appeal. The turmoil and conflict of an average character in Nayi Kahani was distant and, in fact, alienating to a social class in transition.
Lastly, as Mrinal Pande has highlighted, the demand for the so-called “Hindi pulp fiction” came from the upwardly mobile middle classes who had recently migrated from villages to small towns. Most of these families came from upper and middle caste groups and conservative backgrounds. The Hindi pulp supplied to them a sense of release and connect with the outside world.
The Hindi pulp rarely disrupted the norms and taboos held dearly by these caste and class groups (as is true of Bombay cinema). Nevertheless, with its deadly mix of crime, suspense, mystery and sex, the Hindu pulp appealed to the young and the old, the man and the woman in the house, all of them tied to the conservative social milieu that prohibited any display or expression of dissent.
I am reminded of an interview he gave to The Hindu two years ago, where he says, “Quite frankly, now I don’t have records of my readership, but unfortunately, whatever I write has been called by the high-brow literary bodies “pulp” fiction in English or “lugdi sahitya” (lugdi being Hindi for rough, referring to the paper it gets printed on), but that doesn’t affect me.”