Speaking Volumes: From Dhishoom to Banksters

(Published in the Business Standard; apologies, there was a lot more to write on the subject that wouldn’t fit into the word count, so this does read a little like an excerpt from a longer essay!)


In many of Delhi’s Hindi-language bookshops, the bestseller sections stock a range of strikingly familiar titles. Alongside perennially popular Hindi writers, from Shrilal Shukla to Shivani, Harivansh Rai Bacchan to Dinkar, the seeding of English titles in translation has become almost unremarkable.

From APJ Abdul Kalam’s Agni ki Uraan (Wings of Fire), Paulo Coelho’s Vijeta Akela (Winner Stands Alone), Rhonda Byrne’s Shakti (The Power), Amitav Ghosh’s Afeem Sagar (Sea of Poppies) to a score of self-help books, the presence of translated bestsellers is as pervasive as the slow and steady disappearance of the old, local pulp-fiction favourites.

Urban bookshops have a very different spread of authors from either the railway bookstalls or the small-town “mela” pop-up bookshops, but it is this sort of change, however small, that is behind some of the paranoia that English will conquer India’s other languages. Some, like the BJP’s Rajnath Singh last week, blame English in just the same way many find comfort in blaming “foreign influences” for all of India’s problems, and with just as little logic: “We have lost everything in the era of modernism. English language has caused maximum damage to India.”

It might feed Mr Singh’s nightmares to think, for instance, that the rise of the pulp English language bestseller has replaced the old-school Hindi pulp thriller. But the reasons have much less to do with language politics, and far more to do with disappointingly boring details such as the dynamics of the publishing industry and that perennial villain, Indian television.

Back when the “Meerut school” of bestsellers started, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Indian pulp came in highly locally flavoured variants. The first wave of Indo-Anglian bestsellers were not the RK Narayans and the Mulk Raj Anands—they were the lurid ‘pondies’, heavy-breathing romances produced in bulk by the busy printing presses of Pondicherry. The Indians whom Macaulay had hoped to turn into ranks of faithful clerks had discovered a profitable and presumably enjoyable sideline.

Though Pondicherry’s presses may have been the most prolific, practically every part of India that was home to printing presses, from the coasts of Masulipatam and Tranquebar to Surat, to Goa and Bengal, nurtured their own proud brand of pulp. This was often religious—sometimes just one town harboured dozens of Hindu/ Sikh/ Christian/ Koranic printing presses.

The devotional literature produced so cheaply was sold from door-to-door, or at religious melas and gatherings; numbers are hard to come by but it is safe to say that God outsold romance. If Bengal’s bat-tala presses—literally, the banyan tree presses—specialised in scurrilous gossip and political broadsides, Kerala and Tamil Nadu produced pulp fiction that was fantastically eclectic, encompassing everything from religious devotion to robot love, human lust and some swashing and buckling.

The Meerut presses, as Aruna Rao chronicles, were the bustling home of the local Indian comic book industry, which thrived alongside the detective fiction and jasoosi kahaniya—the spy stories—that were the mainstay of Meerut’s pulp. Rao points out that some of these comics exploded a few stereotypes: the upright seeker of justice, Bahadur, for example, had a long-standing girlfriend, Bela, whose karate-chops matched his dhishoom skills.


Why action heroes? Why were authors like Rajesh Kumar—who writes a 150-page novel every two weeks or so—or Ved Prakash Sharma so obsessed with inspectors and spies, with villains in uniform and heroes of the law courts? The pulp-fiction industry that fuelled the old Meerut presses—Diamond Comic Books, Tulsi Pocket Books, Durga Pocket Books, Dheeraj Press etc—was driven by the popularity of the Hindi true-crime magazine. Some survive: Crime & Detective still “reports” on the “dreadful revenge of a devoted wife” and the fate of “Nagpur Neeta”; Manohar Kahaniyan still has a loyal readership who lap up their blend of murder-and-cleavage; and Satya Katha’s tagline (“Bahakte Kadam, Balatkari Police, Pretni Si Bhaint”) hints at the many pleasures to be found inside; seduction, rape, ghosts.

If the market for Inspector Vinod and company is dwindling, it might just be because the Hindi publishing firms didn’t see the shift in aspirations. Secretly, those who read the Hindi pulp fiction masters wanted justice, and the punishment of corrupt officials—they wanted the titillation and the blood as well, but it is, in hindsight, remarkable how idealistic pulp was in those days.

Over the years, readers across the Hindi heartland have learned to want different things—romance and love rather than forbidden lust, malls and dieting,  self-help and self-improvement, mixed with some yearning for the old mainstream mythologies and legends. But though Hindi-language TV serials acknowledge these shifts, and incorporate them into their plotlines, the Rs 25 magazine or the Rs 56 paperback hasn’t kept pace.

The other big shift, as the Census 2001-2011 numbers bear out, is that English is growing faster than any other Indian language. For the younger generation of Indians–the demographic currently overlooked and under-served by mainstream Hindi language publishing–English is not, as many critics of Angrezi assume, a passport to the West: it is, far more crucially, the language that gives them the ability to leave home, to exchange one small town for a slightly larger city. Acquiring call-centre English or business-school English may not guarantee a job in Europe, and indeed, many young Indians are not looking in that direction. It does, however, allow Indians under 30 to travel far more freely within the borders of their country; for this generation, English enables internal migration much more than it enables journeys to the West.

English is often—inaccurately—called the language of power. This is not actually true. For politicians, the language of power remains the language of their home state; they would alienate their constituents if they spoke only English.

It might be more accurate to call English the language of aspiration. And despite their enormous followings, the average successful Hindi pulp fiction writer was a man in his forties, often much older. If the younger writers, finding no room for their dreams in Hindi, shifted to English instead, that is hardly surprising. The question is whether they will cross the language divide in the other direction, ushering the dakus and inspectors out the door and introducing a new breed of banksters and lovelorn college students to Hindi pulp.


2 responses to “Speaking Volumes: From Dhishoom to Banksters”

  1. shovonc Avatar

    The bat-tala books often featured board exam toppers — usually with boudi. Or so I’ve been told.

  2. englishwhiz Avatar

    Reblogged this on English Writers' Language Self-Help and commented:
    In India, English is the language of aspiration, of hope for a different lifestyle. It’s interesting how the books in a bookstore can reveal so much.

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