Popular fiction in India has a history of more than 100 years. Those were the times when in western countries popular writing was synonymous with mystery stories and magazines like Dime Magazine, which published in their monthly issues every popular writer of this genre and were immensely popular. Later, in India, the idea was followed as ‘Char Ana Jasoos’ and then ‘Aath Ana Jasoos’ but most of the desi writers published in Indian avtar of such magazines were nonentities. The first known name and also the originator of this genre in India was Gopal Ram Gahmari, a contemporary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a manner of speaking, whose first mystery novel was published in the year 1900 and immediately captured the readers’ fancy. He went on to write in a span of 38 years, 85 full length mystery novels, 64 of which he himself published serially in a monthly magazine entitled Jasoos and several short stories in Hindi which were also translated and published in Bengali. It is a pity that his books are not available to today’s book lovers.
The other iconic writer of those times was Babu Devki Nandan Khatri, the creator of the immortal ‘Chandrakanta’and Chandrakanta Santati which are said to have enjoyed such phenomenal popularity that non-Hindi speaking elite in those times learned Hindi with the sole purpose of being able to read these two series. The times treated Khatri a lot better than Gahmari as his books never got out of print and all are freely available even to this date.The success of these two writers writing ‘Jasoosi’—also called ‘Aiyyari’—stories created a vast segment of Hindi reading public which was no mean achievement.
Taking a cue from this particular kind of writing, in the late forties, after the second great war and in the early fifties, many such publications came into existence patronizing pulp literature—Lugdi Sahitya—as it was popularly called, but the original writings were very few and far between. Most of the books then published were either virtual, unacknowledged desi adaptations of English authors or clumsy translations published under the original author’s name. The readers were still stuck to them as they were dirt cheap.
Then in 1952 came an Urdu writer Asraar Ahmed who under an adopted name Ibn-e-Safi started churning very well-crafted mystery stories with Colonel Afridi and Capt. Hamid (Colonel Vinod and Capt. Hamid in Hindi) as the pivotal characters of his series, which started publishing in a monthly magazine from Allahabad entitled Jasoosi Duniya which priced at nine annas took the pulp-loving reading public by storm. Later, he migrated to Pakistan but his books continued to be published in Hindi from Allahabad and in Urdu from Karachi till he died. Today he is remembered as an iconic writer who mesmerized the reading public more by his lively characters, illustrious style of narration than by the story-line. Regarding the story-line, he himself once confessed that his first novel Diler Mujrim was a direct adaptation of an English novel of the then famous writer Edgar Wallace. In a very short time, he became so popular that every new novel by him enjoyed a minimum guaranteed circulation of 50000 copies. The other contemporary writers would consider themselves lucky if they could have one-tenth of Safi’s print order.
Such was the impact of Safi’s writing style that many writers started copying it and two of them,Ved Prakash Kamboj and Akram Allahabadi reached quite a prominent position. They had their own versions of Vinod-Hamid duo named Vijay-Raghunath, Khan-Bale respectively. But this fame on borrowed grounds was short lived and after a few years’ acclaim, they both went into oblivion.
By then the pocket-books trade was well established in Hindi and the pioneers of the trade of course were Hind Pocket Books. Hind, the originator of pocket book format in India, showed the way to other publishers and by the seventies, there were 50-60 publishers and hundreds of writers catering to this new trade which made pocket book a household name. Those were the times when there was no TV, or internet or cable and people were dependent only on radio or movies, the third option being reading fiction, more so crime fiction,which readers of all ages—adolescent, young or old alike, indulged in.
In this context, the eighties and the nineties can be called the golden era of popular literature. There were a whole lot of writers whose books sold like proverbial hot cakes—Om Prakash Sharma, Dutt Bharti, Adil Rashid, Pyare Lal Awara, ML Pandey, Kushwaha Kant, Govind Singh, Ved Prakash Sharma to name a few.
Then came Gulshan Nanda and all became Lilliputtians before him. He rose to such glorious heights in this trade that even 33 years after his death, there is nobody in Hindi popular fiction writing to take his place. He was the first writer whose book Jheel Ke Us Paar was advertised as having a first print order of five lakh copies. Nobody in Hindi could ever come up to this score. In the lifetime of Gulshan Nanda the curse of ghost writing took roots in the trade and Hindi had the dubious distinction of introducing the first ghost writer Colonel Ranjit to this trade. In the early nineties, a time came when all the publishers began to promote their own ghost writers. Their gambit however, did not work, and the trade went into decline and the pocket book lost its sheen. Today it is a diminished trade. In spite of all this, crime fiction has shown exponential growth over the recent years but the growth is in English and not in Hindi.
Surendra Mohan Pathak is a crime fiction writer of repute with nearly three hundred titles to his credit. email@example.com