They sell in lakhs, churn out hundreds of novels in a lifetime and constantly finetune their storylines according to the latest trends. Aabhas Sharma meets the bestselling writers of Hindi pulp fiction.
Sitting in the basement office next to his palatial bungalow in Meerut, Ved Prakash Sharma makes a startling revelation in a matter-of-fact tone. “I stopped counting after 1.5 million.” Sharma is talking about his bestselling novel, Wardi Wala Gunda (Hooligan in Uniform), which is treated as a classic in the Hindi pulp fiction genre. “My books sell as they are a heady cocktail of what an average reader wants,” he says. His heady cocktail includes murder, revenge, sex and greed. Throw in book jackets in technicolour screaming murder, cheap thrills, raunchy women and a gun, and you have a sure winner.
Titles like Bahu Maange Insaaf (Daughter-in-Law Demands Justice), Aankhon Wali Andhi (The Blind Woman with Eyes), Dahej Mein Mili Revolver (In the Dowry came a Revolver) and Paintra (Move) have sold like no other genre in the country. The men churning out these potboilers prolifically might not be as famous as Chetan Bhagat, but enter the Hindi heartland and you will find that they are celebrities. Bhagat’s last book, Two States: The Story of My Marriage, has sold about a million copies — stupendous but still 500,000 short of Sharma’s Wardi Wala Gunda. Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, River of Smoke, has so far sold around 60,000; Shobhaa De’s bestsellers do around 25,000.
Take the case of Anil Mohan. This Delhi-based writer has written over 180 books in two decades. On an average, his books sell about 50,000 copies each. (He could be close to the 10 million mark now in overall sales. Though far short of the 400 million or so copies of Harry Potter books of J K Rowling, this is better than any Indian English writer can claim.) Still, he feels that he hasn’t got due credit: “When they [English writers] sell 3,000, it becomes a bestseller. What about our books?”
Mohan’s numbers are significant, but compared to the Don Corleone of Hindi pulp fiction, Sharma, they are paltry. Sharma has written over 160 books, completes four thrillers a year and sells easily 150,000 copies of each. “I have seen this industry change for better and worse in the last 40 years,” says the veteran writer, whose first book, Dehakte Shaher (Burning Cities), was published in 1973. When he started writing, the plots were basic and simple. Get a “secret” file stolen by a “rogue” neighbouring country like Pakistan or China and send an Indian agent on a mission to retrieve it. While the detective/spy genre was explored by writers like Ved Prakash Kamboj, Surendra Mohan Pathak and Sharma himself, there was a strand within the genre which tilted toward love and romance.
Over the years, plots have changed dramatically. In the 1980s, the “bad guys” became criminals to earn more money and were shown as illiterate. Now they are tech-savvy, and plots often revolve around cyber crimes — on which Sharma’s son Shagun writes.
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There’s inspiration from Bollywood, too. These books are sometimes written off as soft porn — a characterisation Mohan rejects. “Sex is just another part and not the overpowering factor in my books,” he says. Yet you won’t find these books in upscale urban households.
Not that it matters to Sharma: “If I show you the number of e-mails I get, you will be astounded.” Technology has played a big part in the changing dynamics of the industry, not only in terms of the plots but also in how these writers engage with their readers.
Sharma doesn’t feel shortchanged at recognition not given to him. And why should he? Eight years ago he started his own publishing house, Tulsi Pocket Books, to give a chance to budding authors. Three of his books have been adapted into movies, two of which starred Akshay Kumar: Sabse Bada Khiladi (The Biggest Player) and International Khiladi (International Player). He claims that every month he gets 25 to 30 manuscripts from writers, mainly from the “Hindi belt”.
The bestselling writers make decent money. On average, these books sell at Rs 50. The cover is invariably glitzy and the paper inside is shabby (no self-respecting pakora would wish to be served on such paper). The price point of Rs 50 is important to publishers — which indicates the socio-economic category of readers that consume these books. The publisher takes a 40 per cent cut, 40 per cent covers overheads, and the remaining 20 per cent goes to the writer. This may be better than the 7.5-12.5 per cent royalty paid by top English publishers, but it is a slice of a much smaller pie. If a book sells 50,000 copies, the writer can hope to make Rs 5 lakh. Four such books a year could mean an annual income of Rs 20 lakh — not bad. “It keeps us motivated to write more,” says Mohan. The trick is to churn out as much as you can.
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But all’s not well in this world. Piracy is one issue with which these writers are struggling. More than that, booksellers have found a way to rotate the books fast, which eats into the writers’ incomes. These books are sold in very large numbers at railway stations and inside long-distance trains. Someone travelling from Delhi to Patna could buy one book at Delhi, read it in a few hours, exchange it for another book at Kanpur, read the second one till Patna and then sell it at a discount on the platform there.
Not all are happy with the quality of their output. Dinesh Thakur, one of the best-selling authors in this genre, takes no special pride in what he writes. “I am not here to preach to anyone or enlighten people with my writings. I know how they are viewed by most people, but it doesn’t bother me too much,” he says. Mohan says his own family doesn’t read his books, but doesn’t ask him why he writes books which not many people have read. “I cater to an audience that waits for my next book,” he reasons.
Where do these writers get their inspiration? Sharma says it’s all about the people he meets. On a recent vacation in Kashmir, for example, he says he met a Kashmiri boy who was anti-India and saw Sharma as a foreigner in his country. So the author has already thought of a plot along these lines. He says he plans to title the book Kashmir Ka Beta (Son of Kashmir).