Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction

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Situations 8.2 (2015): 27–47

ISSN: 2288–7822

Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction
Peter Friedlander (Australian National University)

In this paper, I begin by establishing the relationship between earlier Western detective fiction, other Asian detective fictions, and Hindi detective fiction. I then explore how the Hindi–Urdu works of Ibne Safi (1928‒1980) revolutionized this genre during the period from 1950 to 1980. In particular, I look at how the plots of some of these detective novels suggest ways in which authors and readers engaged with modernity through exploring the role that the supernatural plays in the contemporary world. I then shift to examining how certain writers in the city of Meerut near Delhi, such as Om Prakash Sharma (1924‒1998), came to prominence in the 1980s during the period of rapid growth in the circulation and readership of Hindi detective fiction. Through examining some of their plots, I also suggest that a prominent focus in these novels was the fictionalised accounts of current affairs. In particular, I chart the rise of the patriotic female detective superspy as an embodiment of India in its struggles with terrorism and its territorial opponents. I then question why it was that at the beginning of the twenty–first century, sales of printed pulp fiction began to decline, linking this to the arrival of the mobile phone and the Internet in India. In conclusion, I argue that not only does older Hindi detective fiction now live on in an afterlife on the Internet, but that there are signs that the growing use of the Internet with Indian languages may lead to new possibilities for Hindi detective fiction in the future.
Keywords: detective fiction, Hindi, Internet, mobile phone, modernity, patriotism, rationalism, supernatural literature, Urdu


Peter Friedlander

Introduction: The Detective Story in the West, Asia and India
Many authors trace the origins of detective fiction as a distinct genre in world literature back to the 19th century. Knight argued that the origins of detective fiction in English were in the late 18th century when a genre of work called the “Newgate Calendars” developed.1 These works were framed in the form of confessions to the chaplain of Newgate Prison by criminals before their executions in London. However, in a sense these works cannot be called ‘detective novels’ as they have no detectives; the bringing to justice of the individuals is the result of the community rallying round to reveal the criminal. It was only after 1743 with the establishment of the “Bow Street Runners,” the earliest form of the British police, that the notion of detection by a special individual began to develop in works such as Richmond: Scenes from the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827). A fusion of the Gothic and the supernatural in the form of a detective story also appeared in the U.S. in the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1809‒1849), particularly in stories featuring the detective Dupin, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). Another link in this development were the works by the English author Wilkie Collins (1824‒1889), such as The Woman in White (1860), which can be seen as a mixture of the Gothic novel and crime fiction.
However, in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859‒1930), the detective fiction genre assumed its full–grown form; and from the 1880s onwards, detective fiction really took off after the publication of the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet (1887).2 A number of authors such as Christopher Clausen have also written on the ways in which an important theme in stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles is the contrast between a modern rational scientific view of the world and an apparent supernatural menace in the context of life far from modernity.3 In her 2004 study, Francesca Orsini traces the origins of Bengali and Hindi detective fiction in the late nineteenth century in India back to the influence of works by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. She also explores how in Hindi the figure of the jāsūs, the detective, developed out of an earlier kind of hero, a sort

Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction


of investigative magistrate, in a traditional genre derived from Middle Eastern storytelling traditions. Moreover, by comparing early Hindi and Bengali detective novels, Orsini investigates how early Hindi detective novels focused on the new British notions of policing and the anxieties over property inheritance linked to the landholding changes the British implemented.4
A parallel study of the early detective story in Urdu by Daechsel also documents the ways in which translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories began to appear in the Punjab from 1914 onwards. He characterises the early Urdu detective stories based on a few of these surviving novels published since the 1930s. In particular, he notes that they represent an intersection between a traditional story genre in which a hero finds clues that lead to the revelation of a mystery and the modern Western detective story with its strong focus on how the hero deals with his encounter with modernity.5
A number of other authors have looked at the impact of Western detective fiction elsewhere in Asia. Amongst such studies there are some similarities with those found in the Hindi and Urdu languages. For example, Yuri Takahashi argues that in the Burmese responses to Sherlock Holmes stories by authors such as Shwe U‒Daung (1889 ‒1973), the conflict between western rationalism and the traditional culture was the main focus.6 In particular, she argues that through the way in which the hero, a Burmese version of Sherlock Holmes called Mr San Shar, is able to apply deductive logic to solving mysteries, readers are able to explore the relationship between Burmese culture and what it might be to become a modern Westernised Burmese person. In Japan, writers such as Hirai Tarō (1894‒1965), better known by his pen name Edogowa Rampo, which is based on the name Edgar Allan Poe, also created a new genre of detective fiction that explores the relationship between Western rational deduction and its interaction with beliefs and the supernatural.7 Some authors, such as David Katz, have argued that Freud’s 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche” (The Uncanny) marked a significant contribution to our understanding of the role of the supernatural in modern societies and in fiction. This is because it highlights the way in which the supernatural could be understood in relation to the psychological development of the


Peter Friedlander

individual. Freud argues that what he called the uncanny was not just

the strange, exotic or alien, but that which was familiar but repressed, including “primitive beliefs.”8

However, the ways in which Asian detective fiction employs the

supernatural seem to suggest that at times there is also a social aspect

to this, and that it was part of not just an individual negotiation but

also a social negotiation of how “the uncanny” could fit within modern

world views. Seen in this light the presence of the supernatural and

the “uncanny” in detective fiction, and in Hindi detective fiction in

particular, could perhaps be regarded as related to both individual and

social anxiety about the presence of the unexplained within modernity.

Indeed, during the twentieth century, there was a considerable degree of

continued belief in the supernatural in the Hindi–speaking area of North

India. From talking with people informally, I came to understand that

the issue for them was not whether ghosts and spirits exist, but what

forms they take in the modern

world. It might be useful to

consider that the popularity of

themes related to superstition

and the supernatural in Hindi

detective fiction is in part a

reflection of the world views of

people such as rickshaw drivers

and manual labourers who

make up a considerable portion

of its readership. In this essay, I

will explore the ways in which

Hindi–Urdu detective fiction

highlights the overlap between

belief in superstitions, religious

beliefs and the supernatural,

Figure 1. 1982 edition cover from Ibne Safi’s Khūn kī Bauchār (Rain of Blood). Ilāhābād: Nakahat Publications (Reprint of the original first novel in the series from 1952).

and the negotiation of everyday life in the mundane world of twentieth–century India. A second theme is the relationship

Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction


between the detective genre and a form of Hindi patriotic literature characterised by its focus on the figure of the patriotic female detective superspy.
Ibne Safi (1928–1980)
In India and Pakistan, the most famous writer of detective stories, and the writer whose works also explore the relationship between new rational Western ideas and traditional cultures and beliefs, is arguably Ibne Safi (1928‒1980). Safi was born before the division of India near Allahabad and moved to Karachi in Pakistan after independence. He was a prolific author, writing 125 novels in a series called Detective World. These stories were originally published in Urdu, and then in Hindi versions, as monthly magazines from 1952 to 1980. In their Urdu versions, the heroes of the Detective World series were Inspector Faridi and Sergeant Hameedl and each month’s publication was normally a separate novel in the series. From 1955, Safi began a second series which eventually ran to 116 novels in which the leading figure was a secret agent called Ali Imran.9 The Urdu versions of Detective World commenced publication in March 1952, and from December 1952 Hindi versions of the novels were also undertaken. Aside from the obvious changes to the script and language, one other major alteration concerned the leading character: in the Urdu version the hero was a Muslim, Inspector Faridi, while in the Hindi version he was a Hindu, Inspector Vinod. However, the depiction of the hero and his sidekick is the same in both: they are modern men in whose lives fast cars and the femme fatal play a leading, if hands–off, role; they fight through logic and heroism to defeat criminals who often hide behind a pretence of supernatural mystery.
It is also notable that the covers of these magazines feature paintings in similar styles to that of the movie poster art of the period. Like them, they are as lurid as possible in order to attract attention. Some of the artists such as Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui were responsible for painting hundreds of these pictures over many decades; their art is featured on the covers of many of the leading Hindi detective story novels.10


Peter Friedlander

The Worlds of Detective World

Jasusī Duniyā (Detective World)

represents a typical example of

a Hindi detective pulp fiction. It

went on sale in March 1982 and

comprised a novel called Pathar

kī laṛkī (The Stone Girl).12 It is a

story about a group of gangsters

who scare people away from

their smuggling operations by

pretending that there is a ghost

in the immediate vicinity. In

the Hindi version, however, the

hero of the story, Colonel Vinod,

solves the crime by revealing

that there is in fact nothing

Figure 2. Cover of Jasusi Duniya, Pathar
ki larki (Stone Girl). Ilāhābād: Nakahat Publications, March 1982.11

supernatural going on and that the supernatural merely serves to hide criminal activity.13 This

story fits perfectly into the kind of opposition between superstition and

deductive logic which characterises so much Hindi detective fiction: the

detective uses scientific deductive logic to reveal a “true” picture of the

world, showing how belief in superstition and the supernatural can be

exploited as a cloak for criminal activity.

These magazines were often sold at bookstalls outside cinemas, where a range of Hindi language publications were available.14 The

customers of such bookstalls ranged from office workers to rickshaw

drivers; and many of them, particularly the drivers, would typically

come from rural areas to work in the city when agricultural work was

not available. Many of these migrant workers would appear to live

in a kind of marginal space between modernity and more traditional

beliefs. Further research could be done into whether this kind of fiction

attracted them because it provided a space in which they could explore

the meaning of their life in the city as well as the way in which their

Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction


traditional beliefs and superstitions might be contextualised in modern urban India. These publications were also very cheap, and in a sense offered readers an alternate way to experience the thrills of cinema. The stalls not only sold these books but also rented them out, for a few rupees a day or less. It is therefore very difficult to estimate how large their actual circulation may have been. Later in this article, however, I will argue that there were perhaps a hundred thousand or even a million readers each month.

Figure 3. Satyakatha (True Stories) magazine, September 1985.

Hindi Detective Novels and True Crime Story Magazines
There was an overlap between true–life crime stories and Hindi detective fiction. True crime magazines such as Satyakatha (True Stories) were also sold at the bookstalls, alongside issues of Detective World. As with the early Western detective stories, this confluence of accounts of true crimes and detective fiction blurred genre boundaries. Moreover, whilst the two genres shared a common basic crime narrative structure, detective stories were often told from the viewpoint of the detectives, while crime stories were always written as third–person narratives in the manner of newspaper journalism. The example shown in figure 3 from 1985 includes a whole range of stories about theft, robbery, rape and murder. The readership for both fictional detective stories and accounts of real crimes clearly overlapped. People bought and read both types of publication, which explored similar areas of anxiety about modern life and the issue of safety in the new modern Indian public spaces. The venues where Hindi detective and true crime publications were sold included not only the bookstalls outside cinemas but also bookstalls located at railway stations.15


Peter Friedlander

The importance of the latter

as marketers of popular Hindi

fiction and detective pulp fiction

in particular should not be

underestimated. Indeed, many

of the novel serials indicated that

they were specially produced for

A.H. Wheeler, the main railway

bookseller. It is possible that this

method of railway station marketing

was influential in creating a modern

mass market for Hindi literature.

The new public railway spaces

were also a site for anxiety about

Figure 4. Om Prakaś Śarma, Śamśāṇ meṃ Saṅgarṣ (Struggle in the Burning Ghat). Meraṭh: Janapriyā pākeṭ buks, ca. 1984.

crime; and, as early as 1923, the leading Hindi/Urdu literary author Premchand had written a story Pratiśodh (Revenge),16 which

included a random attack on an Indian woman in a railway compartment

at night by English ruffians. The railways went on to become the site of

communal violence during partition–itself a subject for popular fiction as in the English language novel Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh.17

Indeed, one could regard the railways as both a context for anxiety about

public space safety and a site for individual readership of a wide range of

print media forms to while away the time on the long journeys between

India’s rural and urban centres. In the twentieth century, detective fiction

and true crime fiction, along with romances and supernatural horror

stories, were an important part of this pulp fiction readership in India.

Detective Fiction from Meerut
The volume Śamśāṇ meṃ Saṅgarṣ (Struggle in the Burning Ghat) by Om Prakash Sharma shown in figure 4 dates from the mid‒1980s. It focuses on how elite teams of secret police were being sent to towns where it was anticipated crimes would happen in order to prevent them from

Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction


ever taking place. In this case, the story is of a small town in which belief in the supernatural and superstition is rife. Here, the practice of sati, the forced self–immolation by widows, is given particular attention. The detectives in this story arrive in the town and are able to show that several of the supposedly superstitious practices of the locals are baseless. This helps them prevent the crime of encouraging a woman to commit sati. It is interesting to consider how to understand the popularity of such stories. The debunking of the supernatural through logical deduction appears to have fitted with how readers were negotiating their partly westernized and partly traditional identities. This story, in particular, reflects an anxiety about how to understand life in smaller Indian towns seen from the perspective of the growing Indian metropolis. The novel was written by an author who lived in the city of Meerut, near Delhi, one of the new centres that became associated with Hindi detective fiction in the 1980s. He belonged to a new generation of novelists who wrote only in Hindi, unlike earlier authors such as Ibne Safi who had written in both Hindi and Urdu. Authors such as Om Prakash Sharma (1924‒1998) and Ved Prakash Sharma came to prominence during this era, and this led to the city of Meerut becoming famous as a centre for publishing houses specializing in various forms of pulp fiction, including detective fiction.18
In an article about the author, Yadavendra Sharma Candra described a meeting with Om Prakash Sharma in which he was surrounded by fan mail not only from Indian but also from Chinese readers. Om Prakash Sharma first worked at the DCM cloth mill in Delhi before quitting and moving to Meerut. Here, he became fairly well off through his writing. He typically wrote two or more novels every month, in one of a number of different series. Apart from detective fiction, he wrote historical novels. One of these historical novels, Dawn to Dusk, which concerned the life of the last Mughal Emperor Badshah Zafar, achieved a certain fame. Towards the end of his life, Sharma estimated that he had written over 450 novels.19
Ved Prakash Sharma (b. 1955) is another of the most prolific authors of Hindi detective fiction. The cover of the 1984 novel Saṛe tīn ghaṇṭe (Three and a Half Hours), which is shown in figure 5, proudly proclaims that it is “a novel by the best selling of all Hindi detective novel authors.”


Peter Friedlander

In a biography on his website, Sharma describes how he began to write detective stories at school and then became the ghost writer of twenty– three novels before Burning City, the first novel to be published under his own name, came out in 1973, when he was still only eighteen. By the age of 27, he had published one hundred novels, some independent, but mostly in the form of works in a number of series based on different leading characters. Since 1986, he has published his books through his own publishing house, Tulsi Books; and he has won a number of prizes. Some of his books have been turned into films and a TV serial has been made out of his Keshav Pandit series of novels.20 He has also been an active commentator on the Hindi detective fiction genre and has been interviewed by the press and TV on many occasions. One constant theme in these interviews is the fact that in the 1970s authors such as himself were exploited by the publishing houses, being paid as little as 100 RS or two dollars per story. Even for a novel the going rate was only a figure

Figure 5. Ved Prakaś Śarmā, Saṛe tīn ghaṇṭe (Three and a Half Hours). Dillī: Manoj Pokeṭ buks, 1984.

Figure 6. Ṭhākur, Pradīp, Nāgin hūṁ maīṁ (I Am a Serpent). Meruṭh: Rajat Prakaśan, ca. 1998.

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Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction