Dubey Is No Tolstoy & That’s That: The Contemporary Popular In Hindi

On June 8, 2014 by admin

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Aakriti Mandhwani

 

The English publishing market today is beside itself with questions of viability, visibility and visualization of the popular book. The contemporary Indian book market in English is clearly witnessing a boom, with a proliferation of genres providing a spectrum of delightful possibilities to an increasingly aspirational reading market that continues to latch on to the fetish of the book and yet is unwilling to pay more than 100 rupees for one. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that there is a book for everyone in Indian popular writing in English today.

However, what is its equivalent in Hindi? Is there an equivalent at all? After all, what does it mean to publish the Hindi popular today?

I suggest that the current Hindi popular publishing market is indeed marking exciting changes in the way we view language, genres, urbanity, and belonging itself. In this short essay [1] I shall focus on two lines of inquiry. First, I shall examine some changes in the distribution, circulation and writing processes in the contemporary Hindi pulp fiction market, particularly through the Delhi-based publishing house Raja Pocket Books. I shall then focus on a new crop of popular writing being circulated by an upcoming Delhi-based publishing house, Hind Yugm. I am aiming to bring together two stances in popular publishing that might seem to be at variance with each other, to be catering to two different reading markets, and suggest that both of them are, in fact, aiming at a similar kind of consumer today.

***

My work on the story of Hindi publishing began three years ago, as I researched Hindi pulp fiction in contemporary North India, especially the trajectory of Raja Pocket Books and its investment, since 2009, in uncharacteristically good production – in the form of glossy covers, superior quality paper and “collector’s editions” – for current best-selling author Surender Mohan Pathak’s novels [2], an unprecedented occurrence in Hindi pulp’s history. This attention to quality came at a price: a Pathak novel now costs twice what it used to at one point. In the past, pulp has always existed as a recyclable form, circulating only at the moment of its publication. However, with Pathak’s newer novels, I found that the Hindi pulp fiction novel had embarked on the road to becoming a collectible [3].

In order to further understand this shift in status and sensibility, I also undertook an extensive literary study of Pathak’s novels from 1970s onwards, focusing on the author’s engagement with the Hindi language in the decades preceding India’s liberalization in 1991 and the differences thereafter. By mapping the figure of Vimal, the much loved hero-protagonist of Pathak’s 42-book-long “Vimal series”, I also engaged myself in a longer study of “heroism” itself, arguing that contemporary pulp fiction articulates a conservative yet markedly aspirational cultural and political aesthetic, both in its production and its emphasis on a refined, class-conscious and chaste use of language. I tried to argue, in short, that “pulp” is no longer “pulp” the way it has been traditionally understood, and the pulp hero, too, attains a new, benevolent-moral articulation.

I soon realized that the question of production was intricately connected to understanding patterns of consumption itself and hence reception was an area that demanded greater attention.The major question that arose from such a reading was regarding Pathak’s “new reader”, one who was willing to purchase a “non-pulp” pulp novel for a different kind of “pleasure” – now, however, for twice its earlier price. This, in turn, led to speculation about a new readership. A study of reader responses [4] to Pathak, along with the meticulously framed prefaces to his novels followed.

This combination of Raja Pocket Books’ new productions of Pathak: by increasing the price of the novels, along with Pathak’s own transitions in the craft of writing and a substantial readership coming forward to read his new novels, therefore, raises its own set of questions. The new reader, it seems, cherishes Pathak’s new respectability. The very fact that the latest Surender Mohan Pathak novel has been published by Harper Collins Hindi stands as testimony to this change.

Linking this transition to what one may call a post-neoliberal ethos in India – the current, supposedly benevolent-moral, “political” yet aspirational ethos – with a reading of Hind Yugm, a newer question arises: does the articulation of the new Hindi readership stop here? Or as expected, such a readership will continue to evolve in interesting directions?

***

If Hindi pulp fiction has gained an audience in a more acceptable popular middle-class ethos, it oddly finds contention from the new writers in – for the lack of a better word – “Hinglish” writing.

In Divya Prakash Dubey’s short story Keep Quiet from his 2014 collection Masala Chai published by Hind Yugm, a young girl in the 7th grade called Dhun wants to know what love is. She asks her best friend, Surabhi, who also happens to be class monitor. Surabhi, smart in many ways – her understanding of “good” and “bad” comes from a personal understanding of who has been “good” or “bad” to her, which in turn determines which names go up on the blackboard for disciplining and which don’t – goes and asks her mother this same question, because, “क्लास में किसी को भी प्यार का कोई first-hand experience नहीं था” (87) [5], (No one had any first-hand experience of love in the class). Surabhi’s mother, burdened with all the anxieties of raising a girl in a middle-class joint family, slaps her, interrogates her about seeing a boy, and ultimately tells her to stay away from Dhun.

Dhun ultimately ends up asking the same question of her own mother, who is amused and tells her that love is what her father and she share for her. Dhun’s next question, to which her mother replies in the affirmative is “बहुत प्यार होने से बच्चे आते हैं क्या मम्मी?” (Does a lot of love bring forth children, mummy? ) (90). This family, the author informs us, is the new nuclear family:  Dhun comes home to an empty house after school and watches television since she has working parents.

Dhun still doesn’t understand, however, why “किसी फिल्म में हीरोइन को कहते सुना था कि प्यार में बहुत दर्द होता है” (90) (She had heard a heroine say in a film that there is a lot of pain in love). She addresses this question about love and pain to Saurabh, her new friend at a later point. Saurabh in turn asks an older cousin who shows him a porn film:

सौरभ को बड़ा ही अजीब लगा लेकिन अच्छा भी लगा.उस रात उसको मिस्टर इंडिया वाला नहीं, प्यार वाला सपना आया | ऐसा सपना जो कभी पहले नहीं आया था | उस दिन सौरभ को सपना आगे बढ़ाने की कोशिश नहीं करनी पड़ी और धुन ने उसको किस्स से ज़्यादा कुच्छ किया” (94).

(Saurabh felt very weird but also very pleasant. That night he did not dream of Mr. India; it was a dream about love rather. A dream that he had never dreamt before. That day Saurabh didn’t have to try to prolong his dream and Dhun did more than just kiss him.)

The story ends with Saurabh educating Dhun on love and pain by playing the porn CD in her empty home and insisting on acting out the sequences from the film. “हर बीतते मिनट के साथ पहली बार उसको महसूस हुआ कि प्यार में दर्द होता है” (95), (With each passing minute she understood for the first time that there was pain in love). Dhun bleeds profusely and does not go to school for a few days.  Eventually, she resumes school.  The clever Surabhi – who does not know what has passed between the two – writes down Dhun and Saurabh’s names on the blackboard for not “keeping quiet”.

While the first story is set in a nameless school in a nameless colony that could stand for any urban middle-class space in India, the last story in the same collection is set in an English language teaching center in Lucknow. Dubey’s story Ruby Spoken English Class critically comments on how, with the advent of the economic policies of the 1990s, the culture of belonging to the middle-classes changed overnight. Dubey’s story reveals that the emerging social respectability associated with the English language estranged non-English speakers to such an extent that it had now become a question not of “knowing” English but of “having” it (Sadana).  It was about acquisition of social rather than cultural capital.  The narrator of the story lays emphasis on the irony of the situation: the need to learn one language and unlearn the other. He also reminds the reader of another viewpoint, one that his favorite language teacher, and he himself, holds:

बजाज मॉम पढ़ाते हुए अक्सर इस बात पर बार-बार जोर देती की अंग्रेजी केवल personality का एक हिस्सा है | अंग्रेजी बोल लेने का बिलकुल भी मतलब नहीं की आपकी personality बड़ी अच्छी हो गयी | (174).

(While teaching, Bajaj ma’am would often stress the fact that English was only a part of one’s personality. Being able to speak English did not necessarily mean that one’s personality had improved.)

Before speculating on what this phenomenon is symptomatic of, it becomes important to objectively unveil the phenomenon itself. Clearly – not particular to this story but in all of Dubey’s writing – there is a method. This is the first serious instance that I see in contemporary times of a self-confessed popular writer in Hindi [6] actually engaging with language at an organic level. This a new kind of organicity I am talking about. A large number of English words are used throughout the text, written in the Devanagari script. Additionally, and very interestingly, a large number of English words are used throughout the text, written in the Roman script. This intermixing according to some, miscegenation according to others, is what is commonly termed “Hinglish”. Prasoon Joshi, in a conference on Hinglish, defines it in two ways. The first is something that he feels is not Hinglish at all: the mixing of Hindi and English by a well-heeled class of people who feel that they are confident in the latter, using a smattering of the former in order to appear, for the lack of a better word, “cooler”. The other variety, though, he argues, is the real Hinglish: the intermixing of two languages in an organic, more everyday manner, by a class of people who feel that they are more confident in the former, i.e., Hindi, but do not know enough about the academic arguments of “purity” to realize that they are using a number of English words in their speech.

Clearly, the writer seems to be addressing a comfortably bilingual audience – or one that is getting there – that wants to read stories in Hindi, along with the publisher capitalizing on this by encouraging this mix – Dubey’s first book was titled Terms & Conditions Apply, while another book written by Ashish Chaudhary and published this year is called कुल्फी & Cappuccino.

Even as the publisher’s impulse clearly seems to be born out of the new market that has unwittingly been created by translations of early best-selling writers such as Chetan Bhagat in English, this cannot simplistically be written off as symptomatic of the aspirational urge of the Hindi reading public, which is what seems to be articulating itself increasingly through Hindi pulp writing. This focus on comfort with bilingualism along with a simultaneous attempt at reclamation of language – among other things – needs to be read as Hindi popular’s attempt at a complication of the everyday.

The first story, for instance, apart from articulating a little girl’s eagerness to understand love and pain that leads to her first sexual experience, and intermixing it with the codifications of the new family formations, also speaks of an urbanity that is at comfort anywhere, could belong anywhere. The second story, on the other hand, recreates an aesthetics of loss that decidedly comes into being as a result of this urbanity, of this yearning for urbanity, which could prove elusive.

***

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Questions of Hindi popular publishing today ought to be contextualized against the landscape of popular publishing in English. While addressing the exact nature of popular writing in English is beyond the scopic economy of this essay, one can perhaps attempt a general contextualization on language and content with a comment by Chetan Bhagat, a figure who arguably opened up the gateways to Indian popular publishing in English. In an interview, Bhagat says of the criticism he receives of his writing:

“Does it say on the cover: ‘this is a great book’? Do I say that on my website? Saying Chetan is no Tolstoy is like saying Infosys is no Google, so Infosys is a crap company. Why are they [the media] so high-handed? Newspapers that are sold for two rupees, magazines that are sold at railway stations, read by ordinary people… (Griffin).”

In many ways, this unapologetic and oft repeated logic of the market finds replication in the articulation of the Hindi popular. For instance, Nikhil Sachan, the best-selling author of Namak Swaadanusar, another collection of stories published by Hind Yugm, marks his nervousness about his book’s reception:

नर्वस इसलिए कह लीजिये क्यूंकि आज की तारीख में “लिटरेचर” और “एंटरटेनमेंट” के बीच का फर्क बस धागे भर का रह गया है. अब अगर ये कहूँ कि मैं लोगों की प्रतिक्रिया से परे हूँ तो मेरी बात में एक चुटकी झूठ झांकता मिलेगा (7).

( I’m nervous because today the difference between “literature” and “entertainment” is almost non-existent. I’d be lying if I say that I’m indifferent to the readers’ responses and reactions.)

However, again, this new, relaxed crop of Hindi writing seems to be uninterested in settling the arguments of aspiration quite as easily as they come to be resolved in English popular fiction. For instance, while Bhagat’s story of romance is born in an IIT  ( his first novel Five Point Someone describes life in India’s most elite engineering institution, and has inspired countless novels about young and aspirational love) Dubey’s story of romance takes place in what he calls “फलाना College of Engineering”, describing the average life of an average student in an average engineering college [7].

The question that I am speculating upon is essentially age old: how is literature molded as an aesthetic category in a rapidly – and historically – shifting time? This rather belated response on behalf of a small section of the Hindi popular today can be read far too easily, and be dangerously appropriated by the age old rhetoric of language politics.

Certainly, the question of language and purity of Hindi – and the need to know English – has been around for a long time now. Francesca Orsini speaks of a 19th century divide between Hindi and Urdu and contends that even as the reformist field viewed these languages as largely competitive, “it was symbiotic in the field of commercial publishing and theatre” (4). As time goes on, the anxieties of the newly independent nation do not play out between Hindi and Urdu, but between Hindi and English. Similarly, while much  critical work, most notably by Alok Rai, Vasudha Dalmia, Rashmi Sadana etc. has mapped the enactment of distinctions between Hindi and English in the public sphere, as well as Hindi’s response to these distinctions in the form of an emerging literary culture that critically sought to instate Hindi as a literary language, I suggest elsewhere [8] that after Independence, these distinctions were perhaps not so rigid and were based more on the consumption and distribution patterns of literature.

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The contemporary contest, though, is not so much a contest of literariness but rather a question of being able to authentically complicate the everyday. Since, in these new popular Hindi writings, the dichotomies of the English urban self over the Hindi heartland self no longer hold so easily, does this act of “complication” then automatically become a question of analysis of the aesthetics of language and the history of Hindi as a literature? Indeed, in analysis, by calling one more “liberal” than the other, one might fall into the trap of simplistically articulating the so called “victory” of the “quieter yet more questioning Hindi self” over the “overwhelming populist English self”.

Rather, I suggest that the response needs to be read in a more nuanced fashion. While I will not comment on the ethico-moral bent of “knowing” or “having” languages, I do want to point out the many ironies of the publishing process today, and suggest that Hindi popular publishing offers an unexpectedly rich entry-point for understanding the often misunderstood reading constituencies that have either not been studied, or have been simplistically pitted against each other (English urban / Hindi heartland) or collapsed all too easily under one rubric (middle-class aspirational youth).

With the unapologetic fusion of the urban and the supposedly sub-urban, with English words sometimes being written out in Devanagari, while some being rendered as-is in the Roman script, the in-between-ness of the Hindi-bhashi landscape unfolds its self. The Hindi publishing landscape strikes me as inviting because of this reason. If people are learning to read English through Chetan Bhagat’s novels, Hindi publishing is not only responding to these changes through mere translations – of which there is a thriving market today – or re-inventing genres – as seems to be the case with Hindi pulp writing – to fit this aspirational need. After years of silence, Hindi publishing is doing much more to set things abuzz.

Again, if Pathak and Raja Pocket Books are dealing with Indian urban modernity by rescinding their earlier roles in the market economy, with “pulp” being pushed into the mainstay [9], it seems that categories such as “pleasure” and “excess” are intermingling with questions of “language” and “literariness” in the publications of Hind Yugm [10]. In other words, the comfortably bilingual presents one with another tantalizing perspective to an audience that is, again, comfortably bilingual or getting there. But it also breathlessly awaits Pathak. In yet more words, the articulation of the new Hindi readership does not stop merely at what I have earlier referred to as a post-neoliberal ethos in India. In this new incarnation of the Hindi popular, modernity reveals itself to us in a critical, political, unfinished formation. It is because the very idea of aspiration is not settled in contemporary India, its contours shifting–especially with respect to the literary or artistic representations. What does the future hold for the Hindi popular? For the moment, one can merely point to this fragment, and wonder.

***

Aakriti Mandhwani will be reading for a PhD in South Asian Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her areas of interest include book history, popular literature, cultural anthropology, and urban studies.

 

Select Bibliography

 

Dubey, Divya Prakash. Masala Chai. Delhi: Hind Yugm, 2014. Print.

Griffin, Peter. “Chetan Bhagat: From Writing Ledgers to Books”.Forbes India. 15 Jun 2010. Web. 30 May 2014. <http://ibnlive.in.com/news/chetan-bhagat-from-writing-ledgers-to-books/107668-40.html>

Kothari, Rita, and Rupert Snell, eds. Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish. Delhi: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Orsini, Francesca. Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2009. Print.

Rai, Alok. Hindi Nationalism. Delhi: Orient Longman, 2000. Print.

Sachan, Nikhil. NamakSwaadanusaar. Delhi: Hind Yugm, 2013. Print.

Sadana, Rashmi. English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2012. Print.

Susan, Nisha. “Do You Know this Man?”Tehelka Magazine. 20 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=hub200210do_you.asp>

 

 End Notes

 [1] I thank Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty, my mentor, for asking me to put this together. Dr. Nandini Chandra, for all her thoughts on the popular. Prof. Francesca Orsini and Ravi Kant, for the Sarai-SOAS Fellowship on “Hinglish” that prompted this in the first place.Rahul Soni, for his patience with edits and re-edits, and most importantly, the conversations.

[2] “Bestselling” in Hindi pulp writing has historically undergone many changes and needs to be contextualized. Surender Mohan Pathak has written around 280 books to date, selling around 2.5 crore copies in total (Susan). The average Surender Mohan Pathak novel, at the peak of his career, had a first print-run of 1 lakh copies, running into multiple issues. However, the average first print-run of a Gulshan Nanda pulp novel at its peak in the 1970s was 10 lakh copies (Purohit). In many ways, Pathak has been a late bloomer because it was Ved Prakash Sharma who followed Nanda’s superstardom. However, Pathak is the current king of pulp, selling 30-40,000 copies per book. HarperCollins Hindi, the latest publisher of Pathak, enthusiastically even claims on its Facebook page that Colaba Conspiracy sold over 10,000 copies on its release date.

[3] “Pulp” as a category by itself too needs to be contextualized, given its shifting position in North Indian publishing history. For the purposes of this paper, I understand “pulp” as a category of literature printed on newspaper print / pulp paper, traditionally made available at railway stations and otherwise through informal neighborhood lending libraries or disorganized systems of distribution, which has been fashioned as low-brow literature after the 1970s. Also, I at no point suggest that “pulp” is interchangeable with “popular” and treat these categories very differently in this essay. To my mind, Prabhat Ranjan’s essay “Lugdi Sahitya ke Andhere-Ujaale” is a great comprehensive history of “pulp” in Hindi (Diwan-e-Sarai: Media Vimarsh / Hindi Janpad. Ed. Ravikant and Sanjay Sharma. Delhi: Sarai Media Lab-Sarai, 2002. 82-91. Print.)

[4] This included a meticulous reading of fan mail, along with reader responses outside of them. Most importantly, this also included a study of, and interaction with, Pathak’s fans online. Pathak not only has a dedicated fan base online (that finds representation in the form of two very active Facebook groups) and a website run by them, but what is interesting is that this dedicated fan base also has sought to bring out Pathak’s novels in forms of purchasable e-books.

[5] I’m deliberately rendering the original in the Devanagari so that the switches in languages and scripts can be easily seen.

[6] The idea of the “popular” in Hindi needs to be given more thought. Hind Yugm contends that Divya Prakash Dubey and Nikhil Sachan’s writings are “best-selling” and “popular”. While one might take issue with the numbers sold – anywhere between 2000 and 4000 copies per book have been sold thus far – I am not interested in counting numbers so much as taken in by Hind Yugm’s deliberate deployment of the popular “form” and iconography.

[7] While it may as well be argued that one cannot necessarily compare a 10 year old novel – Five Point Someone was written in 2004 with a newer, fresher articulation – I am using this benchmark novel to talk of a general impulse in contemporary English popular writing.

[8] In an upcoming essay titled “From the Colloquial to the ‘Literary’: Hindi Pulp’s Journey from the Streets to the Bookshelves”, in a forthcoming anthology on Contemporary Hindi Fiction edited by Francesca Orsini and Ulrike Stark, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[9] A visit to the Raja Pocket Books stall at the Delhi Book Fair 2011 revealed that, even as collector’s editions of Pathak’s books were laid out to view, the publishing house’s book-and-rate list startlingly revealed no section on Hindi pulp / detective novels. Much has changed since then, as the publisher now even sells Pathak’s books online.

[10] Another interesting example of this experiment is a title from Hind Yugm tantalizingly called Soho: जिस्म से रूह का सफर  with a semi-naked woman on its cover, which, upon inspection, turns out to be a critical non-fiction account of the strip bars of Soho, London.

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One Response to “Dubey Is No Tolstoy & That’s That: The Contemporary Popular In Hindi”

  • Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a forty foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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