Rakesh Khanna explores the web of Indian-language crime fiction publishing, in which colonial legacies and twisted plots in realms of sorcery and subterfuge are not limited to the page.
Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and quite a few other Indian languages have long traditions of crime fiction, yet very little of it has ever been translated or read outside of South Asia. This is partly economics – translation is expensive business, but there’s also a lingering colonial snobbery favouring English, and a different kind of snobbery within regional language literary circles that considers crime fiction déclassé.
And then there’s the shadowy world of pulp publishing: a world where the true identities of the creators are often concealed or faked, and one that frequently operates on the outer fringes of the law. In this world, there are no book fairs or launches, no fancy cheese and wine events celebrating authors. The books are commissioned in dingy head offices nestled in crumbling buildings in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk and sold on paan-stained sidewalks, crowded bus stops, and six thousand small-town railway platforms stretching from the deserts of Rajasthan to the jungles of West Bengal.
It’s the sprawling world of Indian-language publishing today, but its roots are older, embedded in 19th century North India, where popular fiction was dominated by epic fantasies known as dastangoi. In both Hindi and Urdu, these lush, expansive romantic adventures often had plots centred on a tilism, a sort of enchanted puzzle created by a sorcerer. A tilism might be an object, a palace, or an entire realm infused with astrological power. Like today’s detective novels, it is the task of the hero of the book to solve, or conquer, the tilism.
The hero of a tilism story is often accompanied by a trickster sidekick known as an ayyar. Part ninja, part illusionist, part spy, and part master-of-disguise, ayyars are typically more mischievous, typically more compelling than the nominal leading characters. They elaborately fake their own deaths, only to re-appear later. Another trick is to drug an enemy ayyar, stash her unconscious body and then impersonate her by means of a magical disguise in order to infiltrate the enemy camp. As this game of false identities escalates and the ayyars go deeper and deeper undercover in the mysterious landscape of the tilism, the reader becomes less and less sure who is who, who is still alive, and who can be trusted.
Around the turn of the century, the tilism novel was rivalled by the crime novel, which arrived from Britain in the form of the penny dreadful and quickly spawned local knock-off industries in a dozen or more Indian languages. These versions are line-for-line translations of the originals, but have undergone what modern business-speak terms ‘content localisation’. Richard is renamed as Rahul; a bowler hat becomes a turban; fish and chips are transformed into a masala dosa; a creepy Italian vivisectionist becomes a creepy Punjabi vivisectionist. Pseudonyms of the translators – or rather transplanters – grace the covers. The original author is uncredited.
It’s difficult to muster much opprobrium towards the early 20th century Indian plagiarists. The whole concept of copyright was a bit foreign to begin with. No one could have felt very guilty about cheating the rights-holders in the United Kingdom while that country was busy pillaging India’s resources and massacring its peace activists. Plagiarism was a trifling offence, a misdemeanour in the face of the crimes of colonialism. These were pulp novels, after all. The cover prices were low. The profit margins were slim. Who would ever discover they were rip-offs? Even if they did, who would care?
Of course, not all Indian-language crime writing was plagiarised or even derivative. There were plenty of original voices. One of the standouts was the Urdu writer Ibne Safi. His 246 novels, all set in the same unnamed, fictional, South Asian metropolis, are an innovative fusion of the sprawling dastan epics with western detective fiction, and his characters – both his detective heroes and his long list of supervillains, colourful enough to rival those of the Batman universe – are modern-day ayyars of a sort. They wear suits, drive cars, and flirt with foreign ladies at swanky nightspots; and yet they are also masters of disguise, and they have the classical ayyari penchant for using knockout drugs.
Safi’s novels were translated into Hindi (in which his Muslim hero Colonel Faridi was given a Hindu name, Colonel Vinod) and kept readers across north India enthralled for decades. Meanwhile, Tamil-language pulp writers in the south had tired of the transplant fiction trick and began developing a unique style of breakneck-paced thrillers, often incorporating mythological themes, and almost always featuring a male-female detective duo. To the east, in the state of West Bengal, where genre boundaries were more fluid than elsewhere, there was some crossover between crime writing, children’s literature, and respectable literary fiction, notably in Satyajit Ray’s much-loved Feluda series.
But in other parts of South Asia, the rip-offs continued, and on an ever-grander scale. In 1963 in Dhaka, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), a writer named Qazi Anwar Hussain set up a Bengali-language publishing house called Sheba Prokashoni. Hussain began churning out a series of spy novels starring the character Masud Rana, Agent MR-9 of Bangladesh Counter-Intelligence (a fictitious agency). The first few Masud Rana titles drew some inspiration from Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, but were nevertheless original works. They were devoured by a generation of young readers hungry for international intrigue and steamy sex scenes. Later, as Hussain’s company grew into Bangladesh’s largest paperback publisher, he stopped writing Masud Rana himself and began employing a small army of ghostwriters.
Today there are well over 300 Masud Rana novels, many of them prefaced with the disclaimer: ‘This novel follows a foreign plot.’ My Bengali-reading informants tell me that this is an understatement; most of the later books are straight transplants, in which Masud Rana is little more than a renamed Dirk Pitt or Jason Bourne. For years, Sheba Prokashoni also published close Bengali adaptations – uncredited – of Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series and Louis L’Amour westerns, so the company is presumably nervous about entering markets outside the country.
Considering Bollywood’s notoriety for lifting plots from Hollywood, perhaps it’s no surprise that the situation in Hindi pulp publishing is even murkier. In the 1980s, unauthorised Hindi transplants of a multi-volume American crime novel series by Donald E. Westlake – the Parker books – became some of the all-time bestselling titles in Indian history. Hundreds of thousands of copies flew off the shelves on railway platforms, probably more than Westlake ever managed to sell in English. British writer, Desmond Bagley, and many others were robbed in the same way. It’s an indication of the deep divisions in Indian society that Hindi publishers have continued to get away with this without the country’s large English publishing establishment (which includes multi-national companies such as Random House, which first published Westlake, and HarperCollins, which holds the rights to Bagley’s work) ever taking notice.
The Hindi pulp fiction industry was, until recently, headquartered in the 4000-year-old city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, which has a reputation as one of India’s more lawless states. Few authors and publishers ever set down terms in a legal contract. Publishing houses are perpetually opening, merging, splitting, and going out of business. A few star authors – for example, Ved Prakash Sharma, whose Wardi Wala Gunda is probably India’s all-time bestselling novel – own the rights to their work. But most crime novels are done as work-for-hire by ghostwriters. These literary ayyars may take on several different identities for several different houses. While building a brand, a publisher may also choose to use more than one ghostwriter for the same pseudonym.
Reema Bharati is one such name, an incredibly prolific author who seems to lead a curious multivalent existence. Once a brand has been established around the name Reema Bharati, an interesting situation arises: since no one has clear rights, the original publisher can’t complain too loudly if a competing publisher decides to publish a book written under the same pseudonym. And so Reema Bharati may be credited with the work of yet another set of ghostwriters unknown to her original creator, with a new colophon on the title page.
This makes standard forms of literary journalism impossible. How to even write about this world, its books? You can’t trace the evolution of Reema Bharati’s style. You can’t meaningfully compare her latest novel with her earlier work. You can’t hear her speak on a book tour. You can’t interview her. You can’t even be sure if the real author is still alive. The world of the journalist or critic becomes submerged in a tilism where it is impossible to know who is who, who is dead or living, and who can be trusted.
The mysteries proliferate, as do the crimes. While Reema Bharati’s back cover author photographs show a smiling, homely, middle-aged Hindu woman, other authors have written books in which Reema Bharati is a character – a ravishing, intrepid and slightly slutty superspy, who cruises around New Delhi in a sports car fitted with machine guns and an invisibility switch, entrapping corrupt politicians and invading the secret lairs of megalomaniacal scientists.
In Sweet Fire, A Reema Bharati Novel (translated here from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell), the heroine introduces herself as: ‘Miss Reema Bharati. [An agent] affiliated with India’s fiercest and most dangerous investigative institution, the Indian Secret Corps. My Chief, Mr. Khurana, is crafty like a wolf, but he is also fast and brave, like a cheetah.’
A seduction scene swiftly follows. Reema has rendered her victim, the 21-year-old Major Ashok, insane from desire. ‘A light but intoxicating smile’ plays on her lips: ‘Poor guy! I thought to myself. He had no idea what games were being played with him in the name of the law. Who knew what would happen to him once he discovered my true identity.’
Unlike the hapless Ashok, we can never unveil Reema. And she is not alone. For other characters, the transformation has happened in reverse; Keshav Pandit, for example, started out as the fictional hero of a novel by Ved Prakash Sharma, but has since become a wildly prolific author himself. Like Agent Smith in the Matrix movies, Reema and Keshav now exist both inside and outside of a multi-authored fictional universe.
There are excellent original Hindi crime novels being written today; it is, after all, a vibrant genre that’s been going strong for more than a century, in a language with a few hundred million speakers and ever-increasing literacy rates. But with the entire industry mired in a tilism of disputed rights and copyright infringement, few publishers are willing to risk translation and, even if they did, standard forms of mainstream literary marketing are seemingly impossible. How then to publicise these books? Until someone is able to solve this puzzle, some of India’s best crime writing will remain underground.
This article is also available in Chronic 1, published August 2013. To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop. Copies coming to your nearest dealer now-now. Access to the whole issue and Chronic online archives is available for $28 for one year or $7 for a month.