The print run of their thrillers is often 50,000 copies-plus, but they don't figure on bestseller lists. They are the unacknowledged literary celebrities of small-town Hindistan. Meet the most prolific duo of Hindi potboilers who between them have written over 400 novels.

Imagine. Two-hundred-and-forty-five novels. This, dear reader, is more than the combined output of James Hadley Chase and Agatha Christie, but even those who swear by the yellowed detective fiction of second-hand bookshops might not have heard of their author — Surender Mohan Pathak. His Technicolor book jackets screaming Peela Gulab or Safed Khoon, or Neeli Tasveer would not be gracing the mahogany bookshelves of elite India. To get hold of them, you have to shovel past the porter shouting Shalimar Express teen bajke pachpan minat pe revana hogi, wait outside the tea-stained, grimy bookshop at a railway station, holler above the din of trains for Scandal Point and slip in Rs 30 — not too bad for 300-odd pages of coarse paper on which is crammed a tale of murder, moderate lust and a sleuth, a book that gets Pathak an advance of Rs 4 lakh. And with four novels a year, it is a cool
Rs 16 lakh for a 69-year-old author who is partially deaf and blind since birth.

Away from the over-hyped hypermart of Indian writing in English, yeh chalta hai, this noir world of Hindi pulp fiction, with its waking dead, mutilated bodies and roughly estimated turnover of Rs 15-20 crore a year. And there, Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma and "Keshav Pandit" form the trinity, the gods of small titles, the unacknowledged, best-selling writers of small-town Hindistan.

At Krishna Nagar in east Delhi, Pathak sits back in a leather chair in a study lined with English thrillers, by Jeffrey Archer, Christie, Jack Higgins, Ian Fleming. He has just finished his 246th potboiler, writing it with an old-fashioned Wing Sung fountain pen in illegible cursive writing that will require a magnifying glass to read. "I can't think of a sentence till I hold a pen in my hand," he gives a wide smile, resting his arm on sheets of hand-cut paper waiting for No. 247, "Computers are for filing income-tax returns." If his publisher Raja Pocket Books accepts his latest thriller before April, Pathak will just have to factor in a few more lakhs of rupees on that I-T form. A small discomfort. But Pathak, has figured out a more important formula: "Here is the secret behind writing a murder mystery: take six suspects, make them revolve around a case, then eliminate them one by one," he says, adjusting his cordless hearing aid. "The rest is the magic of permutation and combination."

It is a raw magic that sells over 50,000 copies in each print, and sometimes calls for three-four reprints. Two-thirds of each print run is sold in the Hindi-speaking belt of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgrah, and the rest in Punjab and Haryana. "We don't have any grand advertisements. Word of mouth works well for us. At best, an ad might surface in a cheap magazine that you leaf through while getting a haircut under a tree," laughs Pathak, who worked in the Hindi promotions projects of the Indian Telephone Industries till 1998.

Even if you have never picked up a Pathak paperback, you couldn't have missed the instances when his chapters of crime turned unsavourly real — strangely, these were among the few times his name appeared in national newspapers. The tandoor murder case figured in Mavaali, a Pathak novel, before Naina Sahni became its unwitting epilogue in 1995. Eleven years later, on a May day, a man claimed he was a suicide bomber and made off with Rs 40 lakh from a Delhi branch of UTI Bank — inspired, yet again, by Pathak, this time by one Zameer Ka Qaidi.

The forays of pulp-fiction writers into mainstream media, thankfully, are not always on crime pages. Ask Ekta Kapoor. When she plans the character assassination of a saas or a bahu in the innumerable serials of Balaji Telefilms, she would call up one more person apart from Tarot card reader Sunita Menon: the writer Ved Prakash Sharma, whom she would fly down from his palatial bungalow in Meerut to her studio in Mumbai. "Tulsi's second death and resurrection were my ideas," says Sharma, 52, lighting up a cheap cigar, "Until last year, Sharma would ideate on the sets of all our serials," confirms Nivedita Basu, creative head, Balaji Telefilms, "His inputs gave a small-town twang to our stories." He has also written the "dialogue, story and screenplay" of Akshay Kumar's Khiladi films, with Sabse Bada Khiladi winning him the Videocon Award for Best Story in 1996.

Sharma is the king of Hindi pulp fiction, having written 157 murder mysteries, including Vardi Wala Gunda that reportedly sold 8 lakh copies. Most of his novels have been brought out by his 21-year-old publishing house Tulsi Paper Books, one of the seven major publishers involved in the trade. While Tusli Paper Books sold 4 lakh copies last year, most of them Hindi potboilers apart from a plethora of pocket books, Delhi-based Raja Pocket Books sold 2.5 - 3 lakh copies. The economics work like this: if a book costs Rs 40, Rs 18 is the publisher's cut and Rs 17 goes for overhead expenses, while Rs 5 goes as royalty to the author. And the main bazaar is the dingy shops at railway stations.  

Buy any Sharma thriller — how about the risquι Kyunki Woh Beewiyan Badalte Thay or Aaj Qatl Ho Kay Rahega, or even Mera Beta Sabka Baap or Ek Thaparh Hindustani? — before boarding that 15.55 Shalimar Express from New Delhi railway station and you, in all probability, can finish it before you reach the author's hometown Meerut City an hour and a half later. As the train pulls out of the station and you open Kyunki Woh Beewiyan Badalte Thay — why buy anything else? — the preface reads, "Saavdhan! Is upanyas ka ant pehley parh ke khud kay dushman na banein…. Isey silsileywaar parhein, aapkey dimagh ki kasrat hogi (Beware! Don't flip to the end of the novel and be turn into your own enemy… Read it in the correct order and your intellect will get the workout it needs)."

Don't guffaw at the exaggeration; it is the very leitmotif of their works that often first featured on the pages of Manohar Kahaaniyaan before graduating to paperbacks. And their acerbic dark world is similar to that which subsequently subsumed the multiplex, albeit in a more cerebral avatar. And their expressions have fed into the popular vocabulary. Years before Ram Gopal Varma made Company or "D Company" became a byword for Dawood Ibrahim's network, Pathak had used the word "company" to refer to the underworld. "I coined phrases for the underworld in my novels. I called it company since I thought it worked like a well-oiled machinery, much like a corporate house," says Pathak.

Their readers, like the autorickshaw driver Chandra Prakash who buys second-hand Pathak or Sharma, are not quite interested in neologisms or phraseology. Theirs is the concern — and the rush — of Everyreader. "I can identify with every character in their novels ... sab apney dost-yaar lagte hain," says Prakash. Sharma readily agrees: "Our stories are understood by the lowest denominator," says Sharma. "If a Nobel Prize-winning author writes on poverty or labour rights, will the abject poor or the working class read it?"

Despite the braggadocio, not everybody — least of all the writers and publishers — is convinced that the Hindi potboilers are heading for a manohar ending. When contacted, Delhi-based Manoj Publications said declining sales had forced them to downsize operations. Pathak says, "Our product has a diminishing value. We had wonderful writers like Ved Prakash Kamboj. Now we need young writers and new ideas."

Such a new, popular writer is Keshav Pandit whose books are published by Sharma's Tulsi Paper Books. Sharma reveals the mystery: Keshav Pandit — which makes you conjure up the image of an erudite, middle-aged, Hindu author — doesn't exist. It is the collective nom de plume of many ghost writers of Tulsi Paper Books — an old trick in pulp fiction. "We have many ghost writers, most of them go by ridiculous names like Darling or Mister," guffaws Pathak. But the money the ghosts bring in is real.

The profits gleam in the form of a Hyundai Accent and a Santro in Sharma's driveway, but he is on to his next novel. As sunshine streams in through the rosewood windows, he sits upright on his gilt-edged bed, with an H-P laptop switched on.
Another manohar kahani is on its way. Imagine.

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