Comic books, newspapers and magazines — for many people, boarding a train without picking up one of these is unthinkable. Hidden in neatly arranged rows of such literature, spread out in nondescript book kiosks, is another world — that of pulp fiction. The books, mostly published locally and written in regional languages, stand out due to their colourful covers, reminiscent of Bollywood film posters of the 1970s and 80s.
This genre — a large part of which is “detective fiction” — is now being preserved by the Centre for Academic Translation and Archiving (CATA) of the English department at Delhi University.
Associate Professor Gautam Chakravarty, who is overseeing the project titled ‘Street Lit’, said the process of collecting books began in 2017, and the centre has collected around 200 books as of now in several languages, including Hindi, Assamese, Malayalam, Odia and Manipuri.
“Indian street literature is a largely neglected area of study, as most academics and institutions are mainly engaged with canons. By collecting and documenting regional pulp literature, we aim to restore the cheaply printed, popular book as a significant cultural artefact, as a commodity, and also as a window into the pedestrian aspirations of a mass readership. Since libraries are generally disinclined to collect and preserve Indian regional street literature, we hope to preserve this corpus,” he told The Indian Express.
The collection includes detective novels, magazines on everyday crimes, mysteries, horror stories, and guide books on everything from traditional remedies, sex and astrology. The books have been sourced from bus stations, kiosks inside railway stations, second-hand book markets and wholesalers in cities such as Delhi, Meerut, Amritsar, Rewari, Kokrajhar, Guwahati, Kochi, Thrissur and Cuttack.
In Assamese, the centre has collected books of the Dasyu Bhaskar series, the fictional character created by Rongman (Robin Dey), which was popular in the state in the 1970s and 80s. “This popular series of novels centres around the protagonist of ‘Dasyu Bhaskar’, who fights against anti-social elements and criminals not only belonging from Assam but from around the world. In terms of the characters, the ‘Dasyu Bhaskar’ series has a more Phantom-like Western flavour and has political undercurrents of indigenous Assamese people against the non-Assamese,” said Chakravarty.
Similarly, in Malayalam, there are works of detective novelist Kottayam Pushpanath, whose two main lead characters are Marxin and Pushparaj, modelled around the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. In many of his stories, Marxin is usually the protagonist.
“In Odia, we have collected the ‘Dasyu Ranjan’ series of books written by Pramod Kishor Panda, which was popular from the 1960s and until the 80s. All the plots revolved around the main protagonists of Dasyu Ranjan, the dacoit who performed several daring heists, and Inspector Bijay Babu, the detective who always failed to catch him by a whisker,” said Chakravarty.
The Hindi titles include Maut ki Chhaya and Laal Nishaan by Surendra Mohan Pathak, Hong Kong Mein Dakaiti and License to Kill by Anil Mohan, Gaddar Deshbhakt and Honour Killing by Ved Prakash Sharma, among others.