Ever since Hindi emerged as a national project during the freedom struggle — a language shaped by the nation’s historical legacy — most of its recognised writings have been marked by a distinct aspiration to be contemplative. It has had a tradition of popular fiction — romances, detective and mystery works — but as with any other language, it found little regard from high priests of literature, or academics and publishers.
The last few years have seen a reversal. In 2015, the Delhi University introduced a paper on lokpriya sahitya in the first semester, not just for the Hindi students but other streams also. The paper includes works by, besides popular novelists Gulshan Nanda and Surender Mohan Pathak, Gulzar and Devaki Nandan Khatri (the author of Chandrakanta, 1888), among the earliest prose works in Hindi.The inclusion of Gulzar and Khatri in the paper on popular fiction underlines the character of the Hindi literary world. Despite a Sahitya Akademi award, an Oscar and a Dadasaheb Phalke award, Gulzar is still taken to be a mere film lyricist. Khatri — to read whose works many learnt Hindi in the 19th century — never made it even to the middle ranks.
Last year also saw some prominent publishers lap up popular writings. Harper Collins released a box set of five novels of Pathak — a writer of detective works. Having seen his novels being printed on smudgy paper by small-time publishers, Pathak suddenly finds himself the author of glossy publications. Rajkamal Prakashan’s Laprek or Laghu Prem Katha series is an instance of popular writing gaining readership. The title of these pocketsize paperbacks — Facebook Fiction — itself indicates the space writers and publishers are coming from. You could finish an entire Laprek book in less time than a metro ride takes from Noida City Center to Rajiv Chowk. The text betrays no inner conflict of the writer, or a desire to confront, challenge and unsettle readers.
Some writers have also consciously adopted the ‘popular’ genre. Prabhat Ranjan, 46, a story writer and an assistant professor at Delhi University, had two story collections before he decided to shift goalposts. Published by Vani Prakashan last June, his Kothagoi — a personalised account of tawaifs or courtesans in Bihar — has been a commercial success. Ranjan has already participated in a series of literary festivals, with sessions dedicated to his book. Another example of a popular success is Mamma Ki Diary. Published by Hind Yugma last year, Anu Singh Chaudhary’s work is a fragmented and fumbling narrative about the parenting experiences of a working woman and might not have found readers a few years ago. Now, the book’s a hit, and the author was hosted at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Several factors contribute to the trend. First, the young generation in Hindi literature is barely able to transcend its predecessors. Fiction, for instance, has hardly moved beyond the plane that stalwarts like Krishna Baldev Vaid, Nirmal Verma and Vinod Kumar Shukla took it to. Lacking the discipline and critical introspection a classical form requires, several writers — aided by the market — have chosen the easy and popular route. The digital revolution and social media is another influence. As an increasing number of writers take to blogging and Facebook, the flurry of instant applause has shrunk the space for considered literary expression.
Ranjan believes this trend is a necessary correction for Hindi literature — as well as an inevitable consequence of postmodernism. “Chandrakanta was a classic of popular fiction, it popularised Hindi and took it to the masses. However, the language was later appropriated by a particular class. It is time to free the language from rigid yardsticks,” says Ranjan, who sort of spearheads the popular fiction campaign on social media.
Vani Prakashan’s director Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal attributes it to “the neo-interventionist studies in popular culture that looked at the new Indian middle class and their social ecosystem rather closely”. She notes that it revisited the complicated relationship between the “serious” and the “popular”, the “academic” and the “aam reader” and adds that “that is where the visibility of the general reader outside the university systems and schools gained momentum and so did her or his reading preferences and literary consumption patterns”. She also says that “no civilisation ever quenched its literary thirst only through instructive, righteous and determinant literary writing. We always had what we call ‘under-the-belt’ literature — just that the position of the belt changed with time.”
The defenders of the classical order question the attempts to pass off the pulp as popular. Archana Verma, former associate professor of Hindi at Miranda House, notes that “pulp fiction has existed for long, but the attempt to lend it greater prestige is new. It was never packaged as serious literature.” Says Veteran critic Madan Soni, “A happy illusion is being created by the market and literary festivals that since such (popular) works find more readers, the readership of Hindi literature is widening. It will not enrich the literary discourse.”
He counters the notion of ‘bestsellers’ and notes that “if readibility is to be made a yardstick, then classics could be termed redundant”. While Verma asserts that these works “might sell more, but won’t take away readers of serious literature”, she also cautions that “if the market becomes the sole criteria, then serious works might find it difficult to get publishers”. Soni also cautions that the present trend might “create a smokescreen before readers, who would lose the ability to distinguish between works written for entertainment and those that confront major issues.”
It’s clear that the emperors of the Hindi world won’t relax the tough parameters for the new order— which veteran poet Ashok Vajpeyi bluntly terms as “the reign of mediocrity”. As a judge of the prestigious Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Samman for young poets, Vajpeyi announced that he did not find any meritorious contender last year. It led to several young writers initiating a debate about the notion of merit, but the veterans refused to lower the bar. Consequently, despite all the visibility they get at litfests, popular writers — in their candid moments — do betray their anxieties. “It is wrong to say that I — or writers like me — have more acceptance or readers now. I still have the same reader base. Others do not even consider me a writer,” says Surender Mohan Pathak.
Nevertheless, popular writers do not seem to realise that this is an opportunity to offer a critique of the existing order, to challenge the idea of the canon — and not just through tirades on Facebook. One can hear loud calls of the popular against the classical, whereas it is the profoundness of a work which determines the stature of the artist.
The classical and the popular are not watertight compartments. There is a lot more porosity and exchange between both than are usually perceived. Instead of being antagonists, they might as well have borrowed a lot from each other. At any given point of time, both these forms would have their practitioners, aspirants and admirers. Unless the popular confronts that which questions its existence, its assertion would always be incomplete and inchoate.
At present, however, many popular writers hardly seem concerned about the eternity. “We are no longer in an age of greatness or grand values. Entertainment is itself a value,” says Ranjan, who, having penned a biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez years ago, is now writing Pathak’s biography. From One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love In The Time of Cholera to Gunah Ki Zanjeer and Call Girl Ki Hatya, some journey this.