A vendor operating at the Bhopal Railway Station was directed to take down a book by prolific writer and historian, the late Khushwant Singh. The Chairman of the Railway Board’s Passenger Service Committee (PSC), Ramesh Chandra Ratn was on an inspection drive when he spotted ‘Women, Sex, Love and Lust’ and ordered its removal. He remained adamant despite being informed of Singh’s impeccable credentials as an author of renown. Referring to the title as “obscene” Ratn said, “We don’t want to spoil future generations. Chetan Bhagat, too, is a writer of national fame.” (PTI).
If Ratn rejected Half Girlfriend as a matter of literary discernment, there was (beyond) reasonable justification but Bhagat’s book appears to have met the same fate as Khushwant Singh’s purely because this, too, was “offending to our sisters and daughters”. For someone who is in-charge of passenger services at the Railways, one would imagine there’s plenty of work to finish before judging travellers’ morals and roundly condemning their taste. Like providing clean restrooms, tackling petty crimes or carving out a comfortable space for commuters to sit while at the station. I can only ever remember standing endlessly while waiting for a train.
One wonders also what books, if any, Ratn reads for entertainment. Probably, there’d be lessons in self-improvement hidden in tales of stolid, morally upright heroes forever undeterred by deadly tedium. However, most of us lesser mortals, especially those embarking on a long train journey, will happily sacrifice personal growth for shockingly escapist stories, as long as they keep us entertained and make time fly.
Like Bollywood potboilers of old that combine a dance and a fight sequence within the same frame, pulp fiction, at its best, offers a witty combination of lurid crime and passionate romance. Chances are that Singh’s Woman, Sex, Love and Lust would sell much more from the railway station than from Khan Market because provocatively-titled books have been the reliable companions of Indian travellers, since the ’70s. It’s remarkable that the steamy paperbacks available at AH Wheeler, the Indian Railways’ historic bookshop, have escaped this chairman’s attention all these years.
Beneath the newspapers, magazines and Dan Browns, there are plenty of suggestive regional titles competing for attention. Printed on grainy cheap paper, they invariably feature a pouting, semi-clad woman on the cover. Typically, the sensual narrative runs colourfully amok really quickly, and rightly so; nobody is buying Vardi Mein Gunda expecting Booker Prize-winning profundity.
Alas, Ratn’s opinions on these racy and titillating paperbacks are as outdated as these books themselves. They capture a particular moment in time in India, pre-liberalisation and pre-internet, before satellite TV invaded our lives or expanded our worldview, however one chooses to see it. In the absence of better forms of entertainment, these richly imagined, far-fetched plots felt fully plausible on a languid summer afternoon. And though far from high brow, it was time better spent than on a phone, scrolling down Instagram, or consuming news in shorts. My abiding memories of rail journeys feature, most prominently, author James Hadley Chase, and it makes me achingly nostalgic for that far more innocent time when the evilest of plots involved a foxy young wife plotting to kill her rich grumpy husband — while double-crossing her lover.
Now when porn is available at the click of a button and we’re inundated with anonymous SMSes promising massages, why would anyone even bother about removing a book — about which the worst that can be said is that the erotic shenanigans of its characters is not depraved enough (for our times). There’s no need to feel guilty about enjoying stories that whatever the narrative, always have an optimistic ending. Briefly at least, they transport us away from the dreary realities of our own lives.