New Delhi: Rajan Iqbal, a bookseller at the New Delhi Railway Station, vividly remembers "those days" when Hindi pulp fiction books were his stall's bestsellers. Today, he struggles to sell even a single copy in a day and blames the internet for "killing the reading habit and diminishing the business of pocket books".
"It was not even five years back when I used to have customers who bought over 50 books at one go. There was a lady from America who used to come to my stall and buy as many as 75 books in a single purchase," Iqbal told reporters , while pointing at the stack of unsold pulp fiction books lined up on his stall.
"But today, these books hardly have any buyers; and the only reason I think is the coming of the internet, new age smart phones and the laptop," he ruefully added.
Back in the 1980s, the popularity of the genre was at its peak, with authors like Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma, Anil Mohan and Gulshan Nanda being widely read. With the new means of entertainment entering the market, the genre gradually lost its sheen.
"There are no longer any potential writers or new readers because people are now more interested in television and using their mobile phones or the internet," writer Pathak, who has nearly 300 novels to his credit, told reporters on phone.
"This has diminished the business of pocket books. Now there are just a handful of publishers in Delhi and Meerut, compared to 50-60 in the early 80s," the 75-year-old author, known for his "Sunil Series" and "Vimal Series", added.
Hindi pulp fiction can be best described as unputdownable nerve-wracking murder mysteries which served as leisurely reads at extremely pocket-friendly prices. The books range from anything between Rs.30 to Rs.150.
"The reason they became so popular is because they are printed on recycled paper, and hence reasonably priced," Pulkit Jain, managing director, Dheeraj Pocket Books, told reporters on phone from Meerut.
However, even its cost could not save the genre's diminishing popularity. This, reiterates Jain, was due to the increased use of modern technology which has led to a steep fall in the reading habit, also reflected by the genre's sale figures.
Agreed Manoj Kumar, another bookseller at the Railway Station, who said that against the 20 books he used to sell daily nearly five years back, today he is hardly able to sell two.
"I agree that that I struggle to sell these books now, but you will always find them in stock here. The only difference is that now I get only 40 copies as opposed to the 100 I used to buy earlier," the 29-year-old Kumar told reporters.
The decline in readership also cost the publishers, who despite trying "hard" to regain the genre's lost popularity by improving the paper quality, cover designs and printing quality, "failed" in doing so.
"We tried every trick in the book to rekindle the romance with the genre, but the attempt was unsuccessful. You cannot do much when you do not have a dedicated readership. So, we are now trying to branch out to other general books to sustain our publication," Jain said, adding that earlier they used to print such books in lakhs which has now reduced to some thousands.
Writers too introduced recent incidents of robbery or murder into their plots to cater to the contemporary readers. But that too could not help regain the genre's once-enjoyed readership.
"These days if you flip through the newspapers, you will read stories of murder, rapes or robberies. So, I take cues from such incidents and build up an imaginary world to bring freshness into the plots," Pathak said.
Despite falling readership, publishing house Harper Collins "took a chance" with the pulp fiction genre to maintain a balance in their Hindi publishing division. So far, they have published two books - "Jo Lare Deen Ke Het" and "Colaba Conspiracy" - by Pathak, with a third book in the pipeline; and this decision has been "fruitful".
"The readership of the genre may have come down, but it still remains hugely popular. Fans buy ten books by Pathak at a time, while also pre-booking them," Minakshi Thakur, senior commissioning editor, Harper Collins, told reporters.
"Pathak is the undisputed king of Hindi crime writers in India," she said, adding that his first two books sold over 50,000 copies which is "equivalent to a best selling English writer".
And in keeping the market of this genre "alive" readers like Vikas Jha play an important role.
"There is no match for writers like Pathak and (Ved Prakash) Sharma. I still remember the day when I had picked up my first copy from this railway station six years back. And I have just picked up a new book to read while on my way home to Bihar," Jha told reporters.
"These books provide 'full-on entertainment' with their racy plots keeping me glued till the last page," Jha added.