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Cheap thrills

May 19, 2013

Rumana Husain traces the rise and decline of pulp fiction in Pakistan.

Pause at any busy street corner in Karachi, be it Meena Bazaar in Federal ‘B’ Area or Regal Chowk in Saddar, and you will find vendors of pulp fiction: paperback books and magazines. These are spread out on the footpath, on wooden platforms or just vinyl sheets, usually near a bus stop or a road with a lot of pedestrian traffic. Sometimes there is a small kiosk nearby, with new and old titles on display. Many of the title covers depict a bejewelled and seductive female.

Pulp fiction has had a mass appeal throughout the world, ever since it came into being towards the end of the 19th century. The name ‘pulp’ (as opposed to ‘glossies’) was coined as these books and magazines were usually printed on wood-pulp paper, cheap enough for the common man to buy.

The super-hero version of pulp fiction has existed in Pakistan right from the country’s beginning, in the shape of comic books in English, pocket books of fiction, and so on, but the ‘Digests’ in Urdu spawned a new wave that gripped (mostly) female readers, and also millions of men.

According to Tayyab Aijaz Qureshi, managing editor, the Urdu Digest, this hugely popular magazine was first published in 1960 in Lahore. To my query regarding its readership, he replied, “20 years ago the readership was 250,000. Now, 30,000 copies are printed every month and reach approximately 150,000 people.” In 2012, Urdu Digest also launched its digital version and, according to Qureshi, about 15,000 persons read it on the internet in over 40 countries.

It is worth noting that this particular digest publishes socio-political writings as well, unlike a horde of other pulp fiction magazines in Urdu in which the stories generally pander to base human emotions, mostly portraying women as lovesick objects of desire with barely any intellect. In these other magazines, stories about black magic and the use of sorcery to contend with jinns allegedly plaguing cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and the Murree and Nathiagali hill stations are a hugely popular genre.

One of Pakistan’s most scandalous yet bestselling pulp fiction novels is Challawa, by Humayun Iqbal. Set in the Pakistan of the ’60s, this titillating novel, featuring a lesbian detective called Sabiha Bano, was serialised in an Urdu newspaper during the 1970s. Interestingly, two years ago, Faiza Khan, was denied reading an excerpt from it at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The coming of hundreds of satellite television channels in Pakistan has heralded a decline in diehard pulp fiction readership, since most popular fiction is now prepared for consumption in the shape of television dramas. Despite this, it is interesting as well as intriguing to note that several new publications have come out in recent years. These include Aanchal, Dosheeza, Sirguzisht, Hina, Shuaa, Khawateen, Jasoosi, Pakeeza, Ruhani, Suspense, etc. However, their content is similar to what was being offered before.

Some of these digests, such as Dosheeza, include short stories by renowned Urdu writers such as Krishan Chandr, Jilani Bano, Saadat Hasan Manto, Khadija Mastoor, Bano Qudsia and others. At the same time they include insipid fiction and interviews of small-time current writers that carry questions like “What is your favourite perfume / colour/ food dish/ time of the day?”, etc. The March issue of Dosheeza carries one such interview, asking the fiction writer if she prefers a male author/ poet to his writings!

Hoori Noorani, proprietor of the publishing house Maktaba-e-Daniyal, makes a valid point regarding the influence of parents and teachers: they can guide their children in the right direction even after they are raised on pulp fiction. “As a child I was a voracious reader and my parents ... did not put a ban on any kind of reading material (comic books, romance novels, detective stories, etc.). But they gently nudged me in the right direction by suggesting good authors, introducing the classics and taking me to libraries and book fairs. I used the same method with my daughter when she was growing up, with similar results.”

So ‘pulp fiction’, for all its cheap appeal, has a role to play in stimulating, and thus inculcating a reading habit, in young and old alike.