Prominent Hindi novelist and scriptwriter, Ved Prakash Sharma, passed away on February 17. In terms of work produced, he is unmatched by any of his contemporary novelists. The number of novels he penned alone – 173 in all – is more than the works of several writers put together. Unfortunately, however, he could not find a place in the Hindi literary canon.
Sharma devoted his life to writing but never sought to please anyone, for he did not need a certificate. When the overlords of Hindi literature refused to give his work the due credit and tried to stifle his magical and imaginative creativity, he did not let his characters die but instead created his own niche and his own readership.
As news of his death spread, social media was replete with anecdotes about his novels like Honour Killing and Shakahari Khanjar. Writers, known or unknown, wrote memoirs remembering his novel and shared their personal stories about reading them. Some read them hiding in the corner of a room, others under a blanket. There were memories all over.
The fact that his death has evoked so many stories highlights how we have failed to truly understand the essence of popular literature. Does a writer’s popularity among the masses do nothing to prove his worth?
We lament the decline in Hindi readership while savouring pizzas and burgers. If we reject that class of literature which has reached fields and farms, trains and buses and kept hidden under tattered mattresses, how can we honestly claim to care about Hindi readership?
Today, best sellers are in vogue and we find it difficult to ignore hoards of writers who have leapt into the literary scene with their work. What we have done instead is label it as popular and cheap and have sidelined it. We still refuse to acknowledge those writers as part of mainstream literature. What is it if not our arrogance that even though this literature has touched our lives at some point, we still deny it its rightful place? The sham of our honour is unable to digest the popularity of a particular kind of literature which sells into millions.
All popular writers have been clubbed under one group and labelled followers of Mastram, the anonymous author of popular pulp fiction and sex stories in Hindi. It is amusing how one of those writers, Sharma, is being celebrated today after his death.
If you study the current trend in Hindi literature – and make Sharma as the standard of morality – the content in these novels is far liberal. So, if those popular novels required heaps of straw to hide, these present ones would need entire jungles.
As Hindi writers are revealing cherished stories about conceding to Sharma’s charm, it is clear that they also yearn for a wider audience. The Hindi littérateurs did not endorse him as a novelist but time has placed him on a high pedestal. For it is no child’s play to bring to life hundreds of characters and immortalise them. Sharma taught young writers like me how to write, and write only for the readers.
Our role model is this writer who sold millions of copies and set an example for those who deny that one can earn a living from literature. What we write will be decided by the times in which we write, but how we write so people will read us is what Sharma has told us.
We hope that the precedent set by Sharma’s popularity will be a new phase in Hindi literature where writers are allowed to write freely and are no longer pushed to the margins.
I swear I am grateful to you, Ved sahab, for that novel I read early on – Vardi Wala Gunda. No one but you could warn us about the criminals in uniform at a time when khaki and khadi were all but the same to us.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.
This article originally appeared in The Wire Hindi.