The Local and the Global in Indian Crime Novels

Hindi pulp fiction is often dismissed as backward and unmodern, while English-language works command the right to be defined as cosmopolitan

The Local and the Global in Indian Crime Novels
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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Hindi is dead.

So declared the “Hindi Crime King,” Surender Mohan Pathak, in his keynote speech at the 2017 Noir Literature Festival in Delhi, India. The festival took place in the English-language Oxford Bookstore in Delhi’s Connaught Place, a financial center and architectural icon of British India. A throng of his all-male fans — most of whom were wearing matching T-shirts with Pathak’s initials emblazoned in bright letters across their chests — was hanging on his every word, spilling out well beyond the rows of folding chairs in the

After announcing the death of Hindi in Hindi (“Hindi mar chuki hai”), Pathak aptly posed with hot-off-the-press copies of the English translation of his latest Hindi novel, “Framed” (originally “Hazaar Haath”), just the third English translation from his oeuvre of more than 300 Hindi-language detective novels since the 1960s. Only now, on the verge of 80, was one of Hindi’s most prolific and popular authors being discovered by a more elite, urban and, crucially, Anglophone audience.

Over the course of the three-day festival, it was clear that Hindi crime fiction, ironically, was being fetishized as a popular and “authentic” genre and, simultaneously, marginalized as vernacular and parochial. Pathak was the only Hindi-language (or non-English) writer who spoke at the festival. After his book launch and a flurry of book-signing and photo-taking, more than half in the room cleared out and no one on stage uttered a word of, or about, Hindi for the next two days.

Despite the fact that Pathak’s appearance attracted ardent fans who packed the bookshop, whenever I asked anyone else about him, I got some version of the same response: “They [i.e., vernacular language authors] write for ‘Bharat’ [the classical Sanskrit moniker for the subcontinent], but we write for ‘India.’” Such is the ease with which non-Anglophone culture is so often dismissed as somehow backward and nonmodern, while English alone commands the exclusive right to define the modern nation, to carry Indians — but only those who speak and read in English — boldly into the future.

However, just as the throngs of Pathak’s Hindi fans making their way to the Oxford Bookstore to hear their favorite author suggests, a closer look at the multilingual world of popular detective fiction in India reveals a more complex reality. Hindi and Urdu crime novels and other forms of popular fiction radically outpace English-language fiction sales in India. While reliable sales numbers are admittedly difficult to determine, Pathak and the other two top authors of Hindi pulp fiction, Anil Mohan and the late Ved Prakash Sharma, have for decades published between two and 10 books every year, with each book selling 50,000 to 200,000 copies. The contemporary global reach of social media is providing a space for a lively transnational network of Hindi detective novel fans online. And a rich new multimedia landscape of Indian crime stories increasingly blurs distinctions between English and non-English modes of storytelling.

Modern detective novels first made their way to India by way of British colonial rule, at a time when the modern European city was rarely depicted outside the shadow of its opposite: the “uncivilized” and exoticized Asian and African colonies. Colonial-era British detective novels displayed this through plotlines that followed brilliant British detectives (like Sherlock Holmes) as they used scientific reasoning to crack cases where the culprits were, more often than not, foreign villains threatening English wealth or English women’s bodies. As Wilkie Collins’ narrator complains in the 1868 novel “The Moonstone” (often heralded as the first modern English detective novel), “Here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Holmes mystery, “The Sign of the Four,” published in 1890, revolves around a group of convicts once held in a colonial prison in India’s Andaman Islands.

Nevertheless, when these novels made their way to India, first translated into Bengali and then other Indian languages, they were almost immediately a commercial success. Particularly in Bengal, the colonial education system had, over generations, cultivated a class of English readers and an atmosphere of Anglophilia. Soon, Bengali writers were creating their own detective characters. Perhaps most notably, in the early 1930s, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay began publishing stories featuring the iconic character Byomkesh Bakshi, a bourgeois Bengali intellectual who trades the pursuit of justice for the pursuit of truth.

Calling himself “satyanweshi” (truth-seeker) as opposed to “detective,” over the course of more than 30 novellas and several decades that spanned the end of the British Empire and the first years of an independent India, Bakshi solved cases in a way that mirrored the scientific rationality of Holmes but with a distinctly Bengali aesthetic in language, dress and cultural sensibility. Bakshi became a household name, at once an Anglophilic and decolonizing literary figure who helped readers navigate their world in the wake of British colonialism. In more recent years — through his various adaptations and translations into a hit Hindi television series, big-budget Bollywood films and a set of English-language translations — Bakshi has emerged as one of India’s main contributions to the global landscape of crime fiction.

The decades after Indian and Pakistani independence ushered in another iconic South Asian detective: the aristocratic Captain Fareedi. Introduced by Ibne Safi (Asrar Ahmad) in his 1952 “Jasoosi Duniya” (“Detective World”) series, the adventures of Captain Fareedi (and his sidekick Inspector Hamid) were published in Allahabad and Karachi — in both Hindi and Urdu — and similarly blurred the borders so recently and violently established during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Safi’s plots were set in an unnamed city on the sea that could have easily been Bombay or Karachi, signaling a nostalgic return to an undivided India and subverting the nationalist and militaristic rhetoric of that time. Along with imaginatively undoing geopolitical crises that plagued the region, Safi’s Captain Fareedi and other heroes presented a model of social morality (they never touched alcohol or chased after women except in the service of solving a case) that made them into literary icons, celebrated across generations and social classes.

At the same time, during the 1950s and 1960s, Hindi translations of popular British crime novelists like Ian Fleming and James Hadley Chase fed a growing hunger for illicit tales of adventure, crime and romance. Eventually, Hindi translators of this imported crime fiction, like Pathak, were commissioned to create original plots with Indian characters, set in familiar, Indian locations. The novels were so popular during the 1970s and 1980s that there were dozens of publishing companies devoted to commercial — and importantly, Hindi-language — pulp fiction because it radically outpaced all other forms of literary publishing and led to the rise of literary stars.

Many consider this period to be the “Golden Age” of Hindi- and Urdu-language detective novels, made all the more relevant by heightened awareness about how crime — as well as the suppression of crime — shapes the urban experience. Politically, it was bookended by the 21-month-long state of national emergency instituted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and Black Friday in 1993, when over 300 people were killed in multiple bomb blasts in Mumbai coordinated by the city’s organized crime syndicate. Similar to the way that the detective genre exploded in popularity amid a state of urban anxiety that pervaded Britain, violence, and the threat of violence — whether state-sponsored or communal — led to a hunger for crime fiction in India as it navigated the decades that came after independence and the subsequent changing landscape of rapid urbanization.

Soon, pulpy paperbacks with covers festooned with scantily clad women and steely eyed men brandishing guns provided vicarious thrills for upwardly mobile youth moving from villages to towns and cities. Often, they attracted male readers who had long hours to kill on buses and trains as they traveled between their jobs in the city and their families back home in the village. These novels thus came to inhabit not just a linguistically vernacular space but a physical one as well. To this day, you cannot find them among the well-heeled bookshops of the big cities; instead, you must head to the A.H. Wheeler book stalls and carts on the platforms of railway stations or the sidewalk sellers near bus depots.

Despite the rampant popularity of these novels, English-language newspapers such as the Times of India sneered at the genre, suggesting that it was relegated to the lower classes, even inspiring criminal activity.

“The authorities of the central jail in Bangalore have turned down a demand by prisoners that they should be allowed to read detective novels on the grounds that these would only foster criminal tendencies,” trumpeted one article from April 22, 1972.

“Auto rickshaw drivers in the suburbs are mostly a young but lonely lot. To while away the time before they get a passenger, they often carry a pocket transistor or a dog-eared Hindi detective novel,” read another, dated Dec. 5, 1983.

An article from May 29, 2006, informed readers of a 32-year-old civil servant who disguised himself as a “human bomb” and robbed a bank before fleeing to Bangkok. The paper noted that he “told the police that the idea had come from Pathak’s novel ‘Zameer Ka Qaidi’ (‘Prisoner of Conscience’).”

What do these snapshots tell us about the readership, real or imagined, of vernacular detective fiction? These illustrations of Hindi detective novels in the hands of lonely auto rickshaw drivers or serial criminals suggest how many characterize detective writing as a genre: For the less-educated, lower classes, they are fundamentally “vernacular” in its most derogatory sense. Sharma, the author of “Vardi Wala Gunda” (“A Goon in Uniform,” 1992), widely known as the highest-selling Hindi novel ever, himself complained of the condescending label of “pulp” given to his novels in an interview with the English-language newspaper The Hindu in 2015, and in turn critiqued what he saw as the hypocrisy of the elite literary establishment.

“I have written over 175 Hindi novels, which have been read by several millions,” he said, adding that his novel “Vardi Wala Gunda” sold 1.5 million copies on the day it was published.

“Quite frankly, now I don’t have records of my readership, but unfortunately, whatever I write has been called by the highbrow literary bodies ‘pulp’ fiction or ‘lugdi sahitya,’ but that doesn’t affect me,” he said, explaining: “I have the satisfaction that millions of people read me and what I write entertains the masses.” He goes on to compare this with what he perceives the highbrow institutions value. “The writing that the Hindi literary world considers ‘literature’ has no reader. Just over a thousand copies are printed, and the books exist only in a library. I think there is no point in writing a book which gets the status of being ‘literature’ but doesn’t get read.”

To this day, Hindi-language detective novels are produced in massive print runs, sold in train stations and sidewalk stalls of large cities and small towns alike, attracting commuters seeking what in India is known as “timepass.” The actual readership of these novels is certainly even higher than print runs and book sales might suggest, if we also account for more informal networks of book circulation — private exchange, secondhand book markets, book rentals, and now also both legitimate and pirated e-book downloads. The pulp market alone has generated “millions of new readers of fiction” in the past 50 years, wrote the author and journalist Mrinal Pande in the Indian business daily The Mint.

Scrolling through Netflix and Amazon Prime, or the bestseller aisles at bookstores around the world, it appears that the global audience so ardently sought by the festival organizers in Delhi has become manifest. In a recent New York Times review of Deepti Kapoor’s epic new novel, “Age of Vice,” Dwight Garner somewhat sardonically declared: “Better her on the best-seller list than most of what’s there. All hail the new Puzo! When the FX series commences, I’ll bring the popcorn.” Streaming platforms abound with original Indian crime content, most notably with the 2018 adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s massive 2006 novel, “Sacred Games,” followed by limited series like “Paatal Lok” (2020) and “She” (2020). The series “Delhi Crime” (2019), whose first season was inspired by the devastating rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012, premiered at Sundance and was the first Indian series to win an International Emmy Award in 2020.

English-language bookshops are also brimming with novels packaging India’s history and often cultural stereotypes for a transnational audience. The Indo-Canadian author Sujata Massey, famous for her Rei Shimura novels set in Japan, has recently turned her focus to her character Perveen Mistry, a late colonial-era Parsi attorney. The British author Vaseem Khan has created Inspector Chopra, who has a baby elephant as a sidekick and whose mysteries involve cliched Indian subjects like missing Bollywood stars and the Kohinoor diamond. The global popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” has spawned several Indian copycats, most notably, perhaps, Harini Nagendra’s series, “The Bangalore Detectives Club.” Its publisher, Simon & Schuster, unironically touts it as “a joyful crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband Ramu.” Why it’s notable that a professional Indian woman might wear a sari is unclear. Further, one wonders what ethnic garb Ramu must then be sporting?

So, on that day in 2017 when Pathak uttered the death knell of Hindi, he might not have been reacting to the end of the genre so much as mourning the way that vernacular novels and their authors are marginalized by their glossier, highbrow Anglophone counterparts. But a closer look at the global Anglophone register of the novels of an author like Chandra gives a more nuanced perspective on the multilingual, multimedia landscape of popular Indian crime literature.

If you decide to buy a copy of Chandra’s Bombay-based, cop-gangster-detective thriller “Sacred Games” on Amazon, you might notice that it is described as an English-language novel, and you would certainly find it nestled among other contemporary English novels in bookshops in India or elsewhere. Indeed, it has also won awards given only to “English” fiction, such as the Hutch Crossword Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. But not everyone agrees it is an English novel. In a cringeworthy review in The New York Times, Patricia Leigh Brown writes, “Like spices in an Indian auntie’s grinder, the book mixes English with Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and mobster vernacular. (When a nervous gangster says, ‘I felt my golis sweat,’ you know what he means.)”

According to Mukund Belliappa in The Antioch Review, “Sacred Games” is a novel “partly in English, partly in a meticulous transliteration of the patois of Bombay’s rich street life.” Belliappa continues: “This new entanglement, and borrowing, from Bollywood, especially in ‘Sacred Games,’ has entailed the conspicuous usage of ‘Mumbaiya’ or ‘Bambaiya,’ the Bollywood-championed mish-mash that Anita Desai characterizes as ‘babble’ or Bombay-speak: that uncouth ‘chutney’ made of English, Hindi, Urdu, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati and various dialects thereof. … Hindi-speaking readers of ‘Sacred Games’ will recognize both the author’s virtuosity (certainly rare among writers in English) and the authenticity the patois brings to the portrayal of Bombay street life.”

Thus it actually seems somewhat disingenuous to call “Sacred Games” an English novel, even if it is a mostly English novel. “Sacred Games” stands instead — along with the Ibis Trilogy of Amitav Ghosh and several of Salman Rushdie’s novels — in some middle place between “literary” English narrative and “vernacular” popular text, with a distinct emphasis on orality. Indeed, that is part of its appeal both within and outside of India. Embedded in an otherwise English novel, the vernacular “patois” of Bambaiya Hindi is transformed from a low-class, uneducated, marginalized dialect into a mark of authorial virtuosity, imbued with the very power to transform English itself.

When “Sacred Games” was published, Pankaj Mishra explained in The New Yorker: “Chandra delights in the profanity of Bombay street talk, which he renders in a hard, garish vocabulary, often composed of as many untranslated Hindi words as English ones. Non-Indian readers of ‘Sacred Games’ may be frustrated by what can seem a research-heavy attempt at authenticity.”

The question of authenticity is a vexed one for Anglophone and non-Anglophone Indian authors alike. In a famous essay in the Boston Review, Chandra excavated an exchange he had with the Indian litterateur Meenakshi Mukherjee at a British Council reading of “Love and Longing in Bombay,” his story collection that preceded “Sacred Games.” (It includes a story — “Kama” — featuring Sartaj Singh, who would later star in “Sacred Games.”) Mukherjee asked him why he chose to title the stories in the collection with the Sanskrit terms for duty, desire, wealth, and so on. Later, in a lecture delivered in Bern, Switzerland, on Indian English fiction, Mukherjee articulated her critique: “[‘Love and Longing in Bombay’] has as titles of chapters the Sanskrit words, ‘dharma,’ ‘kama,’ ‘artha,’ et cetera. … Such language (and choice of words) would embarrass any regional writer writing in an Indian language. … These writers have to accentuate these realities, to exoticize the Indian landscape to signal their Indianness to the West, in the context of the Western market.”

Chandra took great offense at this. According to him, such a cult of authenticity restricts membership of the club of “Indian literature” to “regional language writers” because, he wrote, they presumably live in regions, which is to say in properly dusty parts of India, not in faraway air-conditioned regions of “vilayat,” or “abroad.” They write in regional languages, which is to say any language other than English; presumably not for a Western or international audience. He added that regional writing is always connected to the soil, to “real India.” And when it’s opposed to “Indo-Anglian writing,” it implies that writing in English is not regional, that it’s pan-Indian or, worse, cosmopolitan, belonging to nowhere and everywhere.

Thus, Chandra echoed the concerns of literary scholars like Emily Apter and Aamir Mufti who have decried the ways that the postcolonial Anglophone novel, in this case the kind of Indian novels that regularly grace the Man Booker and other international prize lists, have obscured the rich diversity of literatures written in dozens of regional languages. Chandra is not irritated that he is being barred from the Anglophone center of the world republic of letters, to borrow a phrase from the literary critic Pascale Casanova, but rather that he is denied full participation in its vernacular periphery.

It is in the context of this paradox, then, that we can perhaps locate some of the anger that prompted Pathak to proclaim Hindi’s demise in the opening session of a well-funded festival — carried out in English about Anglophone literature — alongside writers and critics claiming that Hindi-speaking “Bharat” and English-speaking “India” weren’t even the same place, or, by extension, to be accorded the same kind of aspiration and attention.

These are the assumptions about the limits of the vernacular and the possibilities of the cosmopolitan, playing out in the relegation of Bharat to provincialism and thus Hindi to extinction in the fixed economy of world literature. And yet, in the newest avatar of the epic saga of Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde, the protagonists of Chandra’s novel, it is the vernacular — rather than the cosmopolitan, or perhaps the vernacular-as-cosmopolitan — that travels farthest of all.

In 2018, an eight-episode television version of “Sacred Games” became the first original Indian Netflix production to transmit to the world through its global streaming distribution network. Precisely to communicate a sense of authenticity to a global audience, the language of the serial became even more “vernacular” than the novel itself. According to Hindustan Times, co-director Vikramaditya Motwane was delighted that Netflix had done their research and seen his work. “The best thing for me was that they wanted to do this in Hindi and not in English. Because speaking in English can seem so fake at times. An Indian Maharashtrian cop speaking in English doesn’t make sense. That was the clincher,” said Motwane, referring to the character of police officer Sartaj Singh, played by the popular actor Saif Ali Khan.

This characterization of the vernacular as both locally authentic and globally consumable belies the traditional Anglocentrism of world literature. If we look at “Sacred Games,” the narrative first takes shape as a short story (“Kama,” 1997), then a novel (“Sacred Games,” 2006) and then a television series (“Sacred Games,” 2018 and 2019). Over a 20-year period, we see that the more vernacular it becomes — in language and in form — the more it succeeds globally.

This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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