Reincarnation of a pulp fiction 208

‘Veshdhari Punjabi’, the first thriller/ mystery novel in Marathi literature written by a Goan author, Suryaji Sadashiv Mahatme, in 1886, has been reprinted and published by the Goa Marathi Academy, earlier this week. Vidya Prabhudesai, who edited the reprinted version, speaks to NT BUZZ about the book


Literature has played a key role in human life since words came into existence and more specifically, after the advent of the printing technology, including the movable type technology invented by the Chinese artisan and inventor Bi Sheng around 1040 AD, and then the actual printing press invented by the German inventor, printer and publisher, Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. 

The world of literature expanded as writers of varied class contributed to it. Thrillers, a genre of fiction in which tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes were pitted against villains working to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world, became very popular among the readers in the 20th century. This genre of literature was often associated with spy fiction, war fiction, and adventure and detective fiction. The magazines or novels dedicated to this genre were often termed as pulp fiction.

In India, like most other parts of the world, such literature was low priced, printed on cheap ‘pulp’ paper and published fantastic, escapist fiction for the general entertainment of mass readers. The hardboiled detective and science fiction genres were favourites of the readers. Such literary material – although it was viewed with contempt in the literary hierarchy – was often available on the book stalls at the railway platforms and bus stands, and bought by travellers, who wanted to spend most of the time during their journey by reading the same.

The country saw pulp authors like Colonel Ranjit, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma, Raj Bharti, and many more, churning out their works in dozens, in Hindi, one after another. Marathi literature too boasted of such writers, with Baburao Arnalkar leading the pack, and becoming a trendsetter by writing around 1,180 detective novels. He created many fictional characters and found popularity among two generations of readers from 1950s to 1980s. Arnalkar was followed by pulp creators such as Gurunath Naik, SM Kashikar, Sharad Dalvi, and many more. Although most of these writers were initially inspired by characters such as Perry Mason and Sherlock Holmes, they soon created their own niche.

Interestingly, it was a Goan writer – Suryaji Sadashiv Mahatme – who had migrated to Mumbai in 1950s for livelihood, who is credited for writing the first pulp novel in Marathi way back in 1886. His work titled ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’ (In the Disguise of a Punjabi) can be termed as a thriller/ mystery novel. The book had become almost extinct and its sole copy existed at the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, one of the top libraries in Mumbai, located at Naigaon, in the Dadar suburb.

“I found the surviving copy of ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’ with the Mumbai library in tatters, with its pages almost torn to shreds,” says Vidya Prabhudesai, who is instrumental in getting the book reprinted and published through the Goa Marathi Academy.

Prabhudesai, who during the 1990s was a PhD student and also teaching at the Ponda-based Ponda Education Society’s College of Education, visited Mumbai while on a study leave. She had initially selected ‘Goan Marathi novels… Beginning to 1990’ as the subject for her doctoral thesis, but soon found that this topic went far and wide. She then decided to restrict it to only those novels, which had Goan-ness in them, that is, having Goan content in them.

“When going through the list of such novels, I found that ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’ was the first thriller/ mystery novel in Marathi literature written by a Goan, Suryaji Sadashiv Mahatme, but unavailable anywhere in Goa,” states Prabhudesai, pointing out that she not only discovered the book at the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, but also found various other such rare books written by Goans.

Mahatme, whose roots can be found in Colavale village, was born in 1837, and migrated to Mumbai in 1857. He started writing in Marathi magazines like ‘Vividhdnyanvistar’ and ‘Marathi Dnyanprasarak’, and launched a magazine called ‘Anandlahari’ in 1870. He wrote a Marathi book on string instruments/ learning sitar in 1872. Finally, he came out with ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’ in 1886, which was published by Balaji and Company, a publication firm started by him in memory of his departed son.

Interestingly, around 700 readers from Mumbai and Goa had gone for advance booking for ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’, even before the book hit the stalls. After the publication of the book, a number of magazines praised it through its reviews. When Mahatme died in Mumbai, on December 13, 1899, the Times of India wrote an obituary on him, which included the passage: “He was the first to give a new distinct direction to realistic novel writing in the manner of the English authors, and presented a highly appreciated specimen of it to the Marathi reading public in ‘Veshdhari Punjabi’.”

When Prabhudesai decided to borrow the only copy of the book from the Mumbai-based library, the librarian outright refused, but allowed her to have the book photocopied.

“I made the photocopies way back in 1998, but was able to initiate the process of republishing the book from these photocopies only in 2019, when Anil Samant and Paresh Prabhu of Goa Marathi Academy decided to publish the same,” she says, adding that the book is a matter of pride for all Goans as it is a reference work from which the popular genre of thriller novels evolved in Marathi literature and gave rise to countless books.

‘Veshdhari Punjabi’ narrates the tale of a gang headed by one Dhanaji Seth, who kidnaps helpless, young and beautiful girls, and is a mastermind behind human trafficking. A mysterious person disguised as a Sardar works towards exposing Dhanaji Seth and bursts his racket.

Prabhudesai says that the novel cleverly uses love stories, with the backdrop of human trafficking, as also has references to Goa with many characters hailing from the region. “In fact, the Marathi language used in the novel dates back to the 19th century, with all its peculiarities and we have deliberately retained the same as it is,” she says.

The novel is said to be full of visually rich narrations and describes the city of Mumbai in a very graphic manner, including its places and residences as existed during the second half of the 19th century.