Through his easy-to-read pocket novels, publisher G. Asokan has been making the common man read for almost 30 years. Akila Kannadasan flips through the pages with nostalgia

A man in his mid-thirties walked into G. Asokan’s office one day. He sported oversized glasses that kept falling off his face and carried a briefcase. “I’m Rajesh Kumar from Coimbatore,” he announced in a booming voice. It was a meeting that changed Asokan’s life. He was in his twenties and had just started his career as a publisher. “Writer Rajesh Kumar was the talk of the town then,” says Asokan. Youngsters devoured his crime novels. Asokan had written to him asking if he would be interested in writing for his publishing house. And there he was, standing in front of him! His novel Maalai Nera Maranam marked the birth of GeeYe Publications, one of the oldest publishing houses in Tamil that specialises in pocket novels, popularly known as pulp fiction.

Monthly novels were the rage in the mid-eighties, a period that Asokan calls “porkaalam” (the golden period). Television had not yet taken over people’s lives and books were a sought- after means of entertainment. Twenty-five-year-old Asokan couldn’t have asked for more. He brought out monthly pocket novels measuring 5.5” x 4” made of Indian newsprint priced at Rs.2 each. They sold like hotcakes.

Suba, Balakumaran, Sivasankari, Anuradha Ramanan…Asokan featured well-known writers in his novels. He came up with innovative means to attract his readers. Artist Arasu designed wrappers for him — sensational wrappers were one of the reasons why Rajesh Kumar’s novels were a hit, he points out.

Asokan’s pocket novels gradually became a part of life of everyday people. With their simple storyline and brevity, they were like quick-snacks. People read them on train journeys, at the bus stop, auto-drivers read them as they waited for customers... “The novels were just a time-pass,” he says. “They could be disposed once read or be preserved.”

Asokan learned the ropes of the publishing industry from his father L.G Raj. “Father published a children’s magazine called Muyal. He had an eye for design — he was very good in art and kept cuttings of wrappers of foreign magazines and those from Delhi and Bombay,” he says. As an office boy under him, young Asokan took in everything he saw and heard in his father’s office. He ensures that he edits out obscenities in his novels because of the lessons his father taught him.

As a pulp-fiction publisher, Asokan often faced criticism from forward-thinking Tamil writers. Intellectuals held meetings to campaign against the genre. “They felt that stories themed on kolai (murder) and kollai (looting) corrupted society,” says Asokan. But deep down, Asokan yearned to contribute substantially to Tamil literature. For, at the end of the day, he entered the pulp industry for survival. So he brought out Sundara Ramasamy’s Oru Puliya Marathin Kathai, and the works of Sandilyan, Ashokamitran, and La. Sa. Ra. to quench this thirst.

Asokan continues to publish pocket novels and Rajesh Kumar’s crime novels, despite selling only 40 per-cent of what he did in the eighties. His dream is to bring out a children’s magazine with “magical stories” and a magazine for women. He also wants to give new life to the neglected works of great Tamil writers.

There are some readers that Asokan will not forget for life — one such is a man who read his novels as he did time in prison. He even wrote to him after reading Rajesh Kumar’s novels. “He sent it through his mother when she went to visit him. She sneaked it out in a tiffin box.” The letter was from serial killer ‘Auto’ Shankar. Then there was an advocate who would rush to their office during his lunch break to read the next month’s issue. “He would sometimes plead ‘At least give me the manuscript!’” he laughs.

Does he regret entering the pulp fiction industry? Pat comes the reply: “No”. “Why should I? I have contributed to Tamil literature in my own way. Our novels have encouraged people to read more.”