As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks. I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them. But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.
Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series. There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many. In total surely at least half a million books. Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.
There are reasons of course. They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items. Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home. The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable. And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.
But this week I finally found one. It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating. Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain. But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen. A small piece of history has been preserved.
Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique
And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition. So the search is not impossible after all. There are westerns out there waiting to be found. I’d love to hear of others.
I wrote last year about the Collins White Circle editions and other Collins paperbacks published in India around the end of the war, and mentioned the similar issues for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). So here finally is more about those editions.
There are certainly far fewer of them than the Indian editions, probably only around twenty books. Like the Indian editions, they’re very difficult to find, but I wouldn’t say necessarily more difficult, so maybe the print runs weren’t a lot smaller. Some day it would be great to get to Sri Lanka and search for them there. But for the moment I have to make do with what can be found in Britain.
Several of them include lists of the books published in Ceylon, including varying numbers of titles, with the longest list I’ve seen covering 18 novels. I do have two books though that aren’t on that list, so it’s certainly incomplete.
At first glance most of the books are indistinguishable from the Indian editions and it’s only from the internal information about printing and price that they can be distinguished. Some of the same cover styles were used, but just with less variety. There was though the same split between higher-priced Collins paperbacks and cheaper White Circle Editions. The White Circle books sold for one rupee, while other Collins paperbacks were 2 Rupees or 2 Rupees and 50 cents. The lists of titles though mix both types together, so they clearly weren’t seen as completely separate series.
Two of the higher priced Ceylon paperbacks
All the books that I’ve seen were printed by the Times of Ceylon Co. in Colombo under the name of David Vast, and published around 1945 or 1946. It seems likely that they were aimed mostly at British forces stationed in Ceylon or other British expatriates living there, but there would have been some market as well amongst the local population. Most of the books carry adverts, either on the back cover or the dustwrapper flaps, often for Lifebuoy soap, and these look as if they’re aimed at the expatriate population. I’m sure that local people were concerned about personal freshness too, but perhaps without the insecurities of the British about B.O.!
More evidence for the books being aimed at expatriates or forces personnel comes from the fact that copies do still turn up occasionally in Britain, presumably brought over when the purchasers came home. As with the Indian editions though, I’ve never been able to find a copy of any of the Westerns in the series. Were they seen as too trashy to be worth bringing back?