Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 07, Dated February 20, 2010
|CULTURE & SOCIETY
Do You Know
270 NOVELS. 2.5 CRORE COPIES SOLD.
NOW ENGLISH READERS CAN FINALLY
MEET Surinder Mohan Pathak, INDIA’S PULP FICTION KING,
SAYS NISHA SUSAN
|Playing to type Surinder Mohan Pathak
in his study at his
Photo: ANSHIKA VARMA
PROBABLY NOT. Not unless you saw his face in the
papers recently when Daylight Robbery — one
of his 270 Hindi novels and the second translated
into English — was launched. That’s 270
books, a career of 50 years and 2.5 crore copies
sold. Even today, when he and other Hindi
pulp writers are convinced their readership is being eaten into
by television crime news, this man’s print run is rarely less than
50,000. His nearest competitor’s is around 10,000 — still double
that of the average volume of Indian English literary fiction.
But you’ve never heard of Surinder Mohan Pathak.
Recently, Bollywood star Gul Panag arrived in East Delhi’s
Krishna Nagar in search of Pathak’s home. Agog neighbours
couldn’t fathom why she’d come down the cramped lanes for
the 70-year-old Punjabi next door who plays with his grandkids
in the afternoons and waits up worrying when his corporate
executive son and daughter-in-law are late coming home.
Unlike the wild profligacies of a Dashiell Hammett — the
popular conception of a noir writer — Pathak has always lived
the life of the responsible householder, married to a college lecturer
and bringing up children for the white-collar life. He was
born deaf in one ear, blind in one eye and a constant worrier,
he says. He’s worn a hearing aid for a good part of his life.
At home, he’s full of the small graces of a traditional upbringing,
urging thick, ghee-soaked parathas and sweets on visitors,
apologising for any imagined lack in hospitality. The dark
interiors are as far from noir associations as possible — this is
an old-style, thickly-curtained house leading out into the crisp
air of a wintry aangan. Without having been inside Pathak’s
study, the neighbours would never believe he’s a celebrity —
merely below their radar. Leaning on his hundreds of crime fiction
volumes (from Elmore Leonard to Sara Paretksy) are
framed posters of a younger Pathak. He’s handsome with more
than a passing resemblance to Sanjeev Kumar, a strong jawline
and the sharp threads of a dude. Publishers didn’t wince when
they printed 1 lakh copies of a Pathak poster to be given free
with an edition of his novels.
There is a circularity in Pathak’s resurgence in the public eye
because of a translation — he began as a translator of James
Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming novels, until trying a hand at his
own. His first was a ‘Vimal’ novel — his most popular protagonist
— and the bestseller game was on. Vimal started the trend
of what Bollywood calls the negative hero in Hindi pulp fiction.
Readers will tell you that Pathak is the best in the pulp
business, and they’ve adapted Dorothy Parker’s maxim: If a
book can be put down, they might fling it with great force.
Like his beloved James Hadley Chase, Pathak’s first lines are
miracles of economy. Daylight Robbery begins: “Vimal had a
growing suspicion that he was being watched”. Pathak’s
tightly plotted novels, “are highly logical, not just dishoomdishoom,”
says Alok Puranik, writer and Delhi University
professor. Daylight Robbery’s commendable translator, Sudarshan
Purohit, gets a particular pleasure in Pathak: “Vimal is a man on the run. If he ends up staying at Agra’s Clarks
Shiraz you can bet there’s such a hotel. When he’s in Amritsar
he’ll meet the Punjabi underworld. Other novelists don’t
bother locating the stories so carefully.”
|‘In Punjab, reading is a cardinal sin.
If my grandfather caught me reading
he’d thrash me,’ says Pathak
PATHAK SAYS his Vimal plots, with their tough milieu,
appear out of nowhere and he waits patiently for them,
but his other books are easy to write. When he finally
sits down, it takes him just a month to finish a novel — he
writes an astonishing four per year. Pathak has a strict work
ethic, driven by a desire to deliver the great read he owes his
readers. But the low status of pocket-novels, his semi-literate
publishers and fanbase, the Hindi literary world’s contempt for
success and the ease with which his books come to him has left
him a little confused about his place in the world.
Truth is, none of his successes come from cynical tricks.
Take his prolific output. Pathak’s stripped-down prose, foreshortened
characters and nonstop action may look like it
writes itself, but for months he records snatches of dialogue,
plot ideas and newspaper clippings. In reverse, his plots have
been copied by real-life criminals. His language is excellent, a
combination of everyday Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English.
More than one television journalist has been told to read him
to get her Hindi register ‘just right’.
Pathak’s is a rare personality cult in the pocket-book world
— even that is a carefully tended one. Each book has a
thoughtful introduction discussing trends in the pulp and literary
worlds. In Teesri Vaar (2009) his preface compares mystery
writer Ian Rankin’s enormous advance for a new novel with
Vikram Seth’s much smaller one for A Suitable Girl. Here,
Pathak accepts praise and criticism and admits to logistical
errors careful readers have spotted in previous books.
Pathak used to occasionally mix with his famous peers
like Om Prakash Sharma but makes a fastidious face when
asked about them. Notice his reasons for not befriending
them: “None had an education or really cared for their
readers.” He paints a grimy picture of one writer’s house
filled with thousands of readers’ letters and a seemingly
equal number of offspring — one of the latter occasionally
employed to tear open and read one of the former. Pathak
writes faithfully to his fans. They are his barometre and
source of ideas (such as Vimal’s Punjabi couplet tendency.)
However, like Groucho Marx, Pathak isn’t sure he wants to
be part of a club that will accept him, and has mixed feelings
about his fans. His lifetime of government service at the Indian
Telephone Industries (ITI) was filled with encounters of readers who did not connect the books with the witty author. Pathak is
read (by his own assessment) ardently by those who read nothing
other than pulp fiction and sheepishly by serious readers.
He often quotes Samuel Johnson: “Only a blockhead will
write for anything other than the money.” But he’s aghast as
his readership now drifts away to a bookless world of televised ‘sansani’ crime. And not because he’s losing money. He
has a lifelong investment in reading. Ask him again why he
writes and he says, “I read so much, the overflow became
writing.” Pathak was born in a middle-class Lahore family
that moved to India after Partition. His businessman father
railed at him for reading anything other than the MSc textbooks.
Yet Pathak read everything he could find, but mostly
books that could be finished in the quick pitstops of childhood
— dawdling on the way home, outside school, hiding
in a cowshed. He used to love reading Ibn-e-Safi, the classic
Urdu crime fiction writer, because the books could be finished
in an hour before anyone spotted his absence.
Pathak is scathing about belonging to a culture that doesn’t
read. “In Punjab, reading is a cardinal sin. If my grandfather
caught me reading in his Jalandhar house he’d
thrash me and threaten to write to my father. My
children don’t read anything even though they
grew up surrounded by books. They don’t teach
their children to read. People who don’t read are
the same as people who can’t read.”
There’s a semi-permeable membrane between
his ardent readership and the rest of the world. First published
in 1977, the fourth Vimal book, Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti has
sold 3 lakh copies. Disposable and interchangeable productions
in Hindi, the translations are kitschy collector’s items. When
publisher Blaft translated it into English last year, a whole new
readership discovered Pathak, different from his readers not
just in language but also in class. These readers like being seen
with his books. With this has arrived for Pathak a gleam of the
life he could have had, a gleam of celebrity with respectability, a
mention in Time magazine. Unfortunately, it seems like too little,
too late. “Of course I want to be respectable. People write
one book in English and are treated like gods. No one knows
me. The people who read me, read me secretly. After so many
years, of course my heart craves recognition,” says Pathak.
Gul Panag arrived and invited him and his family to the
premiere of Rann. Pathak enjoyed being her guest at the same
venue as the Bachchans. It’s not clear whether the Bachchans
or Rann’s director Ram Gopal Varma knew that Pathak was the
first to coin the word ‘company’ for the Mumbai mafia. Or that
Anurag Kashyap grew up wanting to be either Amitabh
Bachchan or Surinder Mohan Pathak, the king of Hindi noir.
Noir is one of the few modern genres that remains invested
in questions of morality — what you ought to do, what you
want to do, what you will do to get what you want. Pathak’s life
raises questions for half-hearted writers — whether they’re
ever ready to do what it takes to get what they want.