Thursday, 4 March 2010

Surendra Mohan Pathak

Recently in my local book store, I saw this book titled the 65 lakh heist by some writer known as Surendra Mohan Pathak. The book was the translated version of a Hindi novel titled "Painsath lakh ki dakaiti". The concept seemed interesting: a heist gone wrong or something along those lines. Although I have not read that book yet, my mother told me that it was a gripping thriller. My curiosity aroused, I decided to find out more about this author.

Surendra Mohan Pathak

I daresay metropolitan Indian readers are unlikely to have ever heard of Surendra Mohan Pathak. As late as three months ago, even I never had. Having done a google search, I discovered that Pathak is regarded as the grandmaster of Hindi pulp fiction. Let me confess that I had little idea what pulp fiction was back then and it was a genre I had never explored even in English, a the language I grew up reading and prefer to this day. Nevertheless, I was curious to know more about an author who had written over 250 books which sold over 2.5 crore (25 million) copies over a career spanning nearly half a century. I was tempted to try and read Pathak. Now that I wanted to read this author, the first question that came to my mind was, why read a translation when I had access to him in his own words?

Let me confess that I did have some misgivings about being seen reading a Hindi novel in a public place (I'm referring to the local trains in Mumbai, which is the only place I ever get the time to read these days) and that too one whose cover reeked of pulp fiction- for sure, the vast majority of English educated Indians would consider it beneath their dignity to read books in regional languages and anyone doing it would be looked at as being 'cheap'. There also was the apprehension that I would be unable to read a full length work in a language I had not dabbled in for nearly a dozen years- and my exposure to Hindi had never extended beyond the textbooks I read in my school days.

Ever a person looking to experiment, I decided that this was a world that demanded exploring. And so I took my first plunge in late December (2009) with a book titled Naqaab (the Hindi word for a mask), which was a murder mystery- the mainstay of pulp fiction. I confess that my expectations were rather low: of finding a superhero, femme fatales and loads of sexual innuendo.

Pathak's Bestseller

Having set out with such low expectations, what I discovered was an outstanding work of crime fiction with superbly sketched and highly believable characters. One problem with English authors is that the Indian writers apart, they belong to cultures far removed from mine and beyond a point, an Indian reader cannot connect to the characters. Here however, was a writer whose characters were quintessentially Indian and to whom an Indian reader- even a primarily English speaking one from a metropolitan city- could easily connect with. The language was the typical lingo urban hindi speakers would use.

I confess that the very first book got me hooked. It was ages since I had read any work of fiction and it was perhaps the first time I was reading an author who seemed to be able to intrigue the reader to the point where he seemed to have the ability to hold them as if by a thread (a description I've frequently used with reference to the great Alfred Hitchcock). My curiosity aroused, I decided that this was a field that demanded more exploration. One book led to another to the point where I'm currently reading my sixth.

The one thing remarkable about Surendra Mohan Pathak's books is that the characters are almost without exception morally ambiguous. Even more remarkably, unlike most Indian writers, Pathak does not judge the actors in the drama; the reader is free to draw his own conclusions about them. In many ways, the characters are highly reminiscent of the ones you see in Hollywood films noirs from the 40s or 50s.

In fact the one question I've been tempted to ask is just why on earth no one has bothered to make movies based on Pathak's stories. Considering the shameful number of Hollywood 'inspirations' (industry talk for plagarism, that sometimes goes to the extent of frame for frame rip offs), it fairly beats me why our filmmakers bother to do it at all when quality content with Indian characters that requires no adaptation is easily available. Given the popularity of thrillers as a genre and the paucity of good thrillers in Bollywood, its hard to understand why not a single filmmaker has so far troubled himself to explore the gold mine lying right under the nose.

If only I had the time, I would have surely adapted a book or two for the screen. Hopefully, I could get to do it some day in the future... maybe another aspect of life to explore!

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