Thursday, 22 April 2010

Aath Din (Eight Days)

I recently read Surendra Mohan Pathak's Aath Din (which literally means "8 days"). It was only the third novel in Hindi that I read in my entire life and yet so gripping was it, that I finished it off in barely a week, despite the fact that my comfort level with the language was nearly non-existent. Having completed it, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Before I set off, it would perhaps be in order to put in a word or two about Hindi crime fiction. While my exposure to crime fiction genre is admittedly limited to the Sherlock Holmes stories I read in my teenage years, I suspect that Hindi crime fiction writers draw their inspiration largely from their American counterparts from the 20s or the 30s. The characters in Pathak novels (another confession: he's the only Hindi author I've ever read) are strikingly reminiscent of the characters in the hollywood film noirs of the 40s- nearly all of them either negative or morally ambiguous. Pathak's protagonists are usually anti-hero figures. The characters in Aath Din fit the bill to a T.

The novel is about the unusual adventures of the protagonist Vikas Gupta, a fraudster who fits the category of a small-timer, over an 8-day period (hence the title). Gupta is on the way back to his hometown when he stops at a petrol pump at the outskirts of his city. As luck would have it, he inadvertantly happens to witness a murder there and very nearly gets himself killed. Gupta decides to inform the police about it, but does not wish to involve himself in the whole matter, given his reputation with the police.

The matter becomes complicated when the murderer turns up at Vikas Gupta's place to murder him. The struggle results in the murderer getting killed purely by accident. Gupta soon discovers that the death of his would-be killer only gave him a temporary reprieve, as further attempts are made at his life. It becomes evident that far more sinister forces are at play. Gupta realises that he must unravel the truth and unmask the real forces behind the sinister events before they get him. The novel goes on to recount how he goes about doing it.

There are two things I really appreciate about the novel. First and foremost, it was an engaging thriller that kept you at the edge of the seat almost throughout wondering what on earth was going to happen on the one hand and what was really happening behind the scenes on the other- to keep a reader on the edge over 400 pages is no mean feat. Secondly, what I was most surprised to find was that the language was simple and easy to understand: even a person like me, whose exposure to Hindi is restricted to bollywood movies, could read through the book and enjoy it without having to look at a dictionary.

Packed with surprises at every turn, Aath Din is one novel that keeps you guessing where the next surprise is going to come from. Its one novel that works on Alfred Hitchcock's principle that the terror is not in the bang but in the anticipation of it. In a Bach like manner, Surendra Mohan Pathak provides countless preludes before the big bang. Another endearing feature of Pathak's writing is his superb sense of humour. Every now and then, he relieves the reader of the suspense with a humorous passage that's bound to bring a smile on your face.

Sadly there's nothing more that I can disclose without letting a cat or two out of the bag. Those of you willing to experiment with Hindi crime fiction would really want to lay your hands on Pathak novels. I promise you, there's a whole new world to explore out there.

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