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Surender mohan Pathak has a groove on the second finger in his right hand. Having written over 268 novels in long hand with a fountain pen, he could well flaunt it as a medal of service. And it is the first thing that struck 33-year-old software-engineer Sudarshan Purohit when he called on the 69-year-old king of Hindi pulp fiction in Delhi to discuss his new project: a translation of perhaps his most popular book so far, Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti, or The 65 Lakh Heist.
The story of how this 1977 bestseller has come to be accessed by English-reading pulp aficionados across the country, from the south to the north, goes like this. The Chennai-based publication house, Blaft, got out its Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction a year ago, and Purohit, who is based in Bangalore, wrote on his blog that it would be nice if someone did something like this for Hindi pulp fiction. The next day, Rakesh Khanna of Blaft asked him if he'd like to work on it himself. Says Purohit: "I've done some translation work before, for Hindi movie subtitles and some BBC television programmes, but this was somewhat larger in scale. I decided to take the plunge." Then in thriller style, the process began.
The selection of which Hindi pulp novel would be translated was fairly easy. The publishers decided to go with the best in the business. It was Pathak's reputation of writing taut, well-structured and, importantly, well-selling thrillers which his publisher said were written in the "English thriller" style.
Says Purohit: "If you go to a railway station bookstall today, you'll find many books by other writers, but the Pathak books are often sold out. His fans would rather return empty-handed than buy something by another writer. He even has a fan club on Orkut, perhaps the only such Hindi pulp writer to have one."
The process itself was instructive. Purohit met with Rajkumar Gupta, the head of Pathak's current publisher, Raja Pocket Books. Gupta told him how Hindi pulp works differently from its English counterpart: "Hindi pulp works on volumes. Most books are published with at least 50,000 copies in each print run. Publishers are also on very close terms with their writers." Purohit also met Shelle, the artist who has done thousands of Hindi pulp covers over the years as well as the cover of The Sixty-Lakh Heist. Purohit says, "Shelle is a quiet, unassuming gentleman, but he does cover paintings at the rate of one every two days or so, and he's been doing this for over 30 years now. The printed covers don't really do justice to the original, 12"x15" oil paintings he does."
Pathak began writing in 1959 and also translated James Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming books. But it is the
'Vimal' series of books, in the '70s, which introduced the "anti-hero" who now defines his work. Purohit quotes Pathak: "This sort of hero was something new, a sensation. A wanted criminal, someone who actually murdered people, but still someone you could sympathise with. No one had done this before."
Vimal, in the course of 38 novels, escaped from jail after having been framed by his wife, remarried, mastered the art of disguise, and took on the Mumbai and Punjabi mafia.
An indication of Pathak's popularity is that his publisher last year decided to let go of the cheap newsprint paper for his novels, and thereby market the books at a higher price. Popular opinion in the publishing industry was against this move since the market is considered very price-sensitive. However, Pathak's first book on white paper sold as well as if not better than the older versions. And they may reprint the best of his work on white paper as collector's editions.
Translation was a challenge for Purohit: "Heist is a thriller. When you're reading a thriller or a crime novel in English, you expect characters to speak in a certain way— noir books, for example, have a typical slang vocabulary. 'Dame', 'hot lead' and so on. You subconsciously expect Heist to have a similar vocabulary. However, this is an Indian book, so it would sound strange to have the characters speak these all-American words. At the same time, you don't want them to speak very sophisticated English either. So it was a very narrow path
between the Western thriller vocabulary and Indian English usage. Though we've kept a lot of the Punjabi flavour in the book, some of it is inevitably going to be lost. For example, in one scene, Vimal raps on a door with its saankal, a kind of chain that old-fashioned houses use to lock doors. The English equivalent is 'shackle'. But it isn't quite the same, is it? That homeliness, that sense of 'this story is our own' is diluted in a translation into English."
Criminals too may want to read Pathak's work. In 2006, a young man named Sandeep Bhatnagar pretended to be a human bomb in order to loot a bank in Delhi. He was caught, and confessed that he'd picked up the plan from Pathak's Zameer ka Qaidi (A Prisoner of Conscience). "The man obviously didn't read the whole book through," Pathak told Purohit. "The would-be robber was caught in the book too."