India's Don of Pulp Fiction
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the life of a lifelong pulp fiction writer must be a dark — or at least interesting — one.
By Sonali Kokra
How often does a journalist get to ask the question, “So you really gave al-Qaida its name?”
I recently did. Well, not exactly, but close. D-Company is one of the most deadly terrorist organizations in the world, headed by Dawood Ibrahim, one of the most wanted terrorists in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. And the man who gave the terrorist group its name? An unlikely character, a hard-of-hearing, myopic, 74-year-old crime novelist. His name is Surender Mohan Pathak, and he is the doyen of Hindi crime fiction.
“We Hindi writers are not the big fish of the literary world,” he tells me with a twinkle, calling himself a “lowly Hindi whodunit writer.”
Lowly, but productive. Pathak’s writing career spans 52 years, 291 novels, almost 30 million copies sold, and yet he yearns for the recognition that his English-medium counterparts enjoy. He compares his sales to those of English books, for which just 10,000 copies sold in India equals a best-seller. But his first editions sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies. And “I will be completely ignored,” mourns Pathak. I’m almost disappointed with this strictly numerical answer to a question that is very clearly a thorn in Pathak’s ample side. He tells me: “You see, in India, English books are treated like respectable housewives, entitled to all the nice things, whereas Hindi books are harlots who are looked down upon by the high-nosed English-speaking crowd.” Aah. That’s more like it.
I am a businessman. I run an assembly-line production.
– Mohan Pathak
Pathak calls his childhood in Jalandhar (Punjab) “miserable” with a large portion of it spent just above the poverty line. His Hindu family, post-partition refugees from Lahore, was poor.
Left alone, he used to walk to a library and devour crime novels — “one, sometimes two novels a day” — as prolifically as he writes them now. Urdu crime fiction writer Ibne Safi was Pathak’s biggest influence. In English, there was Erle Stanley Gardner and James Hadley Chase, and he picked up the niceties of interesting prose from writers such as Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. Yet reading was a “sin” in his family. So he hid and binge-read alone.
When he first tried to write, Pathak failed — at age 17 or 18, he can’t remember which — he tried to write his first novel, drafting multiple iterations. Disillusioned, he took to short stories, and eventually, in 1963, came his first full-length novel — Purane Gunah, Naye Gunahgar (Old Crimes, New Criminals).
Pathak writes five popular series:
- The Sunil Series: 124 novels. He began his career with this series. Main character: Sunil, an investigative journalist, often finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
- The Sudheer Series: 21 novels. Main character: Aphilosophical protagonist named Sudhir Kumar Kohli, known as “Dilli ka khaas kism ka haraami ” (loosely translated as ”Delhi’s special kind of asshole”).
- The Vimal Series: 42 novels. Pathak’s most popular. Main character: Sardar Surender Singh Sohal and his many aliases within the Mumbai underworld — he’s wanted in seven states.
- The Thriller Series: 43 novels. No main character.
- The Jeet Singh Series: (Only) seven novels. Main character: Jeet Singh, a locksmith who doubles as an accessory to burglaries. Pathak’s latest, the sequel to Colaba Conspiracy — due out in February 2015 — is part of this series.
Pathak, a longtime employee of the Indian Telephone Industries, has always lived a life more reminiscent of a lifelong government employee’s than a crime enthusiast. He’s a responsible family man who lives with his son and his family in an old-style Delhi house. For 34 years, he worked as a purchase manager, even turning down Bollywood offers and the chance to move to Mumbai to remain in a comfortable neighborhood.
And he has no compunctions about admitting that not much has changed in his books in the last 52 years. “I am a businessman. I run an assembly-line production because there is a certain expectation that people have from Hindi pulp fiction.” he says. Book sales are a touchy topic for Hindi pulp fiction writers. Pathak’s own record, an unbeatable 2.5 million copies over 40 years for Painsanth Lakh ki Dakaiti, is an industry legend. But thanks to the arrival of satellite television in 1992, then the Internet, and in particular the popular novelist Chetan Bhagat and his easy-to-read English paperbacks, the readership of Hindi pocket novels has shrunk dramatically.
A young man told Pathak he’d killed his wife by copying the plot of one of Pathak’s novels …
The industry witnessed a drastic 80 percent drop in sales, making panicked publishers branch out to genres such as spiritual, home care and self-help books just to stay afloat. Today, pulp fiction accounts for less than 25 percent of total publishing, industry folks say. Which is why Pathak’s books follow a precise formula for success. Tight plots, undemanding prose and characters who are assigned saucy catchphrases are braided together to give his semiliterate fan base the dose of masala that they have come to expect.
And, as you’d imagine, the world of Hindi pulp has its detractors. Like Rakesh Khanna, the editor and director of Blaft Publications, who dismisses it all handily: “The Hindi pulp fiction industry is so disorganized and dishonest that most publishing houses prefer to steer clear of them even if they want to translate into English.” He accuses the Hindi crime authors of plagiarism — “Chicago becomes Meerut and names of characters are Indianized.”
There’s a dark side to being a crime fiction author — your fans aren’t always normal, per se. In one case, a man tried to dispose of his victim’s corpse in a furnace, which was eerily similar to the plot of Pathak’s novel Mawali. In another instance, a man robbed a bank by pretending to be a human bomb and later admitted to the police that he had copied the idea from Zameer Ka Qaidi. “Am I supposed to be flattered by this nonsense?” Pathak asks.
But the creepiest story is the one in which Pathak describes sitting across from a fan who casually tells him about a murder (!) he committed as a tribute. A young man told Pathak he’d killed his wife by copying the plot of one of Pathak’s novels and was now on the run. “I was very tense for as he long as he stayed!” To date, Pathak doesn’t know whether this mystery fan was spinning a tall tale or was actually a sociopath. Since he had dropped in uninvited and left abruptly, Pathak didn’t even have a name that he could report to the police.
Today, he spends his days playing with the grandkids and evenings waiting up for his corporate executive son and daughter-in-law. It is a life as far removed as the darkness of noir as can be imagined, and yet, there seems to be no sign of burning out or thoughts about retiring. “A mystery writer is only as good as his last book. I dread the day when people will say there used to be a writer called Surender Mohan Pathak,” he says. As for burnout, Pathak says he admires English writer John Creasey, who’s written at least 600 books — probably a few thousand — in his lifetime under at least 28 pseudonyms.
“If he can do the so-called unimaginable, why can’t I?”
Due to an editing error, this article previously misstated the number of copies sold of Painsanth Lakh ki Dakaiti. It is 2.5 million, not 25,000. This piece was originally published Nov. 2, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 14, 2014.
- Sonali KokraContact Sonali Kokra