Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist

At one point in Surender Mohan Pathak’s The 65 Lakh Heist, the pleasure-loving Labh Singh (a.k.a “Matar Paneer”), one of the conspirators involved in the heist, is so happy when the planning is completed and it is time for the revelry to begin that he lets out a cry of “Balle!” This homegrown sound has long been missing from the streets of Indian fiction in English (think of how many "hurrays" and "bravos" one hears instead). It is precisely this taste of the local, together with the adroit fulfilment of genre expectations, that make us say “Balle!” to this classic crime novel by a colossus of Hindi pulp fiction, deftly translated by Sudarshan Purohit, a young software engineer based in Bangalore.
The 65 Lakh Heist was published in 1977 as Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaitii, and it was the fourth book in Pathak’s hugely popular “Vimal” series, selling an estimated three lakh copies. Now, in its English version, it is the second pulp-fiction title offered by Blaft, after their widely acclaimed Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction published last year. Of course, in its new incarnation, the book is no longer “real” pulp – printed on the cheapest paper, sold for a pittance – but a kind of canonised and reified pulp, beautifully produced and, at Rs.195, priced the same as an average paperback. The question to be asked then, perhaps, is the question that must have been asked by the novel's first, most demanding readers: is it still value for money?
I should say it is. I read the book in three hours while waiting for a 3am flight, and it certainly helped those dreaded hours melt away. The tension kicks in from the very first sentence (“Mayaram lit a new cigarette and looked at his watch”), and we are up and running. Mayaram Bawa of Amritsar, an accomplished cracker of safes (for which reason he has earned the moniker “Ustad”) and a chronic jailbird, wants to pull off one last heist before he calls it a day. He intends to enlist the best talent in the business to make sure the operation is a success, and when he spots the wanted criminal Surender Singh Sohal, better known as Vimal, in a gurudwara, he knows that luck is on his side. Vimal has been on the run from the police for long, and unless he helps Mayaram now, his secret will be out.
Pathak, who has also translated some of James Hadley Chase into Hindi, turns out four books a year to this day. His qualities are those of the best pulp-fiction writers: a love of danger and double-crosses, guns and molls, in terms of material, and narrative speed in terms of form. He also writes very good, economical dialogue. His translator serves him well by scrupulously preserving the idiomatic core of the material (such as the line, “They chanted Bolo Ram for him a year ago”, or the phrases “Jaago Mohan Pyaare”, “Papaji”, and “Aaho”) while transferring the rest into a smooth, unshowy English.
Vimal has a particularly intriguing backstory – we learn that he is so bitter because “his wife Surjeet Kaur and her lover had conspired to get him jailed for embezzlement”. If the The 65 Lakh Heist has a failing, it is that character development more or less comes to a stop after the first half, and the rest is all action, concluding with a shootout in a garage. But one could say these are the problems endemic to the pulp-fiction form, in which a character's progress often culminates not in a change of heart or a renewal of perspective but with the sound of a gunshot. On all other counts, there is much to admire in this book, and I put it down looking forward to reading more of the team of Pathak and Purohit in the years to come – or perhaps months.
A slightly different version of this review appeared last weekend in Mint.


S.O.B. said...

Vimal's backstory brought back memories of countless rahasya katha, especially Westlake-Stark, from my misspent youth.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I have visited yor blog in the past few days, it has been sporting advani for PM web banner....did u give permission to put it there or was it a random advert ? If u have given the permission I would be very disturbed

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - I assure you I haven't given out any permissions. Advaniji has jumped in himself and set up camp on my blog, as he has on another two hundred thousand sites all over the world. The correct way to interpret this is to be happy that the BJP is wasting money on lost causes.

Rebeca said...

I have always found Surendra Mohan Pathak’s novels irresistible. I bought one when I was 13 or 14 and almost read it. Almost, because I gave it up thinking that my father wouldn’t approve of it.