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 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
, 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. Amritsar
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.