Sardar Surender Singh Sohal, urf Vimal, would not feel at home inside the sprawling gated community in Sector 93, Noida, which is home to Surender Mohan Pathak. Neither would Sunil Chakravarty, or, for that matter, even Abhijeet Singh — there’s just too much emphasis on security. Apartment visits are preceded by entries in logbooks; vehicular entries and exits are stringently monitored. It’s far removed from the places Pathak’s characters are used to: chaotic railway stations, bustling traffic intersections, perfect for a chase or two. Pathak, 78, would have himself much preferred the middle-class rhythms of east Delhi’s Krishna Nagar, where he spent over five decades, and spun over 250 of his nearly 300 bestselling titles. But, as he says in his 2012 hit, Double Game: “Maanav jeevan parahit abhilaashee hee hona chaahiye (Human life should be aspiring)”; so, the trappings of success are not easy to shrug off.
The world of Hindi pulp fiction, with its cocktail of murder, lust, femme fatales, and an unlikely sleuth in the pursuit of truth, goes as far back as the early Forties, with the rise of writers such as Ibne Safi (1928-1980) and Om Prakash Sharma (1924-1998). Priced at anything between Rs 2 and Rs 25, and printed on cheap lugdi or pulp paper — which gave the genre its name — the novels were characterised by garish covers, provocative titles (think Khoon Ke Ansoon, Murda Jee Utha, Qatil Kaun? or Vardiwala Gunda) and enough plot twists to keep readers hooked. Sample this: An accountant in Allahabad with a love for Kabir’s dohas is set up in a false case of embezzlement by his wife and her lover. The system won’t spare him, but can Vimal play it and break out to the other side? Or this: a corrupt cop with scant regard for the law goes on to become the chief minister of a state. Will absolute power corrupt absolutely?
Here was not the kind of writing that genteel folks discussed in their drawing rooms over sips of first flush Darjeeling, that literary critics waited for; or publishers boasted of as their book of the year. This was about love, sex and dhoka — the more lurid, the better. Its target? The big cities of the Hindi heartland, where lower middle-class men and women had landed up to seek a future. The city had its own codes of violence, but on long train journeys, and in between soulless work in factories, mills and stations, here was a world that gave them what their hearts sought: adventure, titillation, and hyper-masculine heroes whose exploits would let them vicariously experience the thrill of trumping the system.
“What else could I write about but the common man? I was one myself. When I was struggling, I knew that people related more to the plight of the downtrodden. It’s difficult to feel empathy for an affluent person. But, someone who is poor, beaten by circumstances and played by the system, there can be a hero in that person,” says Pathak, who wrote his first short story, Sattavan Saal Purana Aadmi (The Man Who Existed 57 Years Ago) in 1958, for Manohar Kahaniyaan, a popular magazine. Five years later, he would try his hand at a full-blown novel, Puraane Gunaah Naye Gunahgaar (Old Sins, New Sinners), this time in another magazine, Neelam Jaasoos. “I was a fan of Safi’s Imran series and I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to pull off a crime novel. There was a formula to it. It was also one of the surest ways of making quick money,” says Pathak.
This Was the underbelly of Hindi publishing, geared to churn in moolah from assembly-line sales at railway stations, roadside kiosks and second-hand book shops. In old Delhi, Allahabad and in Meerut, an industry devoted itself to these pocket books — Raja Pocket Books, Ravi Pocket Books, Tulsi Pocket Books and Sooraj Pocket Books. “After Safi, came a slew of writers like Om Prakash Sharma, Gulshan Nanda, Ved Prakash Kamboj, and later, Ved Prakash Sharma of Vardi Wala Gunda fame, whose books were very popular…(Pathak) is undoubtedly the biggest name in that segment,” says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland, which has just published the first of Pathak’s three-volume autobiography, Na Bairi Na Koi Begana.
Over the years, Pathak would write about heroes who were rakes and criminals and pepper his plots with high-octane chases, mildly scandalous sexual escapades and gory details of violence. He hands over a printout outlining an easy blueprint for a “nail-biting thriller”. The sub-heads read: Immediate take-off, lively characters, “what happens next” element, prominence to dialogues than description, and spectacular ending. “The most significant part of any thriller is its climax. A thriller is not shaped from beginning to end, but from the end to the beginning, and for a writer like me, I have had a lifetime of practice in perfecting it,” he says.
His minimum print runs in Hindi are now pegged at 40,000 copies, while some novels have had print runs of up to 1,45,000 copies — a similar figure in English trade publishing would have not been possible without a marketing blitzkrieg. Yet, Pathak has managed this all on his own, with a little help from a devoted fan base. In old Delhi, some of his out-of-print novels sell on the black market for Rs 1,000, way beyond their original price of Rs 100. Two of his books, Painsath Lakh ki Dacaity and Din Dahade Dacaity, were first translated by the Chennai-based Blaft Publications into English in 2009-10 — he is among a handful of writers in the genre whose works have been published in translation.
The walls of Pathak’s study are lined with books. The range of writers is eclectic — alongside Mario Puzo, Frederick Forsyth, Robert B Parker, John Grisham and John Le Carre are books by Linda Lee, Roy Lewis, Stephen Murray, Robert Ludlum, Jackie Collins, Hanif Kureishi, Zac O’ Yeah, and his inspiration, HRF Keating, a British writer who wrote the Inspector Ghote crime series, without ever visiting Bombay.
Even at his age, Pathak remains indefatigable. Once he used to churn out nine novels a year; today, he’s brought it down to anything between two and four. He works every morning for four to five hours, planning out his plots and developing his characters. Hard work is an old habit. “Bahut mehnat karni parti thi un dinon. I would work all week at my job and then write on Sundays. I would set targets; write 20 sheets even if it meant writing beyond midnight. That’s how I completed my first 60 novels,” says Pathak.
In 1964, he landed a job at the Indian Telephone Industries at the Ansari Road exchange; the previous year, his first novel had been published by Raja Pocket Books. He retired in 1998 as the purchase manager, but in those early days, he was a mechanic, on the road for a greater part of the day. Money was tight, and writing was both a solace and a means of extra income. “My contemporary, writer Ved Prakash Kamboj, introduced me to Om Prakash Sharma, who was an established writer by then and had a lot of contacts with publishers. Unka hookah bhara, chinauri ki. Tab jaake unhone ne publisher ke paas recommend kiya. Ek novel kisi tarah chapwa dia unhon ne (I did odd jobs for him, kept him happy. Then he got my novel published),” says Pathak, with a hearty chuckle.
That euphoria would dissipate soon. For nearly 20 months after, the rejection slips piled up. “There were plenty of publishers in those days, but an equal number of writers,” he says. The next decade remained uncertain. “With each book, I would feel this is my last. The next one won’t see the light of day. But, I kept writing, kept pushing myself,” says Pathak.
Towards the end of the Seventies, Pathak’s luck turned with the Vimal series, his most popular hero till date. The Robin Hood-esque figure was on the run from the system, yet never afraid to take it on. Painsath Laakh ki Dacaity, the story of a bank heist, went into 21 reprints, its first edition being priced at Rs 2, and the last at Rs 250. Din Dahade Dacaity (1980) and Jahaaj ka Panchhi (1992) also turned out to be monster hits, with the latter going into four reprints in the first month of its publication and eventually selling over 1,45,000 copies. “There were no advances in those days. If you got money after the book came out, that was a big deal. By then, I had begun to make a name for myself. Publishers felt there must be something I was doing right to ratchet up that kind of sales,” he says.
Pathak had always had an attraction for cars, but it would be a publisher who would give him his first white Maruti Omni as remuneration. He didn’t know how to drive then, but that didn’t stop him from taking the car out for a spin. “I ended up in an accident on day four. After I recovered, I took my scooter to the oldest driving school in Shakti Nagar. In nine days, I was driving like the wind,” he guffaws. By his own yardstick, and in the mohallas of Krishna Nagar, he had arrived.
Pathak was eight years old when Partition had ripped him out of their home in Lahore in undivided Punjab. His father was a stenographer in a British firm, and the family left Lahore with next to nothing. In Delhi, they fetched up at the government refugee camp in Shahdara. “My father was a conscientious man, and the British firm gave him his job in their Delhi office,” he says.
In the days that followed, government-built colonies for refugees in areas such as Rajender Nagar, Sewa Nagar, and Krishna Nagar, would become home for the family. His parents enrolled him in a government school in Shahdara. Overpacked with students, there was no place to sit, so they would all gather under the shade of a peepul tree. “There was a hunger in all of us. We learned Hindi and Urdu, read whatever we could lay our hands on. Partition had unnerved us all. Sab ko lagta tha hamari haalat se bahar nikalne ka bas ek yehi upay hai — mehnat (Everyone felt that only hard work would get us out),” he says.
If hard work has been crucial to his craft, the cornerstone of his success has been his ability to keep up with the times. “Pathak knows how to sustain your interest across multiple series. His flair with languages sets him apart. He wrote in Hindustani, peppered it with words from Punjabi, Gujarati and so on; the use of Mumbaiyya lingo made for entertaining dialogue. At some point, he used the term ‘D Company’ for the mafia and it stuck. He gave his readers the concept of the anti-hero that was unheard of in Hindi crime writing,” says Padmanabhan.
“None of his heroes are born into affluence. Most, in fact, are the unlikeliest of heroes. Vimal is a ‘circumstantial’ criminal and even though he has crossed over to the dark side, he still has his heart in the right place; Sunil is an investigative journalist, a womaniser, but he stands up for the truth. Sudhir calls himself Dilli ka khaas kism ka haraami. Many of them are unattractive, some are fat,” says Vishi Sinha, who is one of the administrators of a Facebook fan page, Surender Mohan Pathak the Legend, one of many such pages devoted to the writer. Sinha, a 36-year-old legal advisor in an IT firm in Delhi, had picked up Pathak’s Shaq ki Sui on a whim and became a life-long devotee. His favourite hero is the lawyer Mukesh Mathur, who featured in only four Pathak novels. “Like me, he wants to do the right thing, and just like him, I am also scared of my boss,” says Sinha. Last month, when, for the first time, Pathak was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival, where his autobiography was formally launched, Sinha and a league of fans sat in the audience, sporting “SMP” t-shirts, and cheering their hero on.
In 1998, Pathak retired with a humble salary of Rs 12,000. By then, the glory days of pulp were over, and the rot had set in. Liberalisation had opened up a whole new world of entertainment and those racy plotlines that used to hook readers had lost their bite. But there was no sign of Pathak slowing down. “I used to earn Rs 2 lakh for each of my novels at the time. But I had never been tempted to quit my job. My manager used to ask me, ‘Why do you work here still?’ The truth is, when things were difficult, when I had to be on the road all day with an 8 kg bag, fixing people’s telephone lines, crawling under tables, I had stuck to it because it was all that I had. Why would I give it up when things became easier?” he says.
Pathak has never travelled much, instead, investing time in reading up about places from travel brochures; the writer and the sleuth in him are forever on the lookout for reports on crime and heists in the morning papers. “Deen-duniya ki koi khhoj-khabar lega, tabhi toh banda likhega kuch. (A man needs to keep in touch with what’s happening in the world in order to write.) I write crime novels. If I don’t know the pattern of contemporary crimes, what will I write about?” he says.
Pathak’s vice radar has been eerily prescient. In 1995, his novel Mavaali featured a tandoor murder. In July that year, a young woman in Delhi, Naina Sahni, would die a similar death. A decade later, a young man claimed to be a suicide bomber and made off with Rs 40 lakh from a bank in Delhi. When caught, he confessed that he got the idea from Pathak’s Zameer ka Qaidi (2005).
For the longest time, the mohalla life in Krishna Nagar, where everyone knew each other, was the lifespring of his creativity. In this apartment in Noida, where he moved less than two years ago, he misses that sense of a community. In the little spare time he has, Pathak indulges his love for movies and old Bollywood songs. That’s how he stumbled upon the “source” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achhe din promise. “If you watch Mr Sampat Lal (1952), you will find it there. As a writer, it’s not enough just to read and observe. You have to connect the dots,” says the writer.
Today, Pathak no longer has to think of money and writing is almost like a hobby, done for pleasure. Hindi noir might not outlive him, but, sometimes, he says, he is taken aback at how real life manages to trump fiction. “My motto in all my books has been that crime doesn’t pay. But look at the papers now and you will see, crime pays handsomely — no investments, simply 100 per cent profit,” he says. Who knows, maybe his next novel will be about a certain diamond merchant who hobnobbed with the country’s most powerful and then made a brazen escape.