Business, Finance & Economics

Meet India's pulp fiction master

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NEW DELHI — Surender Mohan Pathak owes his life to crime.

He’s one of the best-selling authors in the Hindi language, with some 300 titles to his name and more than 25 million books sold. But he’s no literary lion. Instead, Pathak writes pulp fiction novels that are sold at drugstores and seedy railway stations. 

His tales feature an array of sordid characters and dirty dealing, but up until now, you couldn’t read them unless you could read Hindi. That changed in March, when Blaft, an upstart boutique publisher in Chennai released the first-ever English translation of a Pathak book — one his most famous, called “Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti.”

It first came out in 1977 and has since sold 300,000 copies over 15 reprintings. The English version is called “The Rs 65 Lakh Heist” (that would be “The $6.5 million Heist” in American money).

In the book expert safe-cracker and ex-con Mayaram Bawa wants to pull off one last caper. So he enlists an elite team of hoodlums to do it, including Vimal, a wanted criminal. Things go afoul and mayhem ensues.

Pathak remains unheralded, simply because his books are, he says, sold as commodities, not as works of literature or art. They’re also “dirt cheap” — often selling for less than $1. He writes what and when publishers tell him to write, and does it all for a flat fee (there's no cut of sales for Pathak). A novel typically takes him three months to complete.

But though he might not be celebrated for his literary prowess, Pathak has a great reputation for yarn spinning. He’s translated some of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books into Hindi and is credited with developing the anti-hero trope in Hindi storytelling: the murderous thug who also garners sympathy from the reader.

Blaft’s three founders — Rakesh Khanna, Kaveri Lalchand and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan — have also published the popular Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, and have plans to explore other pop titles as well as more experimental literary works. They’re currently working on getting their titles into U.S. bookstores.

Word to Raymond Chandler: Watch your back. 

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