PROBABLY NOT. Not unless you saw his face in the papers recently when Daylight Robbery — one of his 270 Hindi novels and the second translated into English — was launched. That’s 270 books, a career of 50 years and 2.5 crore copies sold. Even today, when he and other Hindi pulp writers are convinced their readership is being eaten into by television crime news, this man’s print run is rarely less than 50,000. His nearest competitor’s is around 10,000 — still double that of the average volume of Indian English literary fiction. But you’ve never heard of Surinder Mohan Pathak.

Recently, Bollywood star Gul Panag arrived in East Delhi’s Krishna Nagar in search of Pathak’s home. Agog neighbours couldn’t fathom why she’d come down the cramped lanes for the 70-year-old Punjabi next door who plays with his grandkids in the afternoons and waits up worrying when his corporate executive son and daughter-in-law are late coming home.

Unlike the wild profligacies of a Dashiell Hammett — the popular conception of a noir writer — Pathak has always lived the life of the responsible householder, married to a college lecturer and bringing up children for the white-collar life. He was born deaf in one ear, blind in one eye and a constant worrier, he says. He’s worn a hearing aid for a good part of his life.

At home, he’s full of the small graces of a traditional upbringing, urging thick, ghee-soaked parathas and sweets on visitors, apologising for any imagined lack in hospitality. The dark interiors are as far from noir associations as possible — this is an old-style, thickly-curtained house leading out into the crisp air of a wintry aangan. Without having been inside Pathak’s study, the neighbours would never believe he’s a celebrity — merely below their radar. Leaning on his hundreds of crime fiction volumes (from Elmore Leonard to Sara Paretksy) are framed posters of a younger Pathak. He’s handsome with more than a passing resemblance to Sanjeev Kumar, a strong jawline and the sharp threads of a dude. Publishers didn’t wince when they printed 1 lakh copies of a Pathak poster to be given free with an edition of his novels.

There is a circularity in Pathak’s resurgence in the public eye because of a translation — he began as a translator of James Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming novels, until trying a hand at his own. His first was a ‘Vimal’ novel — his most popular protagonist — and the bestseller game was on. Vimal started the trend of what Bollywood calls the negative hero in Hindi pulp fiction.

Readers will tell you that Pathak is the best in the pulp business, and they’ve adapted Dorothy Parker’s maxim: If a book can be put down, they might fling it with great force. Like his beloved James Hadley Chase, Pathak’s first lines are miracles of economy. Daylight Robbery begins: “Vimal had a growing suspicion that he was being watched”. Pathak’s tightly plotted novels, “are highly logical, not just dishoomdishoom,” says Alok Puranik, writer and Delhi University professor. Daylight Robbery’s commendable translator, Sudarshan Purohit, gets a particular pleasure in Pathak: “Vimal is a man on the run. If he ends up staying at Agra’s Clarks Shiraz you can bet there’s such a hotel. When he’s in Amritsar he’ll meet the Punjabi underworld. Other novelists don’t bother locating the stories so carefully.”
‘In Punjab, reading is a cardinal sin. If my grandfather caught me reading he’d thrash me,’ says Pathak

PATHAK SAYS his Vimal plots, with their tough milieu, appear out of nowhere and he waits patiently for them, but his other books are easy to write. When he finally sits down, it takes him just a month to finish a novel — he writes an astonishing four per year. Pathak has a strict work ethic, driven by a desire to deliver the great read he owes his readers. But the low status of pocket-novels, his semi-literate publishers and fanbase, the Hindi literary world’s contempt for success and the ease with which his books come to him has left him a little confused about his place in the world.

Truth is, none of his successes come from cynical tricks. Take his prolific output. Pathak’s stripped-down prose, foreshortened characters and nonstop action may look like it writes itself, but for months he records snatches of dialogue, plot ideas and newspaper clippings. In reverse, his plots have been copied by real-life criminals. His language is excellent, a combination of everyday Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English. More than one television journalist has been told to read him to get her Hindi register ‘just right’.

Pathak’s is a rare personality cult in the pocket-book world — even that is a carefully tended one. Each book has a thoughtful introduction discussing trends in the pulp and literary worlds. In Teesri Vaar (2009) his preface compares mystery writer Ian Rankin’s enormous advance for a new novel with Vikram Seth’s much smaller one for A Suitable Girl. Here, Pathak accepts praise and criticism and admits to logistical errors careful readers have spotted in previous books.

Pathak used to occasionally mix with his famous peers like Om Prakash Sharma but makes a fastidious face when asked about them. Notice his reasons for not befriending them: “None had an education or really cared for their readers.” He paints a grimy picture of one writer’s house filled with thousands of readers’ letters and a seemingly equal number of offspring — one of the latter occasionally employed to tear open and read one of the former. Pathak writes faithfully to his fans. They are his barometre and source of ideas (such as Vimal’s Punjabi couplet tendency.)

However, like Groucho Marx, Pathak isn’t sure he wants to be part of a club that will accept him, and has mixed feelings about his fans. His lifetime of government service at the Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) was filled with encounters of readers who did not connect the books with the witty author. Pathak is read (by his own assessment) ardently by those who read nothing other than pulp fiction and sheepishly by serious readers.

He often quotes Samuel Johnson: “Only a blockhead will write for anything other than the money.” But he’s aghast as his readership now drifts away to a bookless world of televised ‘sansani’ crime. And not because he’s losing money. He has a lifelong investment in reading. Ask him again why he writes and he says, “I read so much, the overflow became writing.” Pathak was born in a middle-class Lahore family that moved to India after Partition. His businessman father railed at him for reading anything other than the MSc textbooks. Yet Pathak read everything he could find, but mostly books that could be finished in the quick pitstops of childhood — dawdling on the way home, outside school, hiding in a cowshed. He used to love reading Ibn-e-Safi, the classic Urdu crime fiction writer, because the books could be finished in an hour before anyone spotted his absence.

Pathak is scathing about belonging to a culture that doesn’t read. “In Punjab, reading is a cardinal sin. If my grandfather caught me reading in his Jalandhar house he’d thrash me and threaten to write to my father. My children don’t read anything even though they grew up surrounded by books. They don’t teach their children to read. People who don’t read are the same as people who can’t read.”

There’s a semi-permeable membrane between his ardent readership and the rest of the world. First published in 1977, the fourth Vimal book, Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti has sold 3 lakh copies. Disposable and interchangeable productions in Hindi, the translations are kitschy collector’s items. When publisher Blaft translated it into English last year, a whole new readership discovered Pathak, different from his readers not just in language but also in class. These readers like being seen with his books. With this has arrived for Pathak a gleam of the life he could have had, a gleam of celebrity with respectability, a mention in Time magazine. Unfortunately, it seems like too little, too late. “Of course I want to be respectable. People write one book in English and are treated like gods. No one knows me. The people who read me, read me secretly. After so many years, of course my heart craves recognition,” says Pathak.

Gul Panag arrived and invited him and his family to the premiere of Rann. Pathak enjoyed being her guest at the same venue as the Bachchans. It’s not clear whether the Bachchans or Rann’s director Ram Gopal Varma knew that Pathak was the first to coin the word ‘company’ for the Mumbai mafia. Or that Anurag Kashyap grew up wanting to be either Amitabh Bachchan or Surinder Mohan Pathak, the king of Hindi noir.

PS. Rewatched Manorama Six Feet Under recently. First, Satyaveer, the failed pulp fiction writer adopts the pseudonym Surinder Mohan. Then in the course of his investigations he pretends to be an insurance agent called Pathak.

Noir is one of the few modern genres that remains invested in questions of morality — what you ought to do, what you want to do, what you will do to get what you want. Pathak’s life raises questions for half-hearted writers — whether they’re ever ready to do what it takes to get what they want.

First published here.