In one of the most pleasing moments of Surender Mohan Pathak’s The 65 Lakh Heist, Labh Singh aka Matar Paneer, one of the conspirators in the heist, is so happy when the planning comes to an end and it is time for the revelry to begin that he lets out a cry of “Balle!” This home-grown 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 makes 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.
Shoot-out: Guns, molls and double-crosses abound in Pathak’s story.
The 65 Lakh Heist was published in 1977 as Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti and it was the fourth book in Pathak’s hugely popular “Vimal” series, selling an estimated 300,000 copies. Now, in its English version, it is the second pulp fiction title offered by Blaft, after the 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 canonized and reified pulp, beautifully produced and priced as an average paperback. The question to be asked then, perhaps, is the question that must have been asked by its earliest, most demanding readers: Is it still value for money?
I should say it is. I read the book in 3 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 wants 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 gurdwara (Sikh temple), 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.
The 65 Lakh Heist: Blaft, 212 pages, Rs295.
Pathak turns out four books a year to this day, and his qualities are those of the best pulp fiction writers: a love of danger and double-crosses and 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”—and if The 65 Lakh Heist has a failing, it is that character development comes to a stop after the first half, and the rest is all action, concluding with a shoot-out in a garage. But one could say these are the problems endemic to the pulp fiction form, in which the only change seen in most characters is that brought about by a bullet. 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—or perhaps months—to come.
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