Surender Mohan Pathak can distil almost any field of inquiry into a clever little idiom. The 70-year-old “grandmaster” of Hindi crime fiction can wax eloquent on urban society (“Dilli mein do cheezon ki keemat hai—ek zameen, ek kameen ”, best not translated), the art of writing (“There are three things you can’t teach a man—singing, writing and generosity”), and the purpose of libraries (“They are museums to show people what a book is. Look all you want, but don’t touch”).
In the last 47 years, he has published around 270 novels—mixing and matching lurid crimes, devious criminals and morally ambivalent heroes. His “pocket” novels have print runs of 100,000, and new ones appear with unnerving frequency every three months. Blaft, a Chennai-based publishing house, is translating his work into English—and the second such effort, Daylight Robbery, was released on 5 February.
Prolific: Pathak has written 270 books. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Pathak began writing early, in his late teens, and submitted his early stories to the popular magazines of the day—Nayi Sadi, Niharika and Manohar Kahaniyan, among others. “I wrote mainly family dramas—short stories on the problems of joint families, unrequited young love, things like that,” he tells Lounge. Spurred by his senior contemporary crime writer Om Prakash Sharma to give mystery novels a shot, he started work on Samundar mein Khoon in 1963. “I wrote it in three days, working like a devil—day and night, without a break. It was around 130 pages,” he says. Pathak was paid Rs80 for that novel, a sum most attractive to a man earning Rs200 a month as a manager at Indian Telephone Industries (his first and only job).
Pathak researches his stories by maintaining a scrapbook that he updates all the time—newspaper articles, passages from other books and Internet links, all go in there. “But let me be frank with you,” he says. “What I write is a concoction, it’s an assembly line. It’s not creative writing at all. You know how writers say they were “inspired” or “struck by an idea”? I can’t wait for inspiration or creativity to strike. I have to literally summon it, seize it. I have to churn these things out, come hell or high water.”
He maintains a strict regimen, writing four months in a year. “My writing speed is tremendous, by the grace of god and 30 years of government service. I write a book in 20 days. Then I take 10-12 days to revise it twice,” he says. He writes in longhand, with a fountain pen. No typewriters, no computers. “Each of my books is around 180 sheets of paper, which is around 350 paperback pages. I aim at finishing 10 sheets a day, going up to 15 once I’m halfway through because all the elements and characters have been introduced,” he says.
Pathak has a simple tip for aspiring crime writers. “You have to get to your point, the core of your story, within the first 20 pages. If your reader can skip even two lines in your story and still go away understanding your plot, then those two lines are unnecessary,” he says. It’s a yardstick, he feels, many writers fail to measure up to. “Too many authors tend to indulge in their own style—whether or not the reader wants all that detail. They go into way too much detail about unnecessary things. It’s like they want to impose their knowledge and wisdom upon the reader.”