In the early afternoon of 19 February, a long and winding queue was slowly but surely moving inside the HarperCollins stall at the New Delhi World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan. Quite a few of those in the line, comprising young and not-so-young men and women, were wearing yellow button-badges with the word “SMPian" written on them.

Were they from some educational institution whose acronym was “SMP", the way you have “IITian" or “JNUite"? Upon enquiry, I realized that these people were “Surender Mohan Pathak-ians", loyal fans and pathaks (readers) of, arguably, India’s most popular and prolific Hindi fiction writer.

Colaba Conspiracy: 406 pages, Rs125
Colaba Conspiracy: 406 pages, Rs125

“I’m having all kinds of health issues," Pathak tells me apologetically while adjusting his hearing-aid kit tucked inside his jacket pocket when I meet him later in a quiet room, the size of a large cupboard. “But this (meeting readers and talking about a new novel) is nice."

“I’ve always been a voracious reader. When I first came here to Delhi from Lahore as an eight-year-old after Partition, there was no television and films were heavily censored as they were right through the 1970s and 1980s. So I read everything I could get my hands on," he says. “There were popular detective stories by writers like Om Prakash Sharma, Ibn-e-Safi and Ved Prakash Kamboj that I devoured as a youngster. When you read so much, you overflow. And it’s the overflow that makes me write to this day," he adds.

His usual humility takes a back seat when he points out how he was responsible for still keeping “Urdu-wali Hindi" acceptable. “It’s a God-given gift to be able to write the way people conduct conversations," Pathak tells me, leaning forward across the small round table. “Shall I tell you something honestly? If I go, there won’t be any crime fiction in Hindi any more. The industry survives because of me."

Fifty-five years after his first work appeared in print, the short story, 57 Saal Purana Aadmi(The 57-year-old Man), and 51 years after his first novel, Purane Gunaah Naye Gunahgaar (Old Crimes, New Criminals), was published, Pathak has written a novel set outside his comfort zone of a Delhi-centric north India. Also for the first time, he has published with a major publishing house, Harper Hindi, the Hindi imprint of HarperCollins India.

“The money wasn’t the issue. I get almost three times the amount writing for smaller publishers. But even after all these years, I still don’t have a guarantee from those publishers that they will publish my next book. So when I was approached by Harper, I thought it would be a good thing. I usually take five months to write a novel. I took longer with this one as I didn’t want them to think I’ve written a rushed book."

Colaba Conspiracy has the anti-hero Jeet Singh, a locksmith by profession but leading an undercover life as an accessory to burglaries and robberies, getting to the bottom of the brutal murder of Pursumal Changulani, the husband of Jeet’s ex-girlfriend Sushmita. Changulani’s family believes Sushmita to be the murderer and in true collars-upturned, cigarette-dangling noir style, Jeet is out to clear her name by finding the real killers.

Pathak peppers the novel with “Bambaiya Hindi", using standard slang words like peti ( 1 lakh), bidu (friend) and rokra (cash) to give it a “Bombay feel" while Christian characters such as “Big Daddy" Eduardo keep “thanking God" in English.

So why a “Bombay novel"? Pathak has his defence ready. “I’ve visited Bombay three times in my life. People have asked me why I don’t go to Bombay to try and get my books turned into movies or TV shows. Why should I go there? My trade is here. As for writing about Bombay, the English writer H.R.F. Keating wrote some nine ‘Inspector Ghote’ novels set in Bombay without ever having set foot in India, never mind Bombay."

One can see that despite his modesty—“I’m not a technically hi-fi writer"—Pathak is keen to be taken seriously. It piques him that many people think he started writing by copying Western crime writers. “I had already written 40 novels when I started translating James Hadley Chase novels and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books into Hindi." His contribution to making the morally ambivalent, borderline criminal anti-hero popular in mainstream Indian writing is significant.

While Pathak’s early hero from his “Sunil" series is a sophisticated, morally impeccable crime reporter, another hero, Sudhir, is a classic anti-hero, describing himself as “Dilli ka khaas kism ka haraami" (a special kind of Delhi asshole). Vimal, a.k.a. Surender Singh Sohal, is an outlaw in his own right—closer to real-life law enforcers in India. “What was it that (Guy de) Maupassant once said when asked why he wrote so much about ‘bad women’? ‘Are there any stories to tell about good women?’" Pathak says, a broad smile breaking out on his broader face.

For a man who worked full-time in the Indian Telephone Industries, Delhi—“You can’t write a postcard, let alone a novel, in that atmosphere"—becoming a prolific writer was the key to his popularity. “Today’s writers aren’t committed. Most of them have an ‘Okay, I’ll also write a book’ mentality. It’s like eating a pizza for them," says Pathak. “I have a one-track mind. If I get up at 1am, I think of the next book. While writing my books, I start from back to front. First the buttons, then the shirt. I think of a perfect crime, then I solve it. But not too easily."

As Pathak tells me that his real talent is making use of time, I realize that it’s time to say goodbye. Who wants to hold Surender Mohan Pathak back from completing his 288th book?

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist based in Delhi.

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