When you think of the deadly D-Company, you probably imagine scary, gun-toting men and violence. Lots and lots of violence. What you probably wouldn’t, in a million years, imagine is a 74-year-old man quietly watching the world from behind his thick glasses as he adjusts his hearing aid. And, yet, if this man didn’t exist, D-Company wouldn’t either — at least not by the same name. By this man, I mean Surender Mohan Pathak, the undisputed king of Hindi crime fiction writing. “No, no, nothing like that,” he says, with his characteristic mix of humour, sarcasm and honesty. “Hindi writers are not used to such fancy praise. Ninety-nine point nine per cent people in the world will be shocked that the name came from a lowly Hindi whodunit writer.”
Pathak is probably right. At 74, he’s written 291 novels in 52 years, has sold almost 3 crore copies and enjoys a minimum print run of 50,000 per book. And, yet, most of urban India has no idea who he is. “We are a country of English lovers. An English book will sell 10,000 copies and be declared a bestseller. The publisher will throw a party to celebrate its success and the media will make a lot of noise about it in fancy literary columns. My first editions almost always range between 50,000 and 100,000 copies but I will be completely ignored,” he says. Clearly, recognition is a touchy subject.
He may be a prolific writer now but there was a time when Pathak received regular thrashings from his father for his obsession with books. “We lived in Jalandhar and were refugees from Lahore. There was no money. I was pretty much left to my own devices. I started going to the neighbourhood lending library. I used to read one, sometimes two, novels a day. Urdu crime fiction writer Ibne Safi was my biggest influence. Then, there were Erle Stanley Gardner and James Hadley Chase in English. I loved reading Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, etc. But, reading was almost a sin in my family. If I was caught with these novels, my father gave me a sound thrashing,” he remembers. “But, you know how it is. When you are stopped from doing something, your desire to do exactly that explodes. The more I was reprimanded, the more I read.”
He’s experienced the frustration of failure too, with all his attempts at writing his first novel coming to nothing. “My failures made me switch paths and focus on short stories. I wrote one, 57 Saal Purana Aadmi, and to my utter surprise, it got published in Manohar Kahaniya.” This was in 1959, and Pathak was only 19 then. Four years later, in 1963, came his first full-length novel — Purane Gunah, Naye Gunahgar.
Pathak’s crime fiction falls mainly under five series. The Sunil series, which he started his career with and has 124 novels in it, chronicle the adventures of Sunil Kumar Chakravarty, an investigative journalist who often finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The Sudhir series with 21 books has philosophical detective Sudhir Kumar Kohli as the main protagonist. His tagline, ‘Dilli ka khaas kism ka haraami aadmi’, loosely translated as Delhi’s ‘special kind of asshole’, makes him almost an antithesis to Sunil’s character. Pathak’s most popular is the Vimal series with 42 books, which revolves around the life of Sardar Surender Singh Sohal and his many aliases within the Mumbai underworld while being wanted in seven states. The Thriller series has 43 standalone books with no reappearing central character and, lastly, there is the Jeet Singh series, which at 7 books, is about Jeet Singh, a locksmith who doubles up as an accessory for burglaries. Pathak’s latest, Colaba Conspiracy, is a part of this series.
Pathak has two enduring regrets. The first was refusing an offer from the film industry because it would mean moving to Mumbai. “I didn’t want to leave my government job,” he says. Pathak worked at the Indian Telephone Industries for 34 years. And, the second was saying no to HarperCollins when they asked him to write for them seven years ago. “I was a fool,” he admits. “Hindi pulp fiction publishers are school dropouts. Some of them are blackmailers and slave drivers. Publishers with such mindsets can’t give authors their due. My previous publisher was a middle-school dropout and a very myopic and stubborn person. He could not look beyond his nose. I managed with him because in spite of all his shortcomings, he was a good paymaster.” Last year, Pathak published his first book with HarperCollins, finally putting a lifelong regret to rest.
Book sales are something Pathak thinks of constantly, and he will be the first to admit that his novels follow a fixed recipe for success. Fast-paced plots, simplistic prose and kooky characters with cheesy catchphrases? All check. And, since it’s a recipe his audience readily laps up, Pathak sees no reason to change it. “I deliver to a grudging audience who feel cheated when they don’t get what they paid for. My last book is pretty much the same as my first book. There’s nothing great about writing a whodunit,” he says bluntly.
With a career this long, it would be strange if there were no saucy or scary stories about fans and readers. Pathak doesn’t disappoint. In one case, a man tried to dispose of his victim’s corpse in a furnace. In another, a man robbed a bank by pretending to be a human bomb and later admitted to the police that he had copied the idea from a Vimal novel. But, the most bizarre is the case of the man who copied a plot and killed his wife as a tribute. He disappeared without telling Pathak his name, so he couldn’t even report it to the police. Pathak, naturally, isn’t impressed with such shenanigans. “There will always be idiots who will pick all the wrong things. When people read the Ramayana, some follow Ram whereas others are influenced by Ravana,” he says, with a touch of disgust.
While one part of his life is filled with bizarre and exciting encounters, the other is completely devoid of drama. Pathak lives a simple government employee’s life. A responsible family man, he lives with his son and his family in an old Delhi house. There seems to be no sign of burning out or even any thoughts about retiring. “I’ll write till I die because I simply can’t bear the thought of a day when people will say there used to be a writer called Surender Mohan Pathak,” he says.
pathak’s next, a sequel to colaba conspiracy, is slated for release in february this year.