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They Did It

Kishwardesai
 

Posted: Sat Feb 27 2010, 23:37 hrs

Very few crime novels have been written in English in India, but it is a relief to know that the genre has been thriving in other languages. Coincidentally, two publishers, Blaft and Random House India, have brought out two very different books — one by well known Urdu writer Ibn-e Safi, and the other by famous Hindi author Surender Mohan Pathak.

Translations are usually very tough — and it is remarkable how well Pathak’s novel Daylight Robbery reads in English. The pace is racy, the tone is just right. Pathak himself has said in a recent interview that he does not believe in long passages of description and, therefore, the book is a page-turner with tightly written action. The book succeeds because it quickly taps into our psyche, peopled as it is with characters we are familiar with from Indian cinema. Even the book cover luridly acknowledges it, with bare-bosomed babes, racing trucks and masked men. This is unadulterated literary kitsch heaven and one reads Pathak with a relaxed sense of fun. There is no struggle with graceful or elegant prose out here — rather, the testosterone directly injected into the writing throws us back to an era when we read James Hadley Chase in which, as they say, men were men and women were, well, women.


Pathak started his career by translating Ian Fleming, Chase and Mario Puzo — and their fingerprints are all over the book. The plot is thickened with smoke-filled rooms of card sharps betting on horseracing, and eager voluptuous women (no doubt the hook for most male readers!) flinging themselves at pious, well meaning but wrongly convicted men. The latter prototype here is reflected in the garage mechanic-turned-thief, Vimal, who is on the run from the police, and gets persuaded into burgling a factory along with a gang of desperadoes. But Vimal is the anti-hero of 38 other novels, so we know that he will survive the ensuing shootouts.

One of India’s most prolific authors with over 25 million copies of books sold, at the last body count, Pathak creates a taut and clever plot with enough blood-curdling twists and turns that keep your sweaty fingers clinging to the book. There are no underlying messages or social comments — but all characters are carefully thought through and laden with plausible flaws and motivations. The perfect book when you have an afternoon to kill.

The House of Fear, by Ibn-e Safi, on the other hand, is more of a cult book and less of a thriller. Asrar Narvi who adopted the nom de plume of Ibn-e Safi was a gifted author, recognised by many as a child prodigy. Though he began by writing mature and serious prose, in the 1950s he decided to explore the genre of the mystery novel — and thus was launched a series called Jasoosi Duniya. After he relocated to Pakistan, he began another set of books, called the Imran Series. In India, sadly, we have completely missed celebrating this author and there has never been the excitement that apparently accompanied the publication of his books in Pakistan, where people queued up to buy them. He wrote them very fast, refusing to be bowed down by literary czars who considered murder mysteries lowbrow. Often writing three or four novels a month, he steadfastly maintained that elitist literature was meaningless for the masses, and he wanted to write for them. After a nervous breakdown, he died in 1980, having just completed his last book.

“The House of Fear” and “Shootout at the Rocks” (both included in this edition) are regular whodunits, but unusual for its large dose of humour. While the Vimal series might be chilling in its cynicism, the Imran series encapsulates a certain innocence along with wit and so it is a brilliant idea to re-issue these slim novellas. I found myself laughing helplessly time and again at the wonderfully written character of Imran, who is the chief of the secret service, has a PhD in criminology from Oxford and is a polyglot—and, yet, at times, seems to be fantastically confused and totally insane. Obviously, a carefully devised cover to hide a really brilliant mind! He is a sort of Pink Panther detective, but cast in a slightly more heroic mode.

Unlike Daylight Robbery, the translation of Ibn-e Safi is clunky. The carefully calibrated original prose of innuendo and puns that Imran is so famous for, falls flat many times. The translation of famous Urdu couplets is also very weak — and the reader is sometimes left groping for what the book would have been like in the original. The plot, too, often appears dated — with certain characters and circumstances very peculiar to an era that no longer exists. There is also too much emphasis on Bond-ish gadgetry to resolve problems — doors opening in walls, etc. However, some of these problems can be addressed if these otherwise excellent (and hilarious) books are better packaged and presented. Once the translation is cleaned up, and the book presentation improved (including the paper used), this series will be a wonderful glimpse into light-hearted crime fiction which has been inaccessible to readers in English, thus far.

 

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/they-did-it/584951/0

               

 


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