These new Blaft translations of the ultra-mega-super-hit Surendra Mohan Pathak crime novels put me in a bit of a bind. Did I want them because they have lurid pulp covers, fabulously illustrated by
My formative years were the very early '90s, when '80s cinema entered its heyday. I want to know if there was a Raymond Chandler flying off the shelves of the Higginbothamses and the Wheeler and Cos. of the dusty railway bookstalls of The Real India at the same time that Sunny Deol and Feroze Khan [and Vinod Khanna, and other men with a propensity to leave their shirts unbuttoned to the navel as they stalked about ravines with rifles on their shoulders] were entertaining us stationary toffs in the cinema halls. Vimal, the hero of Daylight Robbery, could have been played on screen by any of these guys -- maybe not Vinod Khanna, who was perhaps always a little too urbane, or Feroze Khan, who just couldnt act, bless him. But definitely Sunny Deol [we will discuss the relative merits of Sunny Deol's acting v/s Feroze Khan's acting in a later post dedicated to the mullet in Bollywood]. Vimal of the thousand names and disguises is a tragic action anti-hero. He could never be played by Amitabh Bachchan, who would fail as a man so seemingly unable to control the larger narrative of his life. Vimal lives in a world surrounded by evil. He is repeatedly roped into committing armed robbery, extortion, GBH and even murder by crooks who have his number and are putting the screws on him to make use of his extraordinary talents. Worse: beautiful and desperate women are throwing themselves at him. Tainted money is hoarding itself in the trunk of his stolen car. Vimal, who only entered a life of crime because his faithless wife tricked him into jail on trumped-up criminal charges in the first place, just wants a break, damnit! Time for an NHRC intervention!
So no, this isn't exactly Khachaturian-endorsing, society-in-chaos wiseass territory. This is Aluminium-Age, dying-gasps-of-the-planned-economy-era Bollywood territory. It is melancholic, but only in the sense that it deals coolly with the inner turmoil of Vimal, or the grasping, unhappy [and very sexy] Shailaja. There's an odd fatalism about Vimal and his attempts to escape the grip of a criminal life, an escape that you sense he never quite expects to achieve. Like a bird on the wire, as Leonard Cohen would say.
The pulp aspects of the book are almost one hundred percent goodness. For all that the portrayal of the beautiful/desperate woman was ultimately a turnoff for me, there was plenty to admire. Pathak has a brisk but very visual style, and a gift for atmosphere. Characters are drawn with cutting efficiency, and they play well with and off each other. An early sequence when the main players in the heist sit around a card table to induce a man to co-operate with their scheme is probably the most delicious part of the whole book - you watch with bated breath as a textbook confidence trick that is executed unhurriedly and mercilessly. That's real call-up-the-author stuff.
And it is a dashing, action-walla book; the thrills and chills set-pieces are pulled off exquisitely. Pathak recreates familiar action scenes with an intense, snappy vigour. Reading them is like watching a toe-curling sequence out of a Manmohan Desai film [and I really have no higher compliment to bestow on any art, as anyone who knows how I feel about Amar Akbar Anthony can confirm]. Oh, yeah. Getaway cars! Jumping on trains! Robbing a salary van in broad daylight! I love the translation here - it never falters or grows awkward, and the English that it produces is perfectly readable anywhere in the Anglophone world, while remaining distinctly desi. Perhaps best of all for me, it makes me want to read Pathak in the original. I will. I'll stop off at the Wheeler and Co. next to the ticket counter at Churchgate next week and ask for one.
#21 Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido [re-read]
I've flogged this book so often that I have nothing new to add. To recap: I am always seduced by Trapido's gentle, self-mocking tone. She sends up a female poseur and a particularly female manner of disavowal even as she enters fully and joyfully into the spirit of posing and disavowing through her central character, the clever and timid Katherine Browne. In one of Trapido's later books, an undergraduate student writes a paper on Shakespeare's comedies in which she says, 'The Tragedies are Tragedies and the Comedies are Tragedies. The Comedies are a better sort of tragedy because they make us laugh and because the characters stay alive. Survival is admirable.' This is the spirit in which Katherine's character begins her story [in a charming, half-flippant, half-arrogant voice] and takes it forward. She does this among other things, by playing with a very old chestnut: the love triangle. It is also an odd bildungsroman; it meanders with Katherine as she picks her way through philosophy, love affairs, families and life at home and abroad, but it is intimately concerned with the fulfillment she finds with other people - ultimately with the lovable, irritating brother of the more famous Jack. Trapido writes heady, anti-naturalistic dialogue and a completely literary prose, but she does it lightly and sweetly. It sends everything up in a way that could make you almost miss the sadness. It's a comedy, alright.