28 March 2010

Daylight Robbery by Surender Mohan Pathak,

A desi thriller with desi values
This book is the translation of a Hindi thriller by India’s master of “pulp” fiction and whose more-than-300 books have reportedly sold more than 25 million copies. It’s a well produced, attractive-looking book and a pleasure to read for one, such as I, who enjoys a racy book. I was impressed with the quality of translation too, and mailed Sudarshan Purohit, the translator, to ask him whether he had worked along with Pathak to get clarification or perhaps to choose suitable phrases. He replied,
I speak to Pathak saheb occasionally to get historical references. This isn't too often, but it helps. Also, Pathak wrote this book in 1980 - so I can speak to any older people who remember the events described in the book - the Billa and Ranga case, for example - to get background. As for choosing suitable phrases, I have to say credit also goes to my editors who work closely with me in refining the text. And all of us have grown up reading thrillers in English, so that experience comes in handy :-)

Sudarshan also said that he is now working on Fortune's Ransom, called Karamjale in Hindi, the sequel to Daylight Robbery. Being a much larger book, it’s more work for Sudarshan - and more fun for the reader. Sudarshan also told me that Pathak's writing has changed with the times:
There are more English phrases in his books today, for example. But he doesn't use too much of high-tech technology in his work - no hidden buttonhole cameras, for example, though mobile phones are used by characters. Perhaps because he uses things known to everyone in India. Or perhaps because he's a little old fashioned himself - he turned 70 recently. He's been writing for nearly 50 years now.

Click here to read my Sunday-Mid-day review which appeared last week – or read on below.
When I was younger, and knew even less than I know now (impossible though that might seem), I loved reading James Hadley Chase. It was a great way to get in at Churchgate and find yourself magically transported, almost instantaneously, to Bandra or Andheri. So this book was like coming home.
I’m not trying to say that
Daylight Robbery is a ripped-off Chase, just that it has the same elements of easy readability and a gripping plot with unexpected and thrilling twists.
Pathak is apparently a fan who started his writing career translating Chase, Ian Fleming and Mario Puzo into Hindi. Some of the good stuff obviously rubbed off. But there is actually quite a lot of difference between Pathak and Chase – and not just that this book has characters with names like Gangadhar and Dwarkanath who say things like “Chaubey gaye the chhabbe ban-ne, Dubey ban kar aaye” and who know tonga, samosa and Provident Fund.
In a Chase book, for instance, you never know whether the good guys will win and whether the bad guys are going to get punished. Pathak, in contrast, writes from a more stolid perspective, and promotes a more nutritious morality. If you dream of getting rich fast and easy – forget it. And if you’re going to go and murder someone, no way will Mr. Pathak allow you to get away with it.
The hero of this book and well known to fans of Surender Mohan Pathak is Vimal. He’s described on the back of this book as “a man so desperate for a future that he’s willing to commit … Daylight Robbery”!
Now if that description has you anticipating a lusty, eager desperado you are going to be disappointed. Vimal might be wanted by police all over the country as a dangerous criminal, but in reality … hmm on second thoughts, if you want to hear more about Vimal, go read the book yourself.

Daylight Robbery is a translation, I found very few false notes: hardly any sloppy language, and no pretentious airing of lofty phrases or pandering to other cultures with excessive contextualizing. Some Hindi bits (as in the chaubey phrase above) are left in tact, thereby preserving flavour, and explained in a glossary.
I asked Sudarshan Purohit, the skilled translator, why he wasn’t writing thrillers of his own and he said that he does write his own stuff (there’s a historical novel on black magic apparently on the way) but thought that translating a very successful writer, someone known for his economy of phrase and tautness of story, would be good training. Another reason was that he felt it was unfair: he had heard of Pathak for years but never read any of his books because there were so many and he didn’t know anyone who could tell him which ones were good. So he decided to find out for himself – and then share what he learned with others like us, more comfortable reading novels in English than in Hindi.
Racing through this book and knowing there’s another on the way soon, it occurred to me that Chetan Bhagat’s time may have come. The swelling mass of Indian readers he spawned is now ready for something better than what he can do, and here it is, tan-tan-taraaa.

08 March 2010

Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu

The Munshi the Empress relied on
In 1887, the United Kingdom and the British Empire celebrated Queen Victoria’s 50th year as Queen. Just a few months before the celebrations began she had proclaimed herself Empress of India. To establish herself in the eyes of the world as truly deserving of this title, and to show Britain’s dominance over India, it was decided that she would have a contingent of Indian staff in full dress present at the celebrations to wait on her. Accordingly, a group of young men was selected by her representatives around the country and sent for training at the court some months before the Jubilee. One of these was Abdul Karim, an Assistant Clerk at the Agra Central Jail and the son of a hospital assistant who had worked in various cantonment towns in North India.

This book is the story of Abdul and Queen Victoria and the close relationship that developed between them. It was Abdul who cooked his Empress her first Indian meal and over a period of time it was he who gave her lessons in “Hindustani” so that she could converse with and write to her Indian subjects. As with the favourite of any powerful person, Abdul was the focus of much jealousy and intrigue.
Abdul & Victoria is well written and well presented. While telling about Abdul and Victoria it gives glimpses of court life, the values and preoccupations of the times, and the skill, pride and commitment with which Britain administrated the Jewel in its Crown. It also shows Queen Victoria as a normal, vulnerable human being – a doting mother and lonely old widow.
Through old letters and newspaper reports Shrabani Basu brings this period of history alive and focuses on a fascinating relationship that in its time created turmoil in two countries; a turmoil that has long been forgotten and can now be examined as a curiosity.

I found it particularly interesting to read the descriptions of Indian royalty visiting Britain and the sensation they created among the locals. I was also impressed with the way suspense built up in the course of the book as Abdul became dearer and dearer to the Queen and subsequently richer and more powerful and more and more hated by his colleagues, and the big question of how he would be treated after she died arose. To find out what did happen, read this excellent book yourself!
Two last things: this book is a movie waiting to be made and there has to be a modern-day Merchant Ivory who could do it justice – I can’t wait. And, finally, Rupa Publishers has outdone itself in carelessness: a label at the back indicates that this carefully-researched book is “Fiction”.