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Sunday , June 20 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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Move over Bond, Vimal is here

The train began to pick up speed. Vimal turned to look back. The two men were still standing by the railway crossing... The last bogie of the train went past them. Neither of them had tried to get onto the train.”

Vimal Kumar Khanna has again escaped the cruel clutches of those dastardly villains. That’s not surprising — he has been doing so in Hindi for many years. But now, the cow belt’s answer to James Bond is doing so in English.

A master of disguise, Jack of all trades and always a step ahead of his pursuers, Vimal is no less adventurous than Ian Fleming’s hero. But unlike the secret agent whose life has been an open book for English readers, Vimal was ensconced within the jackets of popular Hindi potboilers. Finally, he has taken his bow in English.

And the suave anti-hero, created by Hindi writer Surendra Mohan Pathak who has sold 25 million books so far, is not the only one. New characters are emerging as crime thrillers written in Indian languages get translated into English. And they are going great guns.

“Not many know that we have great crime thriller authors in local languages who can compete with western writers,” says Pritham K. Chakravarthy, who has translated works from Tamil into English for the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, a collection of popular Tamil crime thrillers.

It was a review of the anthology that gave life to the English Vimal Kumar. Sudarshan Purohit, a Bangalore-based software engineer and avid Pathak reader, referred to the prolific Hindi author in a blog while reviewing the book. “I used to read James Hadley Chase, John Grisham and many other writers, and I always felt that Pathak’s thrillers could easily compete with them if his works were translated,” says Purohit.

The blog caught the attention of the Chennai-based publishers, who persuaded Purohit to translate a popular Pathak novel, Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti. The result was The 65 Lakh Heist — featuring the invincible Vimal Kumar.

“The books have done well, and got us a lot of attention. Most have already gone into reprints,” says Rakesh Khanna, director, Blaft, which had earlier published the translated works of Tamil pulp fiction writers Indra Soundar Rajan, Prema Prsuram and Rajesh Kumar.

Of course, detective books had been translated into English earlier as well. Penguin presented the mysteries of Satyajit Ray way back in the Eighties. Its Byomkesh Bakshi detective stories in English met with great success too.

Other publishing houses have now zeroed in on the untapped segment. Random House India launched an English translation last year of Urdu crime thriller writer Ibn-e Safi’s The House of Fear. According to Milee Ashwarya, commissioning editor, Random House India, the book has been “well received” and more titles will be published under the series.

Diamond Pocket Books, which has published scores of Pathak novels in Hindi, has also jumped on to the translation bandwagon. “We have taken permission from Pathak to publish ten of his books in English,” says Narendra Kumar, chairman, Diamond Pocket Books. The first book, to release in July, is a translation of Aakhri Rasta — now to be called The Last Goal.

But the books’ massive readership in Hindi doesn’t translate into English as easily. Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti has sold almost 4,00,000 copies. Its English version, out in April, has sold 7,000 copies.

“But 7,000 is not a bad number considering the fact that some of the well known English fiction writers in India don’t sell more than that,” argues Purohit. What’s more important is that the genre has got a toe-hold in the world of English readers.

Writer Pathak too is impressed with the English version of his book. “I think the readers have appreciated it. And the language couldn’t have been better,” says Pathak.

One reason why the books are catching on is that they represent a different world. Here, the women are lush, the men fearless, and the villains downright mean. Even the covers are different. Most look like old Hindi film posters, spilling over with blood-splattered heroes and villains, busty damsels in distress and car chases with flames in the background. The screaming titles are often composed of letters dripping blood.

Another reason for the popularity is the low price. While vernacular potboilers sell for less than Rs 100, their English versions are priced at Rs 150-200, modest by today’s standards. Some believe that the advent of low-priced novels (by Chetan Bhagat, among others) has upped the demand for such books.

“The pricing of these books obviously helps as the authors are not known to the (English-reading) public,” says Shashindra Nath Mishra, chief operating officer, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Pvt Ltd.

Most of the readers are people who are more comfortable reading English. Tamil authors have told Khanna that their young relatives who know English better than Tamil read their works for the first time in translation.

“English reading teenagers hardly have any Indian context material that would interest them. That’s why we thought translating popular books from the vernacular would be a good idea,” adds Pranav Singh, publisher, Ponytale, which has translated Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu adventure series from Bengali to English.

The publishers try to keep the flavours of the region while translating the works. So expressions such as aiyyo and balle balle are left untranslated. But the publishers stress the books very easily transcend regions. “They have a pan-India appeal. Tamil translated works have sold the best in Delhi,” says Khanna.

Publishers say they are now looking out for crime thrillers in languages such as Kannada and Telugu. “It is not easy to translate the nuances of a language into another or be true to the original style of writing,” says Ashwarya.

Chakravarthy says that she is extremely cautious while translating thrillers. “The challenge here is to keep the pace racy and to pin down readers without making them feel they are reading a translation,” she says.

Yandamuri Veerendranath, who introduced pulp fiction to Telugu readers and whose thrillers have been translated into other south Indian languages, says every regional writer aspires to be translated into English, but it doesn’t mean that the translated works are always successful. “Some of my translated works in Kannada and Tamil have done really well, but I am not sure if books in English will see similar success. And, yes, the translation also matters,” he says.

That’s why publishers weigh a book carefully before they go for a translation, stresses V.K. Karthika, publisher and chief editor, HarperCollins India. “Not every book can travel from one language to another,” she says. “Currently we are not translating any regional thriller into English, but we might look at it — if something really interests us,” she adds.

It’s a nifty thing for regional authors to be translated into English, but they are already kings of their realms and not many are seeking to extend their empires. Veerendranath points out that many of his novels were sold within three months of publication. “One cannot expect that kind of success in English. If it comes my way, okay. But otherwise I don’t see any need to seek the attention of English readers,” he says.

Perhaps someone should put Vimal Kumar on the job. A few blazing car chases later, he’ll get a healthy English readership — on a platter — for the publishers. And it’ll be balle balle all the way.

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