A cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, Pakistani writer Ibn-e-Safi’s macho crime novels have been popular with generations of Urdu readers since they first appeared in the 1950s. With the publication of his English translations, his exploits will now captivate a much wider audience.
Translated by noted Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the first four volumes of the “Jasoosi Duniya” (The World of Espionage) series – “Poisoned Arrow,” “Steaming Water,” “The Laughing Corpse,” and “The Doctor of Fear” – have been published by Ibn-e-Safi’s son, Ahmad Safi.
Ibn-e-Safi, the first crime novel author in Urdu literature, began in the 1950s with the Jasoosi Duniya series, about the tough Colonel Ahmad Kamal Faridi and his aide-de-camp, Captain Sajid Hameed, as a challenge. This was followed by the Imran series, starring the young and seemingly goofy Ali Imran, who is actually the head of the intelligence agency. Two of Imran’s adventures were translated into English in 2009.
“My father decided to write crime novels after other writers told him at a literary forum in India that crime novels without sex and violence would not sell in the country,” Ahmad Safi, the driving force behind the English translation of Ibn-e-Safi’s books, told IANS.
“My father took up the challenge and said he could do a crime novel without sex. He created James Bond-like books without women and sex,” he added.
“When a local publisher published the first book in Allahbad in 1952 and displayed it in the A.H. Wheeler bookstore at the train station, the books sold out within a week. The publisher was surprised. The books had to be reprinted several times,” Safi said.
Born in 1928 in the village of Nara in the Allahabad district of Uttar Paradesh state, Asrar Narvi adopted the pen name Ibn-e-Safi (son of Safi, after his father Safiullah) and wrote prolifically until his death in 1980 in Karachi. His oeuvre totals 245 books, including “Jasoosi Duniya” and the “Imran Series”, set in places as diverse as Spain, Italy, England, Scotland, the Pacific Islands, Zanzibar, South Africa and the United States.
All this happened without Ibn-e-Safi ever setting foot outside his country.
“He was an avid reader and his knowledge of these countries came from books. Those who read his adventure stories identified with exotic places like the Amazon jungles he wrote about in his books. He researched the environment, geography and culture of a place before making it the setting for his novel,” says Ahmad.
In one of the new translations published jointly by Westland and Blaft, “Doctor Dread,” translated from “Diler Mujrim,” wealthy widow Begum Irshad is blackmailed by a mysterious foreigner. Crime reporter and freelance investigator Anwar is hired to go undercover and find out who it is.
Meanwhile, Faridi and Hameed try to find out why a mentally challenged person is locked in a five-story building. Both cases appear to be related to the feud between small-time assassin Finch and American criminal Doctor Dread…. related.
Translating Safi’s works into English was a challenge, Ahmad says. That’s because there was wry humor interwoven with the action and drama.
“It was difficult to capture the Urdu humor in an English translation. For example, my father used Ghalib couplets in situations where they were funny,” he said.
His books were avidly devoured by his readers and such was the enthusiasm that when Ibn-e-Safi fell ill in 1961 and stopped writing for three years, unscrupulous elements tried to cash in on his name.
“During this period, several impostors began publishing crime novels under his name. When he resumed writing after three years with “Dher Matwale”, his book was published in India by the then Union Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. In Karachi, the queues to buy his books were snake-like. But his readership in India was much bigger,” said his son.
Sales and demand were so great that a second edition had to be published within a week.
Ibn-e-Safi received praise from various quarters, including the high priestess of crime novels Agatha Christie, who once said, “I don’t know Urdu, but I know the crime novels of the subcontinent.” There is only one original author: Ibn-e-Safi.”
One of Safi’s dreams before he died was to revisit India, Ahmad Safi said.