Although several novelists tried their hand at writing the Imran Series, only Kaleem was accepted by readers | Wikimedia Commons
Although several novelists tried their hand at writing the Imran Series, only Kaleem was accepted by readers | Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s when I was a child, there used to be small libraries in every nook and corner of the city where I lived, which lent books on rent. Their main income came from two authors: Ishtiaq Ahmed and Mazhar Kaleem. The rent for their novels ranged between 50 paisas and one rupee per day. I would finish reading the novels in a single day in order to save paying extra money to the librarian.

Ahmed died in November 2015 and Kaleem passed away last month on May 26.

Before these two popular writers, there was the inimitable Ibne Safi who had created Imran, the most famous character of Urdu detective novels. The novels were collectively called the Imran Series and the smart and witty Imran was the quintessential crime-solver. Ibne Safi’s fame crossed boundaries and his novels were printed in pirated editions in India. After his death, many new names came to the fore; one was N. Safi, whose name — when written in the Urdu script — looked just like that of Ibne Safi. Banking on the fame of the deceased writer, N. Safi published his first novel, Maka Zunga, which was set in Africa. N. Safi was actually Kaleem.

Mazhar Kaleem, who passed away on May 26, built a loyal fan base for his detective stories in Urdu

While Ahmed created a niche readership for himself among children, Kaleem resorted to characters that had been created and popularised by Ibne Safi. Later, he used a new pen name, Mazhar Kaleem, which was not similar to Ibne Safi’s. Apart from the carefree Imran and the old regular characters of Joseph and Julia Fitzwater, Kaleem introduced some new characters as well. He developed a style that differed from that of Ibne Safi’s, yet there were ardent fans of Ibne Safi who called Kaleem a plagiarist. One thing went in Kaleem’s favour, though: there were other novelists who tried to write the Imran Series, but only Kaleem was accepted by readers. 

Born into a family of policemen, Mazhar Nawaz Khan (Kaleem’s real name) was interested in crime stories from his childhood. Ibne Safi was a big influence. After completing his education, Kaleem became a lawyer. He was known countrywide as a writer, but not many people — even in his native city Multan — knew that this quiet lawyer was actually the novelist Mazhar Kaleem. Once he managed to cultivate his own style, his themes became more complex and the conspiracies and issues in his stories that Imran had to deal with became international in nature. His readers doted on Kaleem’s Imran.

Kaleem tried his hand at other books and themes as well. He created some new series for children such as Aanglu Banglu and Chalosak Malosak, but couldn’t overshadow the popularity that Ahmed had among children. However, once those children grew older, they turned to Kaleem’s more complex plots and liked to read about characters such as Imran and Julia.

Urdu literati have never accepted the likes of Kaleem — who also did a Seraiki programme on Multan Radio and wrote some plays — as proper novelists. But no one can disagree with the fact that detective story writers such as Ibne Safi, Kaleem and Ahmed, digest writers such as Shakeel Adilzada, Mohiuddin Nawab and Mehmood Ahmed Moodi and historical novelists such as Naseem Hijazi and Qamar Ajnalvi were the ones who cultivated a passion for reading among people. A good number of readers outgrew their initial likings and went on to read serious literature. Now, when most of these writers have died or are not writing anymore, the question is: who will instil the same passion in young readers?

Popular writers have their own area of influence and while they’re not looked upon favourably by literary critics, they are widely known because of their readership. Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and Michael Crichton have their own fan base and are famous for the level of research they do for their books. Our detective writers may not have been as accomplished as them, but they were still able to create a mass of readers who were likely to read serious literature in the future.

When Ibne Safi died, there were Ahmed and Kaleem to fill the vacuum. Sadly, nobody is likely to do that after Kaleem’s death.

The writer is a poet, novelist and translator. His first novel, Char Darvesh aur Aik Kachwa will be published this year by Maktaba-i-Daniyal

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 3rd, 2018