Ibne Safi goes international, again. In a way he was always international since his books used to be published simultaneously in both Pakistan and India. Yet his work was not available in English. Random House India has now made available Safi’s Imran Series translated into English by Bilal Tanweer. Titled The House of Fear, the collected volume containing the first two novels is already out. Blaft Publications is soon to publish some novels of Jasoosi Duniya translated by the renowned Shamsur Rehman Faruqui.
The Hindi editions, meanwhile, are being published by Harper Collins, India. Unlike the earlier Hindi versions of the 1950s and 60s, the names of the heroes Ahmad Kamal Faridi and Ali Imran have not been changed to Vinod and Rajesh. Perhaps this is the right moment to reconsider how much was lost when society failed to locate Safi’s work in the context of the early years of independence.
The author was born Asrar Ahmad in April 1928 in Nara, a small town near Allahabad. One of the earliest influences on him was Tilism-i-Hoshruba, the gigantic Urdu classic (currently being translated into English with the first volume already available). The next most important influence was Rider Haggard, whose novels She and The Return of She he read soon after moving to Allahabad for higher education.
When Safi started writing fiction and poetry he followed the literary trends of those days, for example the Progressive Writers’ Movement, but became disillusioned with them some time around 1942.
It seems that he had come to believe that purely speculative theories did not provide a very sound basis for collective development of societies – at least that is the impression one gets from his autobiographical essays such as ‘Mien Nay Likhna Kaisay Shuroo Kiya’ (‘How Did I Start Writing’) and ‘Baqalam Khud’ (‘In My Own Hand’). However, he kept the company of the leading progressive writers for as long as he stayed in India, which was till August 1952.
The catastrophic pillage and massacre of 1947 confirmed, at least to him, his doubts about the ability of pure speculation to prevent social tragedies. ‘I kept thinking and thinking, and arrived at the conclusion that such things will keep happening until the human being learns to respect the law,’ he later wrote.
In the later part of 1951 a comment made by someone to the effect that only sexual stuff could sell in Urdu provoked Asrar to launch a movement against the contemporary trends of high literature. He picked up Ironsides’ Lone Hand, a detective story by Victor Gunn and adapted it according to the tastes of the Urdu reading public, adding some literary flavour of his own and remodeling the two main characters to represent his ideals.
Dilair Mujrim which was published by Nakhat Publications in Allahabad and distributed by A.H. Wheeler & Co. in March 1952 sold like hot cakes.
Asrar Ahmad, who had by then adopted the pen name ‘Ibne Safi’ (‘the Son of Safi’, since Safiullah was the name of his father) had proven his point.
He migrated to Pakistan in August the same year and spent the rest of his life in Karachi. By the time he died on July 26, 1980 he had written 240 mystery novels based on the stock characters Faridi, Hameed and Ali Imran. By his own account, except for eight adaptations, all of them were based on original plots and almost all were published simultaneously in Allahabad and Karachi since the author remained equally popular on both sides of the border.
Literary critics labeled Safi a mere ‘popular writer’ and his fiction as ‘pulp’. This overlooks the fact that writers of pulp fiction seldom have explicitly reformist agendas (Ian Fleming once justified the promiscuity of James Bond by saying something to the effect that he was catering to an age where courtship was being replaced with seduction).
Not so with Safi. He was reinforcing the messages of commonly respected reformers such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Ali Brothers and Allama Iqbal, while, ironically, the writers of ‘high literature’ were trying to outdo each other in selling sex and sadism. Also, the works of Safi touched upon a wider range of contemporary issues – and his literary allusions covered a more diverse range of art, literature and philosophy – than any other writer who ever wrote fiction in Urdu.
These happen to be a few of the issues that were brushed under the carpet by gatekeepers of literary establishments long ago. More issues can be raised, and they are very likely to be raised now that interest in the work of Safi is about to scale new heights.
Online information about the life and works of Ibne Safi can be found at www.ibnesafi.info and www.wadi-e-urdu.com, both non-profit websites supported by his family, which also maintains a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ibnesafi