Watch out for Ibne Safi. He is all set to strike again. A popular favourite and an unsurpassed phenomenon in Urdu, the master of crime and thrills is now reaching out to a new audience in a new language.
Recently Psycho Mansion, a selection from Ibne Safi’s various books, edited by Khurram Ali Shafique, was published from Karachi. This followed the translation into English of two of his novels by Pakistani translator, Bilal Tanweer, which were published by Random House, India. And more recently, the shelf has expanded with Doctor Dread, Poisoned Arrow, Smokewater and The Laughing Corpse — four smartly designed new titles published by Blaft Publications in association with Tranquebar Press in India.
These volumes reprint the original covers from the Jasoosi Duniya series. No doubt these covers will send a shiver of nostalgia down the spines of the old enthusiasts and will also attract the attention of design buffs for their “period” look.
The trademark and insignia of Jasoosi Dunya and Ibne Safi’s own publication house, set up to ward off the evil eye of imitators and competitors, are retained. The connection with the original also remains strong with the original name of the book written in Urdu on the inside page as well as in the headers.
In keeping with gun-toting gentlemen and swooning ladies, the bottom of the cover carries the pronouncement, “The all-time greatest Urdu detective story writer” credited to Dr A.Q. Khan, described as the “founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.” Evidently, Dr Khan is a fan of Ibne Safi. But then, who can say that the Valiant Father of the National Bomb may not have stepped out of Ibne Safi’s pages?
Also on the cover is the name of the translator, which will surprise many. No information about him is provided, but the translator is none other than Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the leading critic and scholar who has taken the Urdu literary world by surprise with his stylistically ornate novel, Kai Chand Thay Sar-i-Asmaan. Well-known for his work on Ghalib, Mir and the dastaan literature, Faruqi is a critic who enlivens and illuminates whatever his subject is. At the risk of inviting the wrath of ardent Ibne Safi fans, let me confess that it was less love for the writer than curiosity and admiration for the critic and translator which drew my attention to these volumes in the first instance. And I have no hesitation in reporting back that I am pleasantly surprised by Ibne Safi as well as his translator.
Firmly rooted in his own particular time and language, it comes across as a discovery that Ibne Safi does well in translation. Like high-profile crime and espionage from the days of Cold War onwards, (remember the Mad version of “Spy vs Spy”?), crime fiction too has changed, becoming swifter and hard-boiled. But though leisurely and almost romantic, Ibne Safi still manages to be interesting in the age of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Faruqi has served the author well and the translations manage to be contemporary and close to the spirit of the original without being pedantic. Ibne Safi had developed an interesting style which had access to several registers, ranging from high flown and literary allusions to popular street language. For instance, a lively exchange between Rekha and Hameed in Doctor Dread goes thus: “Utho wagarna hashr naheen ho ga phir kabhie” or “Rise, oh rise now, for doomsday will only come once!” The same novel has the crime reporter Anwar tell Shaheena, who is seeking his help to find out what is troubling her mother: “It’s not uncommon for romantic peccadilloes of youth to drive people to write poetry in their old age,” which could easily be a jibe at Maulana Shibli Nomani. This is written in a light-hearted bantering style, but Ibne Safi had the gift to pack such sentences with deeper, and even sinister, meanings. The translator has successfully managed to convey these shifts in mood.
Faruqi has also written a brief introductory note to the translations. He comments on the possible reasons behind Ibne Safi’s phenomenal success: “His humour, the topicality of his stories and relevance to world politics as reflected through the consciousness of a third world narrator, his memorable characters, his fast-paced narrative, and his original and imaginative situations.” Faruqi is nearer the mark when he says that “perhaps the most arresting characteristic of the universe he created is its plenitude,” and goes on to quote the Urdu short story writer Khalid Jawed that “in his two series, Ibne Safi created two maha-kavyas for modern times.” Jawed has authored the most serious critical essay on Ibne Safi and it is a pity that they have not been published in Pakistan. This creation of modern maha-kavyas brings Ibne Safi closer to the authors of Dastaan Amir Hamza and Tilism-i-Hoshruba and may serve to explain Faruqi’s enthusiasm for this creator of an entire cycle of novels, a dastaan in itself.
According to Faruqi, Ibne Safi wrote 125 novels with Faridi as the lead character and 116 novels in the Imran series, as well as other books. This is an amazing record and leaves behind other prodigious writers such as Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret, who published nearly two hundred novels under his own name.
I have just read Simenon’s Monsieur Monde Vanishes, a penetrating psychological novel published in the New York Review of Books series, which includes the fascinating biographical detail that Simenon is said to have broken up with the celebrated American dancer in Paris, Josephine Baker, because he realised that he had produced only 12 novels in a year as their affair was a distraction! Ibne Safi would have sympathised with this dedication.
Ibne Safi’s world is now opening up for an English audience who will find it no less interesting than their Urdu counterparts, thanks to successful translations. It is now time that a meaningful biography of Ibne Safi, doing justice to his internal turmoil hinted at in the novels, and a biographical dictionary of his characters, is also published.
The writer pens fiction and criticism