Before Mogambo, there
was Ibne Safi
April 27, 2011
Urdu writers’ books are finding a new audience
through translations of his Jasusi Duniya and Imran series of
crime-thrillers since his death in 1980. Visiting from Pakistan,
where Safi migrated during Partition years, his son Ahmed talks to
Shana Maria Verghis about a dad who wrote four novels a month
and inspired Javed Akhtar to create Mr. India’s villain and Gabbar
There was a curious paradox in the life of Ibne Safi, pseudonym of
Allahabad-born writer Asrar Ahmed, who migrated to Pakistan from
India after Partition. Safi, who apparently made a club of Indian
fans, before he crossed the border, wrote Urdu commercial fiction
set around the world, on themes like romance, mystery and suspense.
But till he died in 1980, he never stepped out of Pakistan.
In fact, his son Ahmed Safi, an engineer by profession and one of
the late writer’s seven children, said he even found it trying to
travel from Karachi, where he lived, prolifically churning
pennyfarthing or ‘anna’ novels if you like, (the first was less than
a rupee), featuring the James Bond or Green Hornet-like Imran and
the duo of Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed of his Jasusi Duniya
The estate Safi’s offspring inherited, includes over 245 mystery
novels and five collections of miscellaneous writings, including
We first heard about Ibne Safi from the mouth of Mohammed Hanif, the
author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Curiously, not much
time later, we read that Javed Akhtar the lyricist, grew up on
Safi’s books. Ahmed, who with his three brothers, is an avid
Ibne-e-Safi reader, shared an anecdote with us about Akhtar: “My
dad’s publisher-friend, told him Jaan Nisar Akhtar, the poet’s son,
Jadoo, (Javed Akhtar’s pet name), was asking when the next issue of
one of my father’s books would come out. Javed Akhtar said in an
interview once, he learnt to create anti-heroes like Mogambo and
Gabbar Singh from reading Ibne-e-Safi. That is a great compliment.”
Chennai-based Blaft was the first Indian publisher to approach Safi
for a translation into English, of the Jasusi Duniya books.
Random House has already done one Imran book through a
separate translator that wasn’t so hot. They will release another
this year titled Dangerous Man by a new translator.
Meanwhile, Blaft tied with Westland on four Jasusi Duniya novels,
The Laughing Corpse, Poisoned Arrow, SmokeWater and Doctor
Dread. The last is also the name of an American criminal
mastermind who makes frequent appearances in different books. The
Jasusi Duniya novels, were translated by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,
whom readers might identify as a force in Pakistan’s Urdu scene.
Faruqi did not have an easy time, we were told, because puns in
Ibne-e-Safi which sometimes mix couplets from Ghalib or Mir, can
sometimes elude an English translation.
The location of Safi’s novels ranges from “somewhere in Hindustan,”
to different parts of the world. Ahmed Safi recalled one of his
brothers and he were going to watch the classic Lee Marvin starrer
called Shout at the Devil, when his father said he would
join, “because the book he was writing then, was set in the same
locale as the movie. Zanzibar!” The Zanzibar and other places of his
book, some totally made up, were all manufactured from Safi’s
favourite writing place. His bed. “He wrote in a sideways slump. And
he never used the table,” his son recalled. Safi’s worldly travels
were mostly confined to the places inside the books that he read.
Before he passed away though, it seems he had expressed a desire to
visit his birth village, Nara, in Allahabad. One of his nieces still
lives there. Ahmed’s elder brother managed to visit it in 1981
before his death, but Ahmed’s visa only allows him to move in Delhi.
Ahmed Safi had brought along novels by another popular Urdu writer,
now 80 and coaching students at Allahabad University, Ibne Sayid,
whose Romani Duniya series of romantic fiction was as popular
here and in Pakistan as Ibne Safi’s books were.
Ahmed, Ibne Safi’s fifth child, thinks his dad’s books with their
parallel universes, became popular, because when he started to write
in the 40s and 50s, “it was a difficult time and people wanted
escape.” Though critiqued as low-brow fiction, Safi’s popular
writing cut across stratas. He was read by the elite, academics,
autowallahs and housewives.
The lesson of all his books, the son explained, “was having respect
The story of how Ibne Safi the writer was born, according to Safi’s
son Ahmed, is that, “Someone at a literary convention said the
market was more for sexually-explicit books and there wasn’t any
mystery. My father said he would see what he could do. His first
book, Dil-e-Mujrim was inspired by Victor Gunn’s
Ironsides’ Lone Hands.” Gunn was the nom de plum of
British novelist Edwy Searles Brooks (18882-1965), who wrote a
thriller series featuring a protagonist name Ironsides Cromwell.
In those days, the books marketing route was mainly through AH
Wheeler bookstalls at railway stations in Pakistan, where you picked
a quick read. AH Wheeler no longer exists there.
Ahmed said if he saw one in India, he would photograph it for the
historical connection with his father’s books. He continued, “The
only advertising he did was a spot in Daily Jung, when a new
novel came out. We will use it to release a collection of his poetry
In his lifetime, Ibne Safi comfortably supported his large brood and
prodigiously wrote four novels each month. But his mindwork took a
toll. In 1961, Ahmed shared that, his ‘Abbu’ suffered a bout of
schizophrenia and did not recover till 1963. He explained, “The
ailment has different manifestations. Sometimes a patient gets
violent. Sometimes not. But they go into seclusion and don’t talk.
That is what my father did.” Safi was cured with medicine and
electric shocks. In those days there was no such thing as
When his Dead Mathwale was launched in 1963 by Lal Bahadur
Shashtri in Allahabad, it was a signal he was back in business.
But his doctor advised him to write only one book a month. A
psychologist told Ahmed later that, “When creativity oozes in a
flood, sometimes the brain goes numb and indicates that the person
go on without it, until it recovers”
Safi, who liked his kebabs and tikkas, didn’t drink
and only smoked between religious fasts. Keeping to himself, it
seems he was, “not one for groups.” Hence he was away from political
parties and literary communities.” An academic study of his writing
came out in a Urdu book called Psycho Mansion. It is the name
he conjured for a mental asylum beneath whose building, Imran in the
series, runs an office. Brings to mind Bedlam, the asylum where The
Joker in Batman was admitted. Or a Doctor Dang hideout. Psycho
Mansion noted that Ibne Safi dealt with issues like politics,
psychology, et al, suggesting this could be why he was popular
across the classes.
Safi, when asked, whom he would place himself next to on bookshelf,
had replied, “I wouldn’t be on a bookshelf, but under a pillow.”