Jasoosi Duniya in English

Blaft Publications, India


The Times of India


12 May 2011




The Son of Ibne Safi!

By Anuradha Varma

Ibne Safi, the pen name of Asrar Ahmad, was once described as "the only original writer in the subcontinent" by Agatha Christie and wrote 125 novels in his lifetime.

Born in Allahabad, he moved to Pakistan after Partition. He created the protagonist as the spy and crime-fighter hero Imran or X-2 in the Imran series and the duo of an aristocratic and Oxford-educated Col Faridi and his happy-go-lucky sidekick Capt Hameed in the Jasusi Duniya series. Ibne Safi was also a poet, writing under the pseudonym Asrar Narvi. Recently, Westland, along with Blaft, has published four translations of Ibne Safi's Jasusi Duniya series. His son Ahmad Safi, talks about his father's literary inspirations.

Are Col Faridi, Capt Hameed and Imran modelled on any real or fictional characters? Any secondary characters inspired from real life?

Col Faridi, Hameed and Imran are totally his creation... 'Abbou' used to term Faridi his dream hero. He wanted a law enforcement person like Faridi to exist in our system (of India and Pakistan), someone who would live and die to uphold the law. Faridi was a complete personality and over the years this character developed in such a way that Ibne Safi saheb was very careful in writing about him. One small mistake and the fans would go berserk... they wouldn't tolerate anything unlike Faridi from Faridi. That is probably the reason why though many people tried to write on Ibne Safi's character but no one adventured with Faridi!

The only secondary character that existed in real life was a comical figure "Ustaad Mehboob Niralay Alam." He lived in Karachi and claimed to be the last descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was known to have written letters to the Indian government to release all Mughal buildings, including Taj Mahal to him. Imran uses him in many novels to create various distractions for the enemies.

Where are the novels set?

A very strange thing about Ibne Safi's novels is that he never mentions the name of Faridi or Imran's countries. Although there are many fictitious places in his books described in complete geography, culture and social setups that people think those are probably real places. The reason for not mentioning the names of countries was probably that when he started writing, it was not much after Independence. India and Pakistan had come into being... but he raised the level of his locales above these boundaries yet maintaining individual identities. If you read Jasoosi Duniya with Col Faridi and Capt Hameed, from the names of the characters and places, you can guess that the series is set in India. Similarly, in the Imran series, the tell-tale names of places and characters imply that the locale is Pakistan. But why should we tag locales as such.... let's leave those to be Faridi and Imran's countries and enjoy the thrillers without any biases... that's why we have millions of fans on both sides of the border tied together with this relation.

Ibne Safi moved to Pakistan, but did he keep alive his connection to Allahabad?

The Allahabad connection never broke. He moved to Pakistan but the books kept being published simultaneously from Karachi and Allahabad till the end. Abbas Husainy Saheb of Nakhat Publications, Allahabad was more than just a friend; they had started Jasoosi Duniya in Nakhat together in early 50's and the relationship transcended the borders. Even when the mail could not be transacted between the two countries the manuscript from Pakistan used to get to Allahabad via England and other countries and the books appeared on shelves on both sides of the border about the same time. The connection still exists.

Nakhat Publications was closed down after the demise of Abbas Husainy and Shakeel Jamali as the offsprings took to other professions. In Pakistan, Asrar Publications continued publishing the novels. And during my recent trip to India, the Husaini and Safi families came together once more.

What were Ibne Safi's inspirations books, films, personalities?

Ibne Safi saheb was a very well-read person. He enjoyed reading western detective literature a lot. He loved to watch English and American movies too. He liked to watch movies of various genres: from westerns to drama and action (e.g., James Bond). His favorite though was the TV presentation of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the weekly show on Pakistan TV. He loved watching Hitchcock movies and loved how he created and depicted suspense scenes without any music. In authors, he liked Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Earl Stanley Gardner (with all the pseudonyms he used!), Harold Robbins, Alistair MacLean, Louise L'amour (westerns). When he passed away the last novel on his bedside was L'amour's Rivers West. He also used to read Urdu literature from India and Pakistan and loved Miraji as a poet.

What kind of a person was he? How did overcome the depression he succumbed to during his career? And how did he manage to write one book a month?

He was a very down-to-earth and thorough gentleman. To many, he appeared rather reserved, but to close friends, he was a very frank and jolly person. His friends still remember his acute witticisms. His satirical and humorous remarks used to make people laugh their hearts out as they do in his books. He was both Father Hardstone as Faridi and a very light hearted and jolly man as Imran... both characters strangely stem out of this single person.

In the late 50's he became too prolific a writer with the output reaching four novels a month. This was the point at which his brain stopped normal functioning in 1961, as a psychiatrist put it when I discussed this episode with him in New York in the late 90's. It turns out that in some personalities in the literary and arts field, when the creativity peaks to these levels, they become vulnerable to many mental disorders. In Ibne Safi the disorder manifested itself as schizophrenia, disabling him to function normally for three years.

According to the psychiatrist I talked to, this disorder could clear all by itself if the patient survived through a certain period. Many medicinal and clinical methods were tired. Eventually, he came out of it in October 1963 when he wrote and published his great masterpiece Darh Matwaalay which was inaugurated in India by Lal Bahdur Shastri. It was very well received on both sides of the border and people queued up in long lines to get this masterpiece.

How did he react to Agatha Christie's remark that he was the only original fiction-writer in the subcontinent?

This quotation appeared in one of the local magazines "Alf Laila Digest" (1972) narrated by a famous poet and radio personality Mr. Razi Akhtar Shauq who had a meeting with Agatha Christie.

Ibne Safi was cool about it. He never commented on this and did not use in any of his novels as a promotional line. He was indifferent about what people say about him and was more focussed on his art. Once someone advised him to write like another famous English writer and he replied, "Why don't you tell that writer to write like me instead?"

As a father, what kind of books did he encourage you to read?

As a father, Ibne Safi never put any restrictions on his kids as to what they should read. We were pretty much free to read anything. All sorts of books were available at home as he himself was fond of reading. We loved to read his thrillers as it was the reigning craze at that time. He, however, used to discuss and describe the merits of one author or type of work on the other. Fiction of all kinds was recommended by him.

How many of his novels have you translated and what was the experience?

So far eight of his novels have already been translated. Bilal Tanweer translated two Imran Series novels from Random House under the title House of Fear. Four novels of Jasoosi Duniya (Faridi-Hameed) of the Dr Dread series were translated by Shamsur Rehman Faruqi published by Blaft/Westland. Two more novels of Imran Series translated by Taimoor Shahid are in press as we write these lines. Indeed, translating Ibne Safi is not a trivial task. He mixes local Urdu/Hindi local humor with the suspense stories in such a way that the reader laughs his heart out... however, if translated plainly, these puns would have no meaning in English. Couplets of Mir and Ghalib are used along with other poets, in creating hilarious situations. A true nightmare for the translators. I would congratulate Bilal, Faruqui Saheb and Taimoor for taking the challenge and completing the task at their best. The reviews of the last four Jasoosi Duniya novels can be seen on the Amazon.com as these novels were simultaneously published in eBook formats as well. People want more... and we'd have to think about it.

How is the response to his books? Do they have more takers in the regional language or in English?

The response has been great. From the customer reviews we find out that the translations are well received and easy for people to go through as thrillers by any other world class author. The young generation that grew up on English is again discovering an author that had been limited to Urdu/Hindi speaking populations of the world. In Pakistan Urdu versions are still popular and now even primary and secondary school libraries are found ordering the complete sets. English would take some time but I am sure that as more books are translated, these will also become very popular.

What do you think of detective fiction today? Who are your favourite authors in English and regional languages?

First of all, the reading habits are declining all over the world in general. We are not seeing A-class writers as we used to in the past. Detective fiction is no exception. In India and Pakistan, not many people are writing detective fiction and for those who are, the quality of their works in not worth reading. In Urdu, there are almost none and in Hindi, I have heard of Surinder Mohan Patak saheb. But since I do not know Hindi, I cannot give any opinion on his writing. However, I have heard only good things about him. For us, he is more important and respectable because he openly declares Ibne Safi as his predecessor from whom he learned.

In the West, however, the detective fiction is written by big names like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and others. But I would have to admit that these novels are at times google-infested works of research, packing more information and with less of a story. Still, I love to read them.

Why the name Ibne Safi? And, what made you take on the surname Safi?

Ibne Safi had started writing in an era where only sexually explicit translations of the English novels were selling. If someone had to make money this was the shortest route. Ibne Safi took the challenge and created Jasoosi Duniya in 1952 which though devoid of sexually infested material, became popular in no time. When he wrote the first novel, he told Abbas Husainy Saheb that he, Asrar Narvi, the up and coming poet would not want his name to be associated with this genre of literature. The reason was the infamy of the genre of Jasoosi Duniya. Abbas Husainy saheb suggested many proper names but the final one that was very well liked was "Ibne Safi" (the Son of Safi).

When I was young, my grandfather Safiullah saheb took me to enroll in a school in the neighborhood. When the teacher asked my name, instead of saying "Izhar Ahmad" I said "Ahmad Safi" and the name stuck. All my brothers later changed their surnames to Safi. This is the name which gives us our identity and is a source of pride for all the family.



Copyright 2005 Mohammad Hanif