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
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,
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
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
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.