The blurb on these four books describes
Ibne Safi’s Jasusi Duniya series as an “intricately demented world
of larger-than-life villains, mad genius detectives and beautiful
For once, the blurb does not exaggerate.
Safi is one of the most popular Urdu writers of the 20th century and
Blaft has done newer non-Urdu reading generations a huge favour by
publishing at least a few of his translated works. Born Asrar Ahmad
in undivided India, ‘Ibne Safi’ moved to Pakistan in the 1950s but
continued to cater to readers on both sides of the border.
He sets his novels in a cosmopolitan city
by the sea, which could as easily have been Bombay as Karachi. Here,
there are plenty of bars and cafes, dancing halls and lavish house
parties, picnicking families, plenty of nightlife. And some very
unpretty lowlife as well.
His main detective, Colonel Faridi, is a
mildly eccentric aristocrat but Hameed deserves his own star in the
literary detective’s sidekick hall of fame. Here’s a police officer
who not only lives with his boss, but also dresses his pet goat in
neck-ties and hats. Sample this delicious bit from Smokewater:
“Hameed’s billy goat, had he been human, would have committed
suicide. Or, instead, he might have assumed the role of an Urdu
critic, and pronounced a sentence of death on the ghazal that was
now being read to him”. When he is admonished for such antics by his
boss, Hameed retorts, “I have not the slightest interest in dignity…
the bacteria of dignity is even more dangerous than the bacilli of
This combination of eccentricity, social
critique, and the odd philosophical nugget is what makes Ibne Safi’s
books so likeable.
In other respects, Safi sticks to the usual
standards for pulp. The central detective (Faridi) is mysterious,
uninterested in women and always a step ahead of the criminal forces
he’s tackling — quite like Sherlock Holmes. The femme fatales are
reserved for the eccentric non-genius Hameed, although his attitude
to women is painfully real — he wants to flirt with them but he gets
bored easily. The good girls are disoriented and exasperated by him.
The bad girls pose serious threats to his life. Faridi always
rescues him, of course.
Despite the stereotypes, Hameed is such an
oddball that a turn of events is hard to predict. For instance, he
wants to dance with a female colleague in a ballroom, but not in aid
of an investigation. He just wants to escape from thoughts of crime.
Hameed’s perpetual disgruntlement lends a dash of comic melancholy
that is rarely seen in detective fiction. He sometimes seems to be
carrying the burden of the writer’s soul.
But this is a writer who treats us to
strange criminals like Dr. Dread and Finch (both make an appearance
in all four books). Finch is a former circus performer while Dr.
Dread is an international assassin who specialises in bizarre
poisons — stuff that makes a respectable girl swear loudly in public
and take off her clothes. But Faridi too has access to weaponry that
007 might covet, such as “a stun grenade, with the added capability
of settling off a blinding flash and raising the ambient temperature
dramatically within seconds”. This forces criminals to strip while
rendering them incapable of violence.
Sex and gore are palpable elements of crime
fiction but Safi doesn’t rub the reader’s face in it. A new
generation of readers will also find it impossible not to read more
into Faridi and Hameed’s complex relationship. But this awareness
only lends an extra touch of pathos to the overall absurdity.
All in all, these books are a fun read. The
translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has retained the humour and the
cultural dressing that would have lent the original novels their
tang and bite. The occasional snarky paragraph about the frailties
of women will annoy some readers but fans of pulp have to be made of
stone to resist Safi.
Poisoned Arrow (No. 60); Price: Rs. 200;
Smokewater (No. 61); Price: Rs. 200; pages: 115
The Laughing Corpse (No. 62); Price: Rs. 200; pages: 115
Doctor Dread (No. 63); Price: Rs. 250; pages: 187
Author: Ibne Safi; Translator: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Publishers: Blaft & Tranquebar