Jasoosi Duniya in English

Blaft Publications, India


Daily News & Analysis - DNA


10 July 2011



Where Gabbar Singh and Mogambo came from

By Srinath Perur | Place: Mumbai |

Poisoned Arrow - 110 pages, Rs200
Smokewater - 116 pages, Rs200
The Laughing Corpse - 116 pages, Rs200
Doctor Dread - 188 pages, Rs250

Ibne Safi

Translated by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Blaft/Tranquebar

The word prolific just about begins to describe the hugely popular Urdu writer Ibne Safi. In a not very long life — he was born near Allahabad in 1928, died in Karachi in 1980 — he produced 241 detective novels, a film script, and a pile of short stories, essays, articles and poems. Blaft and Tranquebar now bring us four books from the Jasusi Duniya series featuring Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed.

The setting is an imaginary coastal city somewhere in the Indian sub-continent. This is a vibrant city of nightclubs, cafes and bars, with a bustling expat population and embassies where plots are hatched. Here young women may drive, ride motorcycles and be active members of the police force; they may also smoke, dance or wear Western clothes and continue to be respectable. The city has mansions and knighted industrialists, and for a measure of realism, even a slum.

This city has attracted two new inhabitants. One is Dr Dread, a shadowy American villain who expresses himself through poisons — his victims might bloat up grotesquely and die, or be paralysed, or even find themselves tearing off their clothes in public. The other is Finch — a diminutive former circus performer of boundless agility who frequently disguises himself as a monkey and startles passers-by by asking for a cigarette. Finch has an old score to settle with Dr Dread. These four books see their respective gangs loose in the city, fighting each other and unleashing general nefariousness — abduction, extortion, blackmail, drugs, espionage, human trafficking. Desperate victims and hapless officials usually turn to the ace detective Colonel Faridi.

The aristocratic Colonel Faridi lives in a mansion with his hounds and snakes, his permanent house-guest and sidekick Hameed, and the odd damsel in distress. He is an expert at armed and unarmed combat, ratiocination, criminology, the art of disguise, and the use of gadgetry. He is refined and disciplined, will consume no intoxicant, and is impervious to the charms of women (to the constant disappointment of the delightfully named Inspector Rekha Larson). In short, Faridi is depressingly perfect, and the reader can rely on him to prevail in the end.

The books are brought alive by Hameed — lazy and whimsical with an outrageous sense of humour. Faridi usually has to drag him out of bed to set him to work, but Hameed is capable of extending himself when the need arises. Hameed, much to Faridi’s annoyance, keeps a pet “billy goat” named Bhagra Khan that he adorns with tie and felt hat and recites ghazals to. This starts a fad, and for a while the city is infested with similarly attired goats. “Many respectable persons gave up wearing ties and felt hats,” we are told. Hameed’s weakness is women, something that both the villains and Faridi use to their advantage. But Ibne Safi’s moral code will allow Hameed no more than effusive flirtation.

The Urdu originals, when they came out in 1957, were priced at 12 annas (around Rs30 in today’s money). These books cost much more, and it is not difficult to see why. The inspired translations by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi surely took much longer per book than the week or two Safi must have spent on them. (At the time he was putting out two novels a month.) These books are printed on quality paper with the original cover-art framed in tastefully gaudy colours. But fun as they are to read, they are not particularly satisfying as detective stories: plot developments can be arbitrarily motivated; there are long stretches of inane dialogue; there are convenient coincidences, hasty endings. Three of the books are just over a hundred pages in length and are over in a flash. Seen purely as pulp fiction, the books come close to being worth less than the paper they are printed on. It might have helped in this regard to combine the books into two volumes, or even one.

But the value of these books today might lie elsewhere. We can see in them the origins, or at least the foreshadowing, of some of the conventions of popular Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 80s: the heroes pitted against grand criminals; the extravagant action scenes interspersed with comedy and light romance.

The screenwriter Javed Akhtar credits Ibne Safi with teaching him the importance of having larger-than-life characters such as Gabbar Singh and Mogambo. The books also put us in touch with the tastes of a newly independent sub-continent, one disposed to easily accept a foreigner as a crook and to see the West as morally lax. And in the marvel of speculative cosmopolitanism that is the city of Faridi and Hameed, these books from the past may even allow us a glimpse of our future.



Copyright © 2005 Mohammad Hanif