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24 July 2011

How I Started Writing

      A translation of Ibne Safi’s article, “Main Nay Likhna Kaisey Shoroh Kiya”

published in Aalami Digest in 1970

Dr. Ahmad Safi



With the sun setting, swallows would begin returning to the old and decaying arches of ancient buildings… and I would imagine Afrasiab the wizard’s imperial assemblage starting in Baagh-i-Seeb and Chalaak bin Am’r sneaking into the party with Queen Hairat’s entourage, disguised as a maid. I would sit dreaming for hours about the characters of Tilism-i-Hoshruba.

By the time I was six or seven years old, I had read all the seven volumes of Tilism-i-Hoshruba. How intensely I wished that instead of Chalaak Bin Amr’, Barq Firangi had fallen in love with Queen Hairat. I don’t know why, but Chalaak Bin Amr always seemed a bit too maulvi to me. And at the “ripe” age of seven or eight, I also used to wonder if Queen Barraan could somehow fall for me instead of for Prince Airaj.

It was a small but busy town where I first opened my eyes. It was a town of affluent landowners and cards, chess, faro and whist were the favourite pastimes of its inhabitants. Some would indulge in hunting and gaming and then there were households where literary pursuits took precedence.

My father was fond of reading and we had novels and stories piled up all around our home. But I was not even allowed to touch them. Whenever I could, though, I would steal a book from the collection, pretend to go out playing, and sneak up to the roof to read in seclusion. I used to spend a good part of the day reading books in this manner. One day I was caught and my parents had a row over the issue but in the end the decision went in my favour. My mother’s winning argument was: “He is better off than kids who waste their entire day playing marbles or gilli-danda in the streets.” After that, there were no holds barred and I was allowed to immerse myself in ancient fables and legends.

After finishing primary school in the town, I had to leave for the city for secondary education. In those days it was usual for the children of landlords to quit school after eighth grade. But my mother was of the opinion that children should be provided with the best possible education, whether they have to pursue a career or not.

Thus we shifted to the city. The reading habit had to be dropped for a while as books were left behind in the village. In the absence of books, I would not know what to do when school ended. My recourse was my imagination and I would transport myself to the magical world of Tilism-i-Hoshruba, envisioning myself the saviour of some oppressed enchantress who would then fall in love with me and magically transport the entire printing press and bookshop of famous Munshi Nawal Kishore to my backyard. Days passed and I kept wondering what an absurd place the city was — where if you do not have oodles of money, you could not get a single page to read.

Then one day at a classmate’s home I saw two Urdu books, Azra and Azra ki Waapsi (probably a translation by Inayet Ullah or some other seasoned author.) In a single sitting, I somehow finished both volumes. My imagination then took another turn. Now I would run into Azra, who looking at me observingly, would ask my name. I would say, “This humble servant is known as Asrar Narvi.” She would take a deep sigh and continue, “No, you are Kallikrates, my love. We fell in love thousands of years ago. I was immortal and you died. Who knows how many reincarnations you have been through and who knows at how many places you have emerged? And I kept looking for you. Now I have finally caught up with you in Allahabad. How old are you?” “Ten years,” I would reply. “Oh. Okay. I guess I have to wait for ten more years,” she would respond with a deep and agonised sigh.

This is how Rider Haggard captured my adolescent mind. Tilism-i-Hoshruba and Haggard together created a strange universe for my imagination which kept me occupied. My imagination had no bounds and the dreams no limits.

Then one day I finally wrote a story. At that time I was a student of seventh grade. I sent the story to the weekly Shahid for publishing. Mr Adil Rasheed was the editor of this literary journal. Taking me for a seasoned senior writer, he came up with a by-line which was something to the effect of, “A product of the thoughtfulness of the painter of sentiments, Hazrat Asrar Narvi.”

I was in trouble as soon as the story was published. People at home would tease me, “Hey you, the painter of sentiments, fetch me a glass of water.” But my stories kept appearing in Shahid, most of them romantic. By the time I reached the tenth grade, I was also addicted to writing poetry.

At the time of the partition, I was a first year Bachelor of Arts student. The tremors of that era kept me discomposed and bewildered for a long time. The chain of dreams was broken. It seemed as if some wizard like Afrasiyab had caused a rain of knives upon us and love would never reign in Hateland again.

The creative part of my brain remained unproductive till the end of the 1940’s when, thanks to some encouraging friends, I started writing satires for a monthly. But I was not satisfied by these. I felt that I must do more.

Detective story writing started in 1952. It was inspired by a debate among friends, some of whom argued that only sexually explicit stories had a market in Urdu. (In those days, Urdu literature was flooded with such stories.) I did not agree. As a result, I started writing a detective novel every month for a detective monthly. Before that, in this genre there were only a few translations by Munshi Teerath Ram Feerozepuri in Urdu and one or two novels of Zafar Umer which were localised versions of Maurice Leblanc.

As detective fiction was a totally new genre for me, initially I too seeked refuge in the folds of English. My first novel, Dilaer Mujrim, was an adaptation of Victor Gunn’s Ironside’s Lone Hand. The characters of Faridi and Hameed were my own innovation, though. After that I started writing original novels. Still, despite trying to avoid external influences, eight of my novels were not completely mine. Either the plots were borrowed from English fiction or one or two characters. If I remember correctly, I have given the details of these eight novels in the first edition of my novel, Zameen kay Badal. So out of more than 150 novels, only eight can be considered adulterated while the rest are purely mine.

“What an accomplishment, Ibne Safi Sahib. Now render some services to Urdu literature as well.” This is not my opinion but of a few wise friends.

They think that I should create purposeful literature and my belief is that entertainment is a purpose in itself. If someone has the ability to entertain the tired and fatigued minds, even for a little bit, then we should consider it a sacred duty. Leaving that aside, I tell you, my stories are always purposeful. Some intellectually challenged people start talking about escapist mentality when it comes to such stories. They probably do not know that more often than not, it is “escape” which becomes the reason for more constructive action.

It makes me laugh when the torchbearers of art and culture tell me that I should serve literature. To them I might only be wasting my time. My question to them is, which issues of life and universe are not touched upon in one or the other of my novels? But my modus operandi has always been different from the common approach. I am not convinced by ultra high discourse and an edition limited to just a thousand copies. How many people does the elitist and high literature of my friends reach and what kind of revolution does it bring to our individual or collective lives?

Whatsoever the type and quality of fiction, it is merely a means for mental escape. Its purpose is nothing but to provide recreation of one or the other kind. Just as a football player cannot be entertained by a game of chess, similarly elitist or high literature is absolutely meaningless for a big segment of our society. Then why should I write for a few drawing rooms? Why shouldn’t I write in a style which is more popular — maybe this way some high concepts may reach the common people too.

I have reached this point after passing through many terrible mental states. Otherwise, I too could have sung to the tune of universality and talked about global human brotherhood. But whatever happened in 1947 shook me inside and out. Blood was flowing in the streets and the proponents of universal brotherhood were sitting scared in their hideouts. As soon as the dust settled they all emerged from their hideouts and started shouting, “This shouldn’t have happened. This is terrible.” But why did it happen in the first place? You had been crying out loud earlier too. Why couldn’t your songs put a stop to that outburst of madness?

I kept thinking about it and finally drew a conclusion, that until man learns to respect the law, all this would keep happening. This is my mission, that people should learn to respect the law. That is why I chose to write detective fiction. I provide entertainment to tired and weary minds and on the side teach them how to respect the law. Faridi is my ideal. He respects the law himself and puts his life on stake to make sure that others do as well.


Translated by Ahmad Safi. Edited by Books&Authors for space



Copyright © 2005 Mohammad Hanif