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Ibne Safi - Beyond the Borders

 23 July 2011

                                                          Rashid Ashraf                                                                               



Ibne Safi wrote impeccable, accurate, authentic, modern, industrial-age Urdu proving that it can be done while following all the rules of the language. He standardized Urdu to a level that excerpts from his works could be considered as a template to teach Urdu prose-writing at the universities.

The maestro Ibne Safi was born in Allahabad on July 28, 1928 and migrated to Pakistan in 1952 after partition. Now the world is watching a revival of his immortal writings, this time in Dehli. His son Ahmad Safi called me from airport in an early morning on 22nd April while leaving for Dehli to attend the launching ceremony of four novels of 'jasoosi dunya,' the famous Dr Dread series. Ahmad Safi at the last minute was able to get his visa for Dehli. Earlier in 2010, Random House, India has published two novels of Imran Series, The House of Fear and Shootout at the Rocks.

However, this time, the translation is much better as it was done by the Illustrious translator professor Shams Ur Rehman Faruqi. Ahmad Safi managed to reached at the ceremony in time where professor Faruqi was also present alongwith a bunch of Safi family friends, avid Ibne Safi fans. According to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (www.washingtonbanglaradio.com) the translation was both easy as well as difficult; the translation itself was easy because Ibne Safi's style of writing was simple but the frequent humour in Urdu used by the author was difficult considering the culture of the times; it, therefore, was a challenge for Faruqi to translate as he basically wanted the language to be proper.


His lead characters, Col. Ahmad Kamal Fareedi and Ali Imran, M.Sc, P.H.D., Oxon, were scholarly, celibate and sober. Endowed with exceptional physical strength, quick reflexes and great survival skills, they were master spies, brilliant detectives and top-of-the-line law-enforcement officers. They were of immaculate character, utterly incorruptible. Col. Fareedi and Ali Imran, both were fabulously rich with inherited or earned wealth, as well. Ibne Safi knew how to

back up the credibility of his characters.

The set of four books is published by Westland, along with Blaft. Chennai-based Blaft also arranged the sale of these novels as 'eBooks' outside India through Amazon store and interestingly this makes Ibne Safi the second ever Urdu author, after Ghalib, claimed to be available in translation in eBook format. Blaft tied with Westland on four Jasusi Duniya novels, The Laughing Corpse, Poisoned Arrow, SmokeWater and Doctor Dread. The last is also the name of an American criminal mastermind who makes frequent appearances in different books.

Gautam Padmanabhan, the CEO of Westland, says that the author continues to attract a large number of fans among the Urdu reading public and the translated series will spread his work to a wider audience throughout the country. The co-publishing agreement of Westland with Blaft has made it possible to bring the series to the forefront. Rakesh Khanna, the founder cum editor of Blatt said that because he had previously done a pulp fiction of a Tamil anthology which became a success, he thought of doing the same for detective fiction which has been written in other languages. They will first see the success of the four series; if they are successful, then they will go ahead with the translation of the other titles of the series (www.washingtonbanglaradio.com)

While speaking to ummid.com, Ahmad Safi said: "It is a dream to meet people my father spoke about. I want to visit our ancestral village Nara in Kaushambi (district of Uttar Pradesh). My father said it used to be a peaceful village and produced a lot of geniuses at the time. The Safi family were known as the 'hakim ka khandan' because they were mathematicians, scientists, astrologers and astronomers,"

There was a curious paradox in the life of Ibne Safi, pseudonym of Allahabad-born writer Asrar Ahmed, who migrated to Pakistan from India after partition. Safi, who apparently made a club of Indian fans, before he crossed the border, wrote Urdu commercial fiction set around the world, on themes like romance, mystery and suspense. But till he died in 1980, he never stepped out of Pakistan.

Javed Akhtar said in an interview to India's daily pioneer that he learnt to create anti-heroes like Mogambo and Gabbar Singh from reading Ibne Safi." That is a great compliment.

Born in Allahabad in 1928, Ibne Safi (nom de plume of Asrar Ahmad) started writing fiction in the early 1950s while he was teaching as a secondary school teacher and studying part-time. His first series titled Jasoosi Dunya was spread over 126 books, while the Imran Series continued through 120 books. Safi's books were so popular that they were translated into regional languages and also sold on the black market. His writing even prompted the great Agatha Christie to declare: 'I don't know Urdu but have knowledge of detective novels of the sub-continent. There is only one original writer Ibne Safi.'

Ibne Safi's best known books in his days were the 'Jasoosi Duniya', published from 1952-1979. His writings have a blend of suspense, mystery, violence, adventure, comedy and romance. His books were popularly read all across South Asia.

Someone at a literary convention said the market was more for sexually-explicit books and there wasn't any mystery. Ibne Safi said he would see what he could do. His first book, Delair Mujrim was inspired by Victor Gunn's Ironsides' Lone Hands." Gunn was the nom de plum of British novelist Edwy Searles Brooks (1882-1965), who wrote a thriller series featuring a protagonist name Ironsides Cromwell. In those days, the books marketing route was mainly through AH Wheeler bookstalls at railway stations in Pakistan, where you picked a quick read.

Ibne Safi's books with their parallel universes, became popular, because when he started to write in the 40s and 50s, "it was a difficult time and people wanted escape." Though critiqued as low-brow fiction, Safi's popular writing cut across stratas. He was read by the elite, academics, autowallahs and housewives.

In his lifetime, Ibne Safi comfortably supported his large brood and prodigiously wrote four novels each month. But his mindwork took a toll. In 1961, Ibne Safi suffered a bout of schizophrenia and did not recover till 1963. According to Ahmad Safi: "The ailment has different manifestations. Sometimes a patient gets violent. Sometimes not. But they go into seclusion and don't talk. That is what my father did." Safi was cured with medicine and electric shocks. In those days there was no such thing as counseling. When his Dairh Mathwaley was launched in 1963 by Lal Bahadur Shashtri in Allahabad, it was a signal he was back in business. But his doctor advised him to write only one book a month. A psychologist told Ahmad later that, "When creativity oozes in a flood, sometimes the brain goes numb and indicates that the person go on without it, until it recovers"

Ibne Safi, who liked his kebabs and tikkas, didn't drink and only smoked between religious fasts. Keeping to himself, it seems he was, "not one for groups." Hence he was away from political parties and literary communities." An academic study of his writing came out in a Urdu book called Psycho Mansion by Khurram Ali Shafiq. It is the name he conjured for a mental asylum beneath whose building, Imran in the series, runs an office. Brings to mind Bedlam, the asylum where The Joker in Batman was admitted. Or a Doctor Dang hideout. Psycho Mansion noted that Ibne Safi dealt with issues like politics, psychology, suggesting this could be why he was popular across the classes. The second book of the series of three is expected to be out soon with the name Rana Palace.

Ibne Safi, when asked, whom he would place himself next to on bookshelf, had replied, "I wouldn't be on a bookshelf, but under a pillow."

One of the most prolific Urdu writers of the 20th century, Ibne Safi has started writing at a young age. When he was in class VII, his first story appeared in the weekly Shahid. He wrote in the 1940s while in India but in early 1952, he migrated to Pakistan after finishing his education and wrote the rest of his books from there. He started the Asrar Publications in Pakistan from where he simultaneously published 'Jasoosi Duniya' in both Pakistan and India.

The location of Ibne Safi's novels ranges from "somewhere in Hindustan," to different parts of the world. Ahmed Safi recalled one of his brothers and he were going to watch the classic Lee Marvin starrer called Shout at the Devil, when his father said he would join, "because the book he was writing then, was set in the same locale as the movie. Zanzibar!" The Zanzibar and other places of his book, some totally made up, were all manufactured from Safi's favorite writing place, his bed. "He wrote in a sideways slum. And he never used the table!". Ibne Safi used to said: "meri charpai hi mujhay tamam jahanoon ki sair kara daitee hai".


Copyright 2005 Mohammad Hanif