July 24 2010
A long time ago, a little girl read what
she thought was the best Urdu mystery novel ever. It starred three
boys and was set in Thailand. Years later, she came across the same
book. This time, it was in English and starred three girls. The
novel was Nancy Drew. Needless to say, Carolyn Keeneís version had
come first. However, while some were getting duped into buying
forgeries, others were lining up for one Ibn Safi ó writer
extraordinaire, and king of Urdu crime fiction who reigned over both
sides of the divide from 1950-80.
Asrar Ahmad has penned hundreds of stories
under the nom de plume Ibn Safi. He is probably best known for
creating the two highly popular whodunits, Imran Series and Jasoosi
Duniya (The World of Espionage).
Imran Series was developed in the early
1950s after Safi moved to Pakistan. It became a runaway success. The
saga might have officially ended, but Safiís characters lived on as
other enterprising writers took over and kept the franchise afloat.
Ali Imran makes a comeback with The House
of Fear, as the original franchise has been revived by Bilal Tanweer,
who introduces the English-speaking world to Ibn Safiís work. Ali
Imran, the star of the story, is an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes,
Bertie Wooster, Hercules Poirot, James Bond and a few other leading
men of that era. Regardless of his questionable lineage and dubious
origins, a simplistic hero from the 1950s charmed his way into
millions of homes.
Born in a privileged household, this
handsome young chap is the poor manís Wooster (a la P G Wodehouse),
who confounds both friends and family. ďThe only time he doesnít
appear crazy is when he is silent,Ē observes one character. Not a
promising beginning for a would-be super sleuth, but a great one for
the head of an intelligence service.
A defective detective/spy with a moronic
sense of humour, a habit of misquoting poetry, a general air of
incompetence and moral uprightness: youngsters were quick to embrace
this intriguing character. The two specimens presented here ó The
House of Fear and Shootout at the Rocks ó are mildly entertaining,
but not on a cerebral level. In one of the narratives, Imran must
discover why dead bodies keep turning up on an abandoned property
while in the other he investigates how a three-inch wooden monkey is
related to a 200 year-old gang. To be fair, some of Ibn Safiís magic
might have been lost in translation. Being unable to judge the
beauty of Safiís prose puts one at a slight disadvantage. Not
everything that is hilarious in Urdu retains its integrity in
Newcomers to the series must make some
allowances for the time in which it is set. Then, Karachi was a
cosmopolitan city and Imranís world comes duly equipped with all the
trappings of a super sleuth, where Chinese villains, British
houseguests, and Czech visitors run amok. Frequenting Tip Top
nightclub was also considered to be normal. Also, intelligence
agencies were still revered. The fact that the protagonist is the
son of the director-general of an intelligence outfit and leads a
double life as the formidable chief of a secret service ó X2 ó and
as his usual asinine self is definitely not a turn-off after 40
Given the time period and the
circumstances, one can understand the initial appeal. Pakistan was
young and the people were easily dazzled. What appears now to be
pretty standard fare must have been revolutionary for its times.
These lightweight mysteries were more like novellas and fans did not
have to wait very long for the climax. Like all good heroes, this
one always saves the day, but is modest, and lets his friend at the
Intelligence Bureau, the good superintendent, take the credit.
Whatever the reason, Imran captured the imagination of a nation and
Safiís characters, quirky or otherwise, became household names. Both
these stories promise a few hours of harmless fun and a chance to
revisit the good old days.
The most striking point about this
publication is that the name of the queen of crime fiction appears
on the cover. Agatha Christieís glowing tribute (an excellent
endorsement) merely signifies that she was aware of Safiís stature
in the subcontinent. But even if Safi reportedly outsold her, Agatha
Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, P G Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan
Doyle were in a league of their own ó specialists in their field.
Novelists like Safi, however, belonged to a
different group. They occupied (and still do) a special place in the
hearts of millions, not just for having provided a great escapist
fantasy, but also for making the most threadbare of plots memorable.
The author was clearly inspired by the greats who came before him.
He also managed to motivate countless others who came afterwards. He
has left an impressive body of work and according to his son, Ahmad
Safi, other Urdu crime fiction writers have been unable to better
his sales record.
Safiís books are not about reaching a
destination but the journey itself. Ali Imran religiously reported
for duty every month and kept generations entranced for over 20
years. That people continue to be drawn to Imranís madness is
testament to Safiís brilliance. Twenty-nine years after the series
ended and nearly half a century later, the Imran Series is still
Afrah Jamal is a freelance journalist who
blogs at http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com. She can be reached at