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           Daily Times

The Comeback Kid

Afrah Jamal
 

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 English.

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 years.

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 going strong.

Afrah Jamal is a freelance journalist who blogs at http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com. She can be reached at afrahjh@hotmail.com

 

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010%5C07%5C24%5Cstory_24-7-2010_pg3_6

               

 


Copyright © 2005 Mohammad Hanif