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          Daily Dawn

          December 5 2010

Revisiting Ibne Safi

Reviewed By Marylou Andrew
 

Of my favourite vintage TV series, Columbo, starring Peter Falk as the disheveled, seemingly confused and absentminded detective who solved cases with razor sharp precision, was probably the best. Columbo hit American TV screens in 1960, yet five years earlier, the archetype of the bumbling detective was created by Ibne Safi when he started writing the Imran Series.

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 125 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 subcontinent. There is only one original writer — Ibne Safi.’

Unfortunately, like most Urdu fiction writing of the ‘40s and ‘50s, Safi’s work had also completely disappeared from bookshelves and people’s memories until Random House, India decided to translate some of his works into English. Thus The House of Fear was published earlier this year with two stories from the Imran Series: The House of Fear and Shootout at the Rocks.

Both stories feature the quirky Ali Imran MSc, PhD (he likes to introduce himself that way) and his long-suffering sidekick, Fayyaz. Imran is absentminded but loves to smart talk his way in and out of situations. Fayyaz, on the other hand is eternally exasperated with his brilliant yet confused partner and tries his best to keep up with the madness. Together the odd couple whiz through Karachi on their Vespa, zoom in and out of nightclubs and deal with Imran’s womanising ways to solve mysteries which have far-reaching consequences.

The stories give modern day readers (particularly younger people) a sense of what Karachi was like in the ‘60s with its nightclubs, discotheques and casinos. Yet the paradoxes of ‘liberal’ living versus more conservative values are very clearly visible in these books.

While the mysteries are absorbing and interesting, sadly the translation falls short. Much of Imran’s smart talk — the highlight of these books — is lost in translation. For example, ‘I swear by Madhubala’s youth I will return the bag’ doesn’t sound nearly as witty as ‘Madhubala ki jawani ki kasam main bag lauta doonga.’

While the English translation is an excellent way to introduce Urdu fiction to young Pakistanis and should be continued, greater care must be taken to preserve the original essence of the author’s work.

The House of Fear
(Translation)
By Ibne Safi
Translated by Bilal Tanweer
Random House, India
ISBN 978-81-8400-097-9
228pp. Rs395

               

 


Copyright © 2005 Mohammad Hanif