Ibne Safi was the bestseller of bestsellers. Though he moved to Pakistan in 1952 and died more than 30 years ago, his Urdu detective novels continue to be reprinted in India. Some people are rumoured to have learnt Urdu just so that they could read Safi’s detective stories. Others have confessed that his are the only books they’ve ever read. The very names of his books seduce you into a world where fantasy, fiction and facticity merge: The Laughing Corpse, Smokewater, The Killer Pebbles, The Roar of the Stone. There has never been a writer like him in Urdu nor has there been this kind of popular fiction in any other Indian language.
Many Urdu-speaking Indians own all of Safi’s books, which include the 125 or so works that made up his Jasoosi Duniya (Detective World) series and the 116 books of the Imran series. The protagonists of both series find themselves embroiled in crimes that range from simple kidnappings, property disputes and murders to blackmail, obsessive criminals, national defence matters and international conspiracies. The country in which his books are set has a secret service and a defence establishment that is populated mainly by Muslims, with some odd Hindus. Though the majority of his readers were Urdu-speaking Muslims, Safi’s books are secular and sometimes even anti-religious. One hardly ever comes across a religious reference in his bestsellers.
Safi’s characters move in a globalised world that had not yet touched small-town India in the 1950s and ’60s: bars, cafés, discos and Anglo-Indians abound; women dance themselves silly to European tunes; everyone is educated; and crime is not so much a social phenomenon as much an individual failing. This is an India that is cosmopolitan, chic and very rich. The allure of this fantastical world was irresistible.
No wonder Safi was able to appeal to the officer and the chaiwalla, matrons and teenagers, the literati and precocious schoolchildren. His books, four of which have just been published in English, also found readers across age barriers. I would share his books with cousins, aunts and uncles who were at least 20 years older than I.
Here is the lay of the land. Imran is a member of the secret service who is hated by pretty much all his colleagues, the police and other government officials because he is always playing the fool and keeps getting up to ridiculous adventures. He reports to the boss, the powerful X-2, through the Swiss secretary Juliana Fitzwater. She is love with X-2, whom she has never seen, but like everyone else Fitzwater detests Imran. Even Imran’s father Sir Rahman, the head of the country’s internal intelligence service, disapproves of his son’s frivolity and has him thrown out of the house. The only person who doesn’t seem to hate Imran is his deputy, Black Zero, who knows the truth: that Imran and X-2 are the same person.
Imran operates out of Rana Palace, the headquarters of the secret service. He is a master of disguise, arcane knowledge, languages, drives two-seaters, motorcycles and other chic vehicles and is also equipped with sundry kinds of gadgets. Other characters aid his adventures. There’s Imran’s lazy and over-smart cook, Suleiman, who keeps fighting with his shrewish wife and with Joseph, Imran’s alcoholic manservant who was a former heavyweight champion. Imran’s friend Qasim is a rich businessman, obese and gigantic, who has a stutter and is mortally afraid of his wife but is always trying to find a girlfriend through Imran.
Alongside Imran, Ibne Safi also created the Jasoosi Duniya series featuring Faridi and Hameed, who are partly modelled on Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Faridi is an Oxford-educated, aristocratic detective (later co-opted by the government) who runs a laboratory in his mansion, has greyhounds, detests women and is cold-blooded, logical, incorruptible and ultra cool. Hameed is his bumbling, flirtatious, flippant sidekick whose conversations with Faridi sometimes border on homoeroticism.
I discovered the Jasoosi Duniya in the late ’70s as I was also reading, in Hindi, SC Bedi and his Rajan-Iqbal series, Ved Prakash Kamboj, Om Prakash Sharma and his Vikrant series and the world of the Urdu digests, with Mujrim topping the list. But Ibne Safi was Ibne Safi. Born Asrar Ahmed near Allahabad in 1928, he emigrated to Pakistan five years after Independence. By then, his first novel Dilaer Mujrim had already become a bestseller. His books were published simultaneously in India and Pakistan, and sometimes smuggled into India through Africa or other more circuitous routes. We were warned not to succumb to fake or pirated versions and look out for his full name Ibne Safi BA to tell the counterfeit ones from the authentic ones. (Similarly, we were warned to only read the Bedi series with a photograph of Bedi in a shawl.)
Even though many critics don’t believe that detective novels are worthy of their attention, Safi’s books have been the subject of academic discussion. The Urdu writer Khalid Javed has written a paper showing that Imran’s apparent ridiculousness stems from a serious existential position, the philosophy of ludicrousness that goes one step beyond absurdism. SR Faruqi, who has undertaken the latest translations into English, maintains that Safi’s strength was that he gave a great impression of knowingness. Mysterious itches and dead birds falling from the skies, radioactive stones, sadist serial killers, abductors of pregnant bitches, the mysterious and the fantastical all merge in a pseudo-scientific tenor to create a modern panoply out of the old fantasies of the Tilism-e Hoshruba (the 8,000-page Urdu epic published in the nineteenth century that I draw from for my dastangoi, or story-telling, performances) and of which Safi was extremely fond. There is also the witty dialogue and the poetic alliteration that has allowed many to claim that his works have considerable literary merit.
Safi has created a world that merges India and Pakistan, without ever naming them, and allows for transnational flows while solving international crimes and staving off threats from neighbouring countries. Imran is the coolest, wittiest, rudest, meanest hero I have known: a modern-day reincarnation of the Aiyyaars or tricksters who appeared in traditional Islamic epics. No wonder I have liked him since I was a child.
Clueless in Kandivali
When well-read Mumbaiites of a certain age gather for cocktails and the conversation turns to crime fiction, you know that it’s only a matter of time before someone recalls how the British writer HRF Keating banged out his first Inspector Ghote novel in 1964 without actually visiting Mumbai. Then someone else will add that Keating wrote 10 novels about the Mumbai police inspector before setting foot in the city. Ironically, through the 1970s, though many people had heard about Keating’s Mumbai novels, not many Indians had actually read them. For unknown reasons, imported copies of the books were never distributed widely in the subcontinent and there were no local editions.
Until now. Weeks after Keating died in March, Penguin has published four Ghote novels, with an introduction by the Scottish detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith. Smith rebukes critics who dismiss Keating’s novels as inauthentic just because the British writer wasn’t completely familiar with Mumbai. After all, historical novelists “write about places they have never been to and cultures of which they cannot, by definition, have personal experience”, McCall Smith notes.
He adds: “If one wants the contemporary blood and sinew of Mumbai, then one can read Vikram Chandra’s magnificent epic, Sacred Games. If one wants something more picaresque, something lighter and more comic, something that has the elusive quality of fable to it, then Inspector Ghote can be called to hand.”
The Perfect Murder; Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart; Under a Monsoon Cloud; and Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, Penguin, R299 each.
By Mahmood Farooqui on May 12 2011 6.30pm