Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi’s highly popular crime novels remind us of a lost fantasy—a world of unlikely internationalism, glamorous intrigue and deep secularism, writes Rakhshanda Jalil
I remember my father’s stack of dog-eared Jasoosi Duniya novels on his bedside table; he was a doctor. Several other older relatives too spoke of their addiction to these racy detective stories written not so much in chaste Urdu as in everyday Hindustani, robust with colloquialisms and flavourful with wit and witticisms and a generous smattering of Urdu verses ranging from the peppy and popular to the plain pedestrian. They were all university teachers, journalists or writers who normally read more sober and sedate tomes but confessed to an abiding passion for Ibn-e-Safi’s pulp series.
For many readers even today, the very mention of Ibn-e-Safi and his detective series evoke memories of long train journeys, the smell of burning coal, the cries of hawkers, bustling rail platforms and crowded Wheeler & Co stalls. For, it was at railway stations or on long train journeys that an encounter with the mad, bad world of Ibn-e-Safi usually took place, an encounter that offered an escape into a world of adventure and fantasy so far removed from the humdrum world and closed economy of Nehruvian India.
When not bought from the little kiosks at railway platforms or from second-hand bookstores, these dog-eared little books were simply passed down from older relatives. Made available now in English, they throw up unexpected challenges to the modern reader. Reading them in translation, I must confess to being somewhat bemused. I am struck more by the sociological import of Ibn-e-Safi’s creative cosmos than any intrinsic merit in the stories themselves for, frankly speaking, the concerns per se appear a trifle dated and nowhere close to some of the great English detective fiction of PD James and Agatha Christie. Reading them today, these stories evoke a syncretic and pluralistic ethos which is all the more remarkable considering that they were originally written in Urdu, and that Ibn-e-Safi himself migrated to Pakistan in 1952.
Part-Bombay, part-Karachi, and the rest a fictional, marvellously cosmopolitan city, most Jasoosi Duniya (literally, ‘the world of espionage’) novels were located in a world of the imagination that, going by their phenomenal popularity and the near-cult following of their author, evidently held a strong appeal for their Urdu readers. To me, the setting and style hold more interest than the stories, for I am mindful of the fact that they were written at a time when Urdu fiction dwelt compulsively on the horrors of Partition or waxed eloquent on the nation-building project—neither of which find any mention in these escapist fantasies. That they are so different from what was being written about at the time is precisely what interests me today as a literary historian.
Voluptuous, often blonde-haired, women in tight dresses with plunging necklines and gun-toting men in natty suits and felt hats graced the covers of these mass-produced, cheaply-priced paperbacks. Inside was a wonderful world of cafés and bars with evocative names such as Rialto’s, Sing Sing, Arlecchino, High Circle Nightclub, Shabistan and Chinese Corner. The characters who frequented these places thought nothing of zooming off on thrilling motor launches to island hideouts called Tar Jam; or hobnobbing with mysterious and alluring women, some of whom were college students or high-society ladies, or yet others who worked for a living as typists and teachers; and grappling with masked villains who used lethal arrows and poisonous gases with aplomb.
A whiff of internationalism pervaded the proceedings with stray references to foreign names and places, topical events from the global arena, ballroom dances in foreign consulates attended by women of every possible nationality, and the recurring presence of a villain named Dr Dread, an American criminal with headquarters in San Antonio, New Mexico. A policewoman called Rekha Larson, a diminutive crook called Finch, places named Arjun Pura and Gertrude Square, bartenders called Gasper, and the suave Oxonian Colonel Faridi assisted by the madcap Captain Hameed combined to create a whimsical world that was neither fully India nor Pakistan, yet exuded a distinct third-world feel. The world of Jasoosi Duniya , then, was a make-believe world that was as pluralistic, as multicultural, multi-ethnic, as we would want our real world to be. What is more, it was a marvellously secular one—for crooks and cops have no religion!
The original Urdu versions, dismissed as pulp fiction by literary connoisseurs, were liberally sprinkled with Urdu verses and colloquialisms. They conjured up a world that was at once real and unreal—the readability and easy diction of the prose made it real, whereas the complete suspension of disbelief that these impossibly convoluted plots required made no attempt whatsoever at realism. The Jasoosi Duniya novels were unlike anything being written at the time since there was virtually nothing in the whodunit mode in Urdu that came close to these cult pocket books.
Possibly the only other series that in any way resembled the Jasoosi Duniya series were the Rumani Duniya (‘the world of romance’) or the Mehakta Anchal (‘the fragrant veil’), which were like an Urdu version of the Mills & Boon romance series and were usually to be found at book stalls on railway platforms and at bus depots. I am inclined to believe that literary historians would do well to study these series for the very real possibility of a secular, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society they held out within their cheap, mass-produced pages. But the Jasoosi Duniya books, all written by a man who teetered dangerously on the brink of madness for much of his adult life, are especially delightful. The odd-couple pairing of Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed yield a rich lode of humorous situations bordering on the absurd and the fantastic.
Four of these marvellously whacky books, translated into English by the eminent Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, showcase this mad, bad world with great panache. The sleekly produced English versions use the luridly colourful covers from the Urdu originals as well as the trademark logos and numbers of the serialised books to recreate the old magic. While they fall short on every conceivable yardstick of a gripping detective novel for the English reader —especially if one is habituated to the darkly intense Swedish writers such as Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson who create tersely gripping narratives of broken men and women and a moral landscape that is as sterile as it is stark—the Ibn-e-Safi books are nevertheless useful. They remind us of an innocent time not so long ago when it was possible—and given the popularity of these books, even acceptable—to be pluralistic. Set aside the lurid covers for a bit, I urge you even to set aside the improbable situations, and you will find yourself in a world that is deeply and intrinsically secular, a world where religion plays no role whatsoever. And it is in this evocation that Ibn-e Safi and his escapist world scores over all else, for I am hard pressed to find any Indian writer doing that for me today.
In Hindi, the closest parallel one can find to the novels of Ibn-e Safi are the works of the prodigiously prolific writer Surendra Mohan Pathak, who is the undisputed king of Hindi crime fiction. Asked by my publisher (and his too since many of his novels have been published by the Hindi arm of HarperCollins) to do a live Q&A with him at one of the Book Fair events in Delhi, I was completely taken not just by the man himself but by the devotion he evokes among his fans. A loyal band of followers keeps track of all his events and, through a grapevine best known to them, show up in large numbers to cheer their hero. An unassuming man with a cheerful and unpretentious demeanour, he is the author of 300 books that have sold 25 million copies in the course of a literary career spanning over six decades!
Pathak told me somewhat ruefully how difficult it was for someone like him—he worked at the Indian Telephone Industries for much of his life—to do his research in an age innocent of the internet, and how painstakingly he built his knowledge about forensic procedures, fingerprint analysis, blood samples, DNA profiling, even basic factual knowledge about people or places.
Despite the obstacles, Pathak can be credited with building a cult series featuring the criminologist Vivek Agashe and introducing Hindi readers to scientific procedures and an elaborate piling up of forensic evidence to solve crimes—like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Beginning with his first short story, 57 Saal Purana Aadmi (‘The Man Who Existed 57 Years Ago’), published in the popular Hindi magazine Manohar Kahaniyan in 1959, he published his first novel, Purane Gunah Naye Gunahgar (Old Sins, New Sinners), in 1963.
Virtually a one-man industry keeping the pulp fiction category happily in business, Pathak’s work can be categorised broadly in five series: the ‘Sunil series’ featuring the investigative journalist; the ‘Sudhir series’ with the philosopher-detective and his home-spun wisdom; the hugely popular ‘Vimal series’ featuring a wanted criminal as its protagonist; the ‘Jeet Singh series’ featuring a safe-breaking hero; and the ‘Vivek Agashe series’. Extremely fond of jokes, Pathak has also collected an inordinately large number of jokes and published them in 26 different ‘joke books’!
Coming back to the Ibn-e-Safi books, let us look at the plots: of the four Ibn-e-Safi books available to English readers, The Poisoned Arrow is a complicated tale of good-looking, educated young women being employed as honey traps by a foreign embassy engaged in dubious espionage activities to ensnare politicians and civil servants. The American criminal Dr Dread is behind the elaborate charade of drug-dealing, prostitution and spying to destabilise a country and its government. Dr Dread reappears as Charles Brown in Smokewater which again sees Faridi and Hameed solving the mystery of the delusional industrialist, Sir Fayyaz Ahmad, who is being administered psychotropic drugs by a coterie involving his best friend and illegitimate son to seize control of his platinum mines. The Laughing Corpse uses the staples of crime fiction—the beautiful Saeeda eking out a living as a typist till one day she is left a large estate in Jamaica by a long-lost uncle and finds herself swamped by greedy suitors—to once again set the duo from the CID on a chase of Dr Dread and Finch. And finally, in Doctor Dread , nemesis catches up with the arch villain but not before Faridi has displayed his astuteness and Hameed provided flashes of comic relief with his inveterate goofiness. Interspersed with the suspense are moments of light-hearted banter, harmless flirtation between Hameed and the various lovely damsels in distress, snatches of Urdu poetry sprouted by an assortment of edgy and eccentric oddballs, and bizarre characters such as the “gigantic blubbering fool Qasim”. Being a series, several characters reappear and the narrative too refers to incidents and characters from previous stories.
That the Jasoosi Duniya books—the last was written in 1979—continue to enjoy mass popularity is evident from the number of websites dedicated to Ibn-e-Safi; tributes and accolades are piled up in virtual space to a man widely regarded as the greatest Urdu detective story writer. The ‘official’ Ibn-e-Safi website contains the most exhaustive compilation of views on the author whose real name was Asrar Ahmad, his two cult series (Jasoosi Duniya, which included 125 books, and the ‘Imran’ series with 120 titles), scanned images from the original Urdu paperbacks many of which were illustrated, as well as biographical details about the author who was treated for schizophrenia at the height of his popularity.
Read these books—both in their Urdu original and the English translations—not for any insights into the criminal mind or the human predicament that forever grapples with good and evil; read them, instead, for a glimpse into a world that transcends time and circumstance. For, if Agatha Christie introduced us to the world of the serene Miss Marple and the evil that stalks the everyday and the ordinary through a series of murder mysteries set in rural England, Ibn-e-Safi holds us by the hand and takes us into a sophisticated world of urban crime. That the world existed solely in the writer’s imagination makes it all the more intriguing.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2018 issue.