Sunday, 5 December 2010

From Pakistan, with Love

The following article of mine was published in Dawn, Books & Authors today.
Ibne Safi goes international, again. In a way, he was always international since his books used to be published simultaneously from India and Pakistan. Yet his work was not available in English. Random House, India, has now started publishing Imran Series translated by Bilal Tanweer. Titled The House of Fear, the collected volume containing the first two novels is already out. Blaft Publications is coming up with some novels of Jasoosi Duniya translated by the renowned Shamsur Rehman Faruqui.

The Hindi editions are being published by Harper Collins, India. Unlike the earlier Hindi versions of the 1950s and 60s, the names of the heroes Ahmad Kamal Faridi and Ali Imran have not been changed to Vinod and Rajesh. Perhaps it is the right moment to reconsider how much was lost when the society failed to locate Safi in its literary current in the early years of independence.

He was born Asrar Ahmad in April 1928 in Nara, a small town near Allahabad. One of the earliest influences on him was Talism-i-Hoshruba, the gigantic Urdu classic (currently being translated into English with the first volume already available). The next most important influence was Rider Haggard, whose romances She and The Return of She he read soon after moving to Allahabad for higher education.

When he stared writing fiction and poetry, for a while he followed the literary trends of those days, such as the Progressive Writers’ Movement, but became disillusioned with them sometime around 1942. It seems that he had come to believe that purely speculative theories did not provide a very sound basis for collective development of societies – at least that is the impression one gets from his autobiographical essays such as ‘How Did I Start Writing’ (‘Mien Nay Likhna Kaisay Shuroo Kiya’) and ‘Baqalam Khud’ (In My Own Hand). However, he kept the company of the leading progressive writers of the area as long as he stayed in India, which was till August 1952.

The catastrophic pillage and massacre of 1947 confirmed, at least to him, his doubts about the ability of pure speculation to prevent social tragedies. “I kept thinking and thinking, and arrived at the conclusion that such things will keep happening until the human being learns to respect the law,” he later wrote.

In the late 1951, a comment by someone to the effect that only sexual stuff could sell in Urdu provoked Asrar to launch a movement against the contemporary trends of high literature. He picked up Ironsides’ Lone Hand, a detective story by Victor Gunn and adapted it according to the tastes of the reading public of Urdu, adding some literary flavor of his own and remodeling the two main characters to represent his ideals. Dilair Mujrim, published by Nakhat Publications, Allahabad, and distributed by A.H. Wheeler & Co. in March 1952, sold like hot cake. Asrar Ahmad, now using the penname “Ibne Safi” (“the Son of Safi”, since Safiullah was the name of his father) had proven his point.

He migrated to Pakistan in August the same year and spent the rest of his life in Karachi. By the time he died on July 26, 1980, he had written 246 mystery novels on stock characters Faridi, Hameed and Ali Imran. All except eight adaptations were based on original plots (by his own account), and almost all had been published simultaneously from Allahabad and Karachi, since the author remained equally popular on both sides of the border.

Literary critics labeled him a mere “popular writer” and his fiction as “pulp”. This was to overlook the fact that writers of pulp fiction seldom have explicitly reformist agendas: Ian Fleming once justified the promiscuity of James Bond by saying something to the effect that he was catering to an age where courtship was being replaced with seduction.

Not so with Ibne Safi. He was reinforcing the messages of commonly respected reformers, such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Ali Brothers and Allama Iqbal, while, ironically, the writers of “high literature” were trying to outdo each other in selling sex and sadism. Also, his work touched upon a wider range of contemporary issues – and his literary allusions covered a more diverse range of art, literature and philosophy – than any other writer who ever wrote fiction in Urdu. That does not sound very “pulp” either.

These happen to be a few of the questions brushed under the carpet by the gatekeepers of the literary establishment long ago. More questions can be raised, and they are likely to be raised now that interest in the work of Ibne Safi is about to scale new heights.

Note: Online information about the life and works of Ibne Safi can be found at and, both non-profit websites supported by his family, which also maintains a Face Book page at


Rashid said...

ڈئیر خرم بھائی!
خوبصورت مضمون، دلکش تحریر
اور میری سائٹ وادی اردو ڈاٹ کام کا ذکر کرنے کے لیے خصوصی شکریہ، ایسے تمام موقعوں پر محنت وصول ہوتی نظر آتی ہے

خیر اندیش
راشد اشرف
کراچی سے

Thinking said...

hmm...fortunately...Shafique Sahib....literature belongs to no one and no one owns literature.

This is one of the so many abstract or virtual rights with which every human starts his/her life.

One choose his/her literature with time...and to some extent with pressure from his/her elders...but end of the day...literature is one's own choice...

Literature...not only moulds the minds but also helps in framing the future of any country.

And though its free...people often misuse it and sometimes even make it cheap to dirt.

That's why caution should be taken before choosing literature...

But there are few....who not only take it as a responsibility but also used it as an ornament to mould the generations and next.

These few people knew what is the basic power behind literature and they used it well.

Ibn-e-Safi's message...was simple that he wanted his generation and his next generations to follow the follow the LAW...

I wonder...why anyone could recognize his work as PULP the fiction where no one is above law...where every single character finaly getting a fair deal...

Where reading the whole book left no embarrasment on any of the subject or left no regret...

The literature which is bringing the unity in between every person of community...

Why such literature has a label of PULP fiction category?

hmmm...I protest...strongly....

First of all we have to make our mind...this is not PULP fiction....

And once we recognize it as NON-PULP will soon rise itself.

Good Article !

connie nash said...

As a writer-activist, of course I'm always interested in your themes along this line, what with your WIDE view of history - chronos - as well as your insights into kairos which leap universal beyond time and space. Thus: your recognition of Ibne Safi's insights that "purely speculative theories did not provide a very sound basis for collective development of societies" grabs me deeply and with your's/Safi's partial solution that catastropes caused by human violence will "keep happening until the human being learns to respect the law,” leads to the larger question for our time particularly, how do we work universal/worldwide/beyond ideologies and yet within them to cause the law-keepers to abide themselves by the law and 2nd) how do we motivate one another and others to keep the law of our "inner light, God-shaped vacuum, the law of the heart along with the outer imposed laws of state and/or religions?

Connie L. Nash said...

Somehow, my last comment here seems to have disappeared but I am thrilled with this beautiful and expansive article - in keeping with the spirit of all I've seen on Pakistan's beloved Ibne Safi.

And now that thanx to Thinking I've got a signed copy of the first two volumes in one English-translated book "House of Fear" (with it's brilliant, compelling Intro - I'm sure I've read this alone three or four times).

I have just started reading it out-loud with a friend. Since she travels widely and reads great stuff perhaps as extensively or almost -- like Dar Sahib and Shafique Sahib, the inroads into unfamiliar Southern America - and elsewhere have just begun.

May Ibne Safi LIVE and FLOURISH in his brilliant gifts to our world thirsty for such Consensus Literature which treats of the possibilities and needs for humane rule of law.

Our world so needs his genius in these days.

Connie L. Nash said...

I have left two comments earlier. Let me know if they are not found.
This post is unusually compelling to me as would-be writer willing to try new genre and to finally be reading this great popular and prolific man with strong ethics and a view of the wide world.