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 www.ibnesafi.info and www.wadi-e-urdu.com, both non-profit websites supported by his family, which also maintains a Face Book page at http://www.facebook.com/ibnesafi