New Delhi: A desi combination of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, Pakistani writer Ibn-e-Safi`s macho crime-fighters were firm favourites of generations of Urdu-reading people right from when they first appeared in the 1950s. Their exploits will now enthral a much wider audience with their English translations being published. Translated by renowned Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the first four of the ‘Jasoosi Duniya’ (Espionage World) series – ‘Poisoned Arrow’, ‘Smokewater’, ‘The Laughing Corpse’ and ‘Doctor Dread’ - were released here by Ibn-e-Safi`s son, Ahmad Safi.
The first writer of thrillers in Urdu literature, Ibn-e-Safi began writing the Jasoosi Duniya featuring the tough Colonel Ahmad Kamal Faridi and his aide, Captain Sajid Hameed, in the 1950s - as a challenge. These were followed by Imran series, featuring the young and seemingly buffoonish Ali Imran, who is actually the head of the secret service. Two of Imran`s adventures were translated into English in 2009.
"My father decided to write crime thrillers after fellow writers at a literary forum in India told him that crime thrillers could not be sold in India without sex and violence," Ahmad Safi, the driving force behind bringing Ibn-e-Safi`s books into English, told reporters.
"My father rose to the challenge and said he could do one without sex. He created James Bond type books without women and sex," he added.
"When the first book was published by a local publisher in Allahbad in 1952 and displayed at the AH Wheeler bookstall at the railway station, they were sold in a week. The publisher was surprised. The books had to be reprinted several times," Safi said.
Born in Nara village of Uttar Paradesh`s Allahabad district in 1928, Asrar Narvi, who took the pseudonym, Ibn-e-Safi (son of Safi, after his father Safiullah) wrote prodigiously till his death in 1980 at Karachi. His oeuvre comprises a total of 245 books comprising ‘Jasoosi Duniya’ and the ‘Imran Series’ set in locales as diverse as Spain, Italy, England, Scotland, the Pacific islands, Zanzibar, South Africa and the US.
All this was without Ibn-e-Safi setting foot outside his country.
"He was an avid reader and his knowledge of these countries came from books. Those who read his adventure stories identified with exotic places like the Amazon rain forests that he wrote about in his books. He researched about the environment, geography and culture of a place before it became the backdrop of his novel," Ahmad said.
In one of the new translations, co-published by Westland and Blaft, ‘Doctor Dread’ translated from ‘Diler Mujrim’, wealthy widow Begum Irshad is blackmailed by a mysterious foreigner. Crime reporter and freelance investigator Anwar is hired to go undercover to find out who he is.
Meanwhile, Faridi and Hameed try to figure out why a mentally deranged person is jailed in a five-storied highrise. Both the cases seem to be related to the ongoing feud between the tiny monkey-faced killer Finch and American criminal Doctor Dread....
Translating Safi`s works into English was a challenge, Ahmad said. For intertwined with action and drama was a wry humour.
"It was difficult to capture Urdu humour in an English translation. My father, for example, used couplets by Ghalib in situations where they were funny," he said.
His books were eagerly devoured by his readers and such was the craze that when Ibn-e-Safi fell ill in 1961 and stopped writing for three years, unscrupulous elements tried to cash in on his name.
"During this period, several impostors began publishing crime thrillers under his name. When he returned to writing after three years with `Dher Matwale`, his book was released in India by then union minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. In Karachi, the queues for his books were serpentine. But his readership in India was much more," his son said.
Sales and demand were so high that a second edition had to be published within a week.
Praise for Ibn-e-Safi came from various quarters including the high priestess of the crime thriller Agatha Christie, who once said: "I don`t know Urdu, but have knowledge of detective novels in the sub-continent. There is only one original writer -- Ibn-e-Safi."
One of Safi`s dreams before he passed away was to re-visit India, Ahmad Safi said.
"When he was ailing in 1980, he wanted to come to India to meet friends. I wanted to accompany him. But life turned out differently," he said, adding he had himself been looking forward to come to India.
"It is a dream to meet people my father spoke about. I want to visit our ancestral village Nara in Kaushambi (district of Uttar Pradesh). My father said it used to be a peaceful village and produced a lot of geniuses at the time. The Safi family were known as the `hakim ka khandan` because they were mathematicians, scientists, astrologers and astronomers," Ahmad Safi said.