The Arthur Conan Doyle of Urdu fiction

Ibn-e Safi is not an unfamiliar name for anyone with an interest in Urdu detective fiction. After all, he has been called the Arthur Conan Doyle of the subcontinent. The Imran series, perhaps the most popular short-novel series in Urdu literature, is a prime example of his creativity. The popularity of the series can be well measured from the fact that even after Safi’s death, it was continued by numerous writers, and although not as brilliant, they are still widely read by fans addicted to the characters. Recently, Random House, India, started publishing the English translations of these novels. The Dangerous Man is the second book published by Random Hose and contains two novellas translated by Taimoor Shahid, Mysterious Screams and A Dangerous Man.

Safi blends mystery with humour, espionage, law enforcement, science fiction and fabulous drama. Brutal murders, beautiful women, dangerous international criminals, cunning disguises and an unbeatable crime-solving genius are the hallmarks of Imran series. They provide thrills, chills and solid entertainment. The novels are fun, short, and easy to get through and provide modern readers a sense of what Karachi was like in the 1960s.

Mysterious Screams, as is evident from the title, is about an old mansion in which a man long believed to have died returns and starts living. It also involves a young romantic American who receives an antique casket from the girl of his dreams who appears out of nowhere and quickly disappears. The connection between these two seemingly unrelated incidents is established by none other than the protagonist, Ali Imran, a detective with a PhD in criminology from Oxford. And in The Dangerous Man Imran nabs the criminals with the help of a socialite, Roshi.

Imran’s character is, as always, wonderfully written. At times appearing fantastically confused and at other times insane, Imran hides his sharp intellect with childlike behaviour. But his carelessness also depicts his disdain of social “norms” and “accepted” behaviour. Michel Foucault has said that society has a monopoly on determining whether a person is sane or mad. Sometimes, what is defined as madness is nothing more than a slight deviation from the set norms of a particular society. This theory is demonstrated as Imran solves crimes while mocking seemingly intelligent people by his foolishness.

Imran is also creative and witty and his dialogues and antics help maintain interest through meandering storylines. However, the most articulate puns that Imran is so famous for lose their strength in translation sometimes. What kindles the imagination of readers in Urdu may not always sound as good in English if translated literally. For instance, in Urdu “baita” is sometimes used not in the sense of “son” but as a term of ridicule. Similarly, “grandfather of Plato” does not sound as funny as “Aflatoon ka dada”. Moreover, the original title of the second novel is “Bhayanak Admi” which should have been translated as “Frightful Man” rather than “Dangerous Man”.

For those who have read the original texts in Urdu, it is inevitable to compare the translations with the original writing and often the reader is left with a gaping hole that could not be bridged by the fluent English text which is the product of this activity of translation. For some, this might just be nostalgia but if we examine the issue we can see that a long piece of writing, like a novel, is not just a total of its sentences; it is the psychological experience created by a piece of writing. The problem is not of the translator failing to create readable text. Rather, the humour, the colloquialism, the culturally specific terms with unique semantics cannot be translated literally and expected to create the same mental edifice for the reader. The kind of rush and pleasure generated by reading Ibn-e Safi in Urdu is not as sharp in the English translation.

Ibn-e Safi wrote around 250 novels and, amazingly, almost each one became a bestseller. These stories engaged the interest of the readers for several decades starting from the 1950s up till the 1980s.

His works are an unusual amalgam of ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ writing although the two domains are considered mutually exclusive by many literary critics. The plot, too, often appears dated — with certain characters and circumstances very peculiar to an era that no longer exists. But the message contained in Ibn-e Safi’s works is still relevant to Pakistan’s sociopolitical scenario, that of upholding law and order. Patriotism and fighting despair are presented as strengths to be inculcated. He tells us that the uncertainty of future breeds crimes. He shows us that brilliance of mind, commitment to the job and dedication are values that always pay off.

Maybe it is time the Imran series is adapted to modern times as Sherlock Holmes is being adapted for the television.

The Dangerous Man, (NOVEL), By Ibn-e Safi

Translated by Taimoor Shahid

Random House, India

ISBN 9788184001181

214pp. Indian Rs199