Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a little girl read what she thought was the best Urdu mystery novel ever. It starred three boys and was set in Thailand. Years later, she came across the same novel. This time it was in English and starred three girls. The novel was Nancy Drew. Needless to say, Carolyn Keene’s version had come first. But while some were getting duped into buying forgeries, others were lining up for one Ibne Safi – writer extraordinaire, King of Urdu Crime Fiction who reigned over both sides of the divide from 1950’s – 1980.
Asrar Narvi has penned hundreds of novels under the nome de plume of Ibn-e Safi. He is probably best known for creating two highly popular Whodunits – ‘Imran Series’ & ‘Jasoosi Duniya’ (The World of Espionage).
‘Imran Series’ was developed in the early 1950’s after Safi moved to Pakistan. It became a runaway success. The saga may have officially ended but Safi’s characters lived on as other enterprising writers took over and kept the franchise afloat.
Now Ali Imran makes a comeback with ‘The House of Fear’ as the original franchise has been revived by Bilal Tanweer who introduces the English speaking world to Ibn-e Safi’s work.
Ali Imran – the star of Imran Series is an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes, Bertie Wooster, Hercules Poirot, James Bond and a few other leading men from that era. Regardless of his questionable lineage and dubious origins, a simplistic hero from the 1950’s charmed his way into millions of homes.
Born into privilege, this handsome young man is a poor mans Wooster (a la PG Wode House) who confounds both friends and family. ‘The only time he doesn’t appear crazy is when he is silent’ observes one character. Not a promising beginning for a would-be super sleuth. But a great one for the head of Intelligence.
Youngsters quickly embraced the morally upright, defective – detective/spy with a moronic sense of humour, a habit of misquoting poetry, and a general air of incompetence.
The two specimens presented here – ‘The House of Fear’ & ‘Shootout at the Rocks’, are mildly entertaining but not on a cerebral level. In one Imran must discover why dead bodies keep turning up on abandoned property and in the other, he investigates how a 3 inch wooden monkey ties in with a 200 year old gang.
To be fair, some of the magic may have been lost in translation. Being unable to judge the beauty of Safi’s prose puts one at a slight disadvantage. Not everything that is funny in Urdu retains its integrity in English.
Newcomers to the series must make some allowances for the time in which it was set. Karachi was a cosmopolitan city and Imran’s world comes duly equipped with all the trappings of a super sleuth where Chinese villains, British house guests, Czech visitors run amok & frequenting Tip Top Night Club is considered normal. Also, intelligence agencies were still revered and the fact that the protagonist is the son of DG Intelligence and leads a double life as the formidable Chief of Secret Service – X2 and his usual asinine self is not the turn off it would be say , 40 years later.
Given the time period and the circumstances, one can understand the initial appeal. Pakistan was young; people were easily dazzled. Allies acted like well, allies and rose coloured glasses were the rage. What appears to be pretty standard fare must have been revolutionary for its times. Another factor could be that these lightweight mysteries were more like novellas and fans did not have to wait very long for the ‘big reveal’. Finally, like all good heroes, this one always saves the day, but is modest, letting his friend at the Intelligence Bureau – the good Superintendent, take credit. What ever the reason, Imran captured the imagination of a nation and Safi’s characters quirky or otherwise became household names. Both these stories promise a few hours of harmless fun and a chance to revisit the good old days.
The most striking thing about this publication is that the Queen of Crime Fiction’s name appears on the cover. Agatha Christie’s glowing tribute (an excellent endorsement!) merely signifies that she was aware of Safi’s stature in the Subcontinent. Which is nice. But even if this author reportedly out sold her, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle’s of this world are in a league of their own – specialists in their field.
Writers like Safi, however are in a different league. They occupy a special place in the hearts of millions not just for having provided a great escapist fantasy but also for making the most threadbare of plots memorable. The author was clearly inspired by the greats who came before him. But he also managed to inspire countless who came afterwards. He has left an impressive body of work and according to his son, Ahmad Safi, other Urdu crime fiction writers have been unable to better his sales record.
Safi’s books are not about the destination but the journey. Ali Imran religiously reported for duty every month and kept generations entranced for over 20 years. That people continue to be drawn to Imran’s madness is testament to Safi’s genius. 29 years after the series ended and nearly half a century later the ‘Imran Series’ is still going strong.
The book is available here.