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Of mysteries that refuse to die

books Updated: Apr 29, 2011 21:13 IST
Antara Das
Antara Das
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Poisoned Arrow, Smokewater, The Laughing Corpse, Doctor Dread
Ibne Safi, translated by SR Faruqi
Blaft, with Tranquebar
Rs 295 each

Most, if not all, artists savour the idea of living in perpetuity. Their work, they fondly hope, will remain interesting even when they are not around. If that truism works, then Ibne Safi, a prolific and popular writer of Urdu crime fiction who passed away in 1980, would have been a happy man today. Even as the activities of the alleged CIA operative Raymond Davis unravelled recently in Pakistan — where the Allahabad-born Safi had migrated to in 1952 — the blogs came alive, with young people quoting from his novel Aadha Teetar, which described how foreign intelligence agencies functioned in that country.

“Among booksellers, Ibne Safi’s books were known as ‘currency notes’,” says Ahmad Safi, Ibne’s son and an engineer by profession, here in Delhi to launch a set of four of his father's novels, translated into English and published by Blaft Publications in association with Tranquebar. His body of works is extensive: around 125 novels in the ‘Jasusi Duniya’ series dealing with the exploits of Colonel Ahmad Kamal Faridi and his sidekick Captain Sajid Hameed and another 120-odd books dealing with Imran, the blundering buffoon who is actually a secret service chief. Through the 1950s and 60s, people in India and Pakistan used to queue up at the local ‘anna library’ to devour the latest mystery on offer; his books were also available in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu.

The English translations (Poisoned Arrow, Smokewater, The Laughing Corpse and Doctor Dread) deal with the one-upmanship between an American criminal Dr Dread and his diminutive bête noire, Finch. The covers are but improved and modified versions of the original, with the front-cover surprisingly flaunting a quote from AQ Khan (of the nuclear racketeering infamy). The plots are woven out of tales of intrigue, kidnapping, murder and blackmail in the upper echelons of society, though, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Safi’s translator, points out, the plot as well as the police methods and detection practices appear rather dated at times. The language presents no such problems, Faruqi says, as formal Urdu changes very slowly. A literal translation of an idiomatic tongue, however, can throw up strange sentences like “Sir, you can cut off my tongue. But I am not a philosopher like you.”

There have been efforts, of late, to locate literary merit in these works. A recent publication called Psycho Mansion has its writer Khurram Ali Shafique excerpt around 40 passages from Safi’s books that stand apart due to their sheer literary value. Rakesh Khanna, founder and publisher, Blaft, feels that Safi’s works are ideal candidates for postmodern studies of popular culture pursued in universities. “Research done in the American universities seems skewed towards Sanskrit texts and diaspora writers,” Khanna says.

Further translations will depend on how the four titles do in the market. As sales of Agatha Christies and Erle Stanley Gardners show, the demand for old-fashioned police procedural never really disappears, points out Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland. With Ahmad Safi open to Bollywood adaptations —these are 245 readymade scripts, he says — a fresh lease of life is always around the corner.

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