The Dangerous Man
A common quibble among purist readers of fiction is the loss of impact in translations. In the case of Ibn-e-Safi, the late Urdu detective fiction writer, his fans do not resort to the 'lost in translation' retort as often. There's reason for this.
Safi, who migrated to Pakistan soon after Independence, continued to be popular in India for close to three decades owing to the availability of high-quality Hindi, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil translations. Generations, including this reporter, grew up reading the translations, admiring Safi's sweep of imagination, larger-than-life characters and the undercurrent of absurdity that could evoke menace and mirth on the same page.
The author passed away in 1980. In 2010, a few Indian publishers approached his Karachi-based son for rights to translate his novels to English.
The Dangerous Man, a package of two novellas, continues the tradition of thrillers that make you marvel at the exploits of protagonist Ali Imran, buffoon by day and X2, chief of an intelligence agency, by the night.
The milieu in which Safi sets his stories is distinctly cosmopolitan and the period could have been 1960s India. Imran gambles at a casino, quotes Ghalib and sips coffee at seaside restaurants, which could have been located in Kolkata or Karachi. He tips waiters generously while playing the idiot and handles the tommy-gun (remember the semi-automatic rifle of WWI vintage favoured by Cuban revolutionaries and American gangsters alike?) and the steps of the rumba with consummate ease.
Mysterious Screams, the other novella in the package - originally published as Bahrupiya Nawab (Imposter Nawab) - centres on a man who returns to lay claim on the riches of a Nawab, who was found dead in his bedroom 10 years ago.
Part police-procedural, part fantasy, Perry Mason meets James Bond in the pages of 'Jasoosi Duniya'. Imran may boogie with Roshi, the prostitute with a golden heart, on the dance floor, but when it comes to taking on the toughies, he ensconces her at a hotel and dares the criminals to come and get him at her apartment.
A constant thread of mischief runs through the Imran novels. When he talks of acquiring a fleet of buffaloes, one knows what one is in for. But when the translator interprets his shaitani-bhari muskurahat (mischievous smile) as "…a devilish grin…", one begins to agree with purists who would rather have read the original. Still, as long as Safi fans can escape their drudgery and enter the jasoosi duniya, they can be forgiven for glossing over such detail.
Killer instinct: A few covers from the original Safi novels in Urdu