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On the bookshelves this week

It’s not great literature. But it’s glorious fun. The dime novels of Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi and Hindi novelist Surender Mohan Pathak have always been flying off the shelves. Finally, they take wing for the English-reading crowd.

books Updated: Feb 06, 2010 17:23 IST

Ibn-e Safi

The House of Fear
Ibn-e Safi Translated by
Bilal Tanweer
Random house
# Rs 195 # pp 228

His fans range from the disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to Indian poet Javed Akhtar. Thirty years after his death, there is an explosion of interest in Ibn-e Safi’s novels. A volume in English, The House of Fear, containing two of Safi’s Urdu novels — The House of Fear and Shootout At the Rocks — has just been published by Random House India; a series of eight novels translated into Hindi has been brought out by HarperCollins. Another publisher, Blaft, will be bringing out English translations of three of Safi’s novels in one volume soon.

Born on July 26, 1928, in Allahabad’s Nara village, Safi wrote poetry, short stories and humorous pieces as a boy. In 1952, the Allahabad University graduate was commissioned to write one short detective novel every month for a series called ‘Jasoosi Duniya’ (Spy World). That was the beginning of, what one can safely call, a beautiful friendship.

Before Safi died of cancer in 1980, he had written 232 novels. Shifting to Pakistan in the early 1950s didn’t dent his popularity. He continued to publish novels simultaneously in India and Pakistan. Safi suffered from schizophrenia between 1960 and 1963, not writing a single word in those three years. He finally recovered in his Karachi home, making a comeback in 1963 with Dairh Matwaalay, the best-selling novel from the ‘Imran’ series.

Safi’s characters are both endearing and enduring. There’s Faridi, the reclusive, rich bachelor who drives a Lincoln, breeds dogs and works with the police department for love of duty. Then there’s Hamid, Faridi’s assistant who digs nightclubs and smokes a pipe laden with Prince Henry tobacco. Imran evokes contradictory emotions of menace and mirth.

Forensic expert at night, he quotes Confucius, Ghalib and Mir to poke fun at himself during the day.

“He had tremendous flair and sophistication,” says Javed Akhtar. “Safi’s novels created an imaginary city that could have been the San Francisco of the 50s in India. His penchant for villains with striking names like Gerald Shastri and Sang Hi taught me the importance of creating larger-than life characters such as Gabbar and Mogambo as a scriptwriter.”

Surender M. Pathak

Daylight Robbery

Surender M. Pathak
Translated by Sudarshan Purohit
# Rs 195 # pp 236

At 70, when many authors reach their creative menopause, Hindi pulp grandmaster Surender Mohan Pathak refuses to slow down. With nearly 300 novels under his belt, he’s still going strong writing four novels a year. “The day I die, there will be no pocket-book writer in Hindi. I am the only one,” says Pathak, with a shelf-full of his paperbacks looming behind him. He has written in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu but is scared of writing in English. “At 70 I am scared to be experimental,” he says.

Last year, that ‘experiment’ was started when his novel, Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti — first published in 1977 and reprinted over 15 times selling 3,00,000 copies — was translated into English as The 65 Lakh Heist by Chennai-based software engineer Sudarshan Purohit. Blaft Publications has decided to continue the ‘experiment’ by publishing Pathak’s Daylight Robbery (Din Dahade Dakaiti) this month.

Painsath Lakh… was the fourth book in Pathak’s popular ‘Vimal’ series. Vimal a.k.a. Sardar Surender Singh Sohal is not your usual, suave private detective. He’s the ‘most wanted’ criminal in India who uses many names — Vimal Kumar Khanna of Bombay, or Girish Mathur of Madras, or Banwarilal, the tonga-wala from Delhi — to hide his real identity. And his associates are Tukaram and his henchmen, Wagle and Irfan.

In Daylight Robbery, Vimal returns to the heist theme we encountered in Painsath Lakh… this time involving an armoured car, a security officer with a gambling problem and the criminal mastermind Dwarknath.

Pathak has been “hugely inspired” by the bestselling and prolific Urdu writer Ibn-e Safi. “I consider Ibn-e Safi to be my guru,” he says. “For some reason, Ibn-e Safi novels were banned from our house. I used to borrow his books from a local library, and read them in our cowshed, hidden from the rest of my family.” Pathak is worried about the future of Hindi.

“Why call it your national language when people see Hindi books as being ‘inferior’. They are afraid to be seen with a
Hindi book.”

At least with translations of his books out in English, the ‘coolness quotient’ of holding one of the books written by arguably the highest-selling Indian writer will be considerably high now.

Amrita Talwar is a Delhi-based freelance writer