The blurb on these four books describes Ibne Safi’s Jasusi Duniya
series as an “intricately demented world of larger-than-life villains, mad genius detectives and beautiful femme fatales
For once, the blurb does not exaggerate. Safi is one of the most popular Urdu writers of the 20th century and Blaft has done newer non-Urdu reading generations a huge favour by publishing at least a few of his translated works. Born Asrar Ahmad in undivided India, ‘Ibne Safi’ moved to Pakistan in the 1950s but continued to cater to readers on both sides of the border.
He sets his novels in a cosmopolitan city by the sea, which could as easily have been Bombay as Karachi. Here, there are plenty of bars and cafes, dancing halls and lavish house parties, picnicking families, plenty of nightlife. And some very unpretty lowlife as well.
His main detective, Colonel Faridi, is a mildly eccentric aristocrat but Hameed deserves his own star in the literary detective’s sidekick hall of fame. Here’s a police officer who not only lives with his boss, but also dresses his pet goat in neck-ties and hats. Sample this delicious bit from Smokewater:
“Hameed’s billy goat, had he been human, would have committed suicide. Or, instead, he might have assumed the role of an Urdu critic, and pronounced a sentence of death on the ghazal
that was now being read to him”. When he is admonished for such antics by his boss, Hameed retorts, “I have not the slightest interest in dignity… the bacteria of dignity is even more dangerous than the bacilli of phthisis.”
This combination of eccentricity, social critique, and the odd philosophical nugget is what makes Ibne Safi’s books so likeable.
In other respects, Safi sticks to the usual standards for pulp. The central detective (Faridi) is mysterious, uninterested in women and always a step ahead of the criminal forces he’s tackling — quite like Sherlock Holmes. The femme fatales
are reserved for the eccentric non-genius Hameed, although his attitude to women is painfully real — he wants to flirt with them but he gets bored easily. The good girls are disoriented and exasperated by him. The bad girls pose serious threats to his life. Faridi always rescues him, of course.
Despite the stereotypes, Hameed is such an oddball that a turn of events is hard to predict. For instance, he wants to dance with a female colleague in a ballroom, but not in aid of an investigation. He just wants to escape from thoughts of crime. Hameed’s perpetual disgruntlement lends a dash of comic melancholy that is rarely seen in detective fiction. He sometimes seems to be carrying the burden of the writer’s soul.
But this is a writer who treats us to strange criminals like Dr. Dread and Finch (both make an appearance in all four books). Finch is a former circus performer while Dr. Dread is an international assassin who specialises in bizarre poisons — stuff that makes a respectable girl swear loudly in public and take off her clothes. But Faridi too has access to weaponry that 007 might covet, such as “a stun grenade, with the added capability of settling off a blinding flash and raising the ambient temperature dramatically within seconds”. This forces criminals to strip while rendering them incapable of violence.
Sex and gore are palpable elements of crime fiction but Safi doesn’t rub the reader’s face in it. A new generation of readers will also find it impossible not to read more into Faridi and Hameed’s complex relationship. But this awareness only lends an extra touch of pathos to the overall absurdity.
All in all, these books are a fun read. The translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has retained the humour and the cultural dressing that would have lent the original novels their tang and bite. The occasional snarky paragraph about the frailties of women will annoy some readers but fans of pulp have to be made of stone to resist Safi. Poisoned Arrow (No. 60); Price: Rs. 200; pages: 110
Smokewater (No. 61); Price: Rs. 200; pages: 115
The Laughing Corpse (No. 62); Price: Rs. 200; pages: 115
Doctor Dread (No. 63); Price: Rs. 250; pages: 187
Author: Ibne Safi; Translator: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Publishers: Blaft & Tranquebar
(This story appears in the 15 July, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)