Ad man by day, madman by night; Faraz Malik is a passionate cinephile, avid literature buff and all-around pop culture enthusiast. He considers himself a staunch liberal and an atheist, who only believes in art, nature and the senses. He resides in Lahore with a beautiful wife and two frisky, deathly-cute cats.
Genre Fiction in Urdu: The Spy Novels of Ibn-e Safi and Ishtiaq Ahmed
The heavy wooden door creaked open; slender rays of sunlight illuminated the messy room. Inside, the smell of ancientness hovered over the clutter. Old newspapers and magazines were littered amongst boxes and trunks. Pieces of broken furniture and small appliances lay forgotten, surrounded by countless dust-coated, useless knickknacks.
It was 1995, and I had accompanied my parents to my grandfather’s house in our ancestral village to sort through his possessions after his death. It was a ramshackle place, endlessly fascinating to my 12-year-old imagination: ancient walls with cracks running down them, broken support beams of moldy wood lying around, fissured floors that threatened to cave in if you so much as stepped casually. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones, exploring a crumbling tomb in search of some ancient treasure. And treasure I did find.
While my parents conducted their own inventory, dreading the disposal of all the junk, I discovered a dilapidated cardboard carton in a corner, under some filthy, moth-eaten rags. The box had some books – Urdu paperbacks smelling delightfully old and musty. A quick examination revealed that they were translations of old English novels and featured spy adventures; not quite Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, but of the more lurid, pulp variety. I started reading and even before I had gone through the entire stash, I knew I had become a “genre” fan for life.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#fcd203″ class=”” size=””]The status quo in Urdu literature did not let any other form of expression and storytelling (except realism) come to fore; it still doesn’t. Genre exercises have been limited to cheap digests mostly.[/pullquote]
Let me explain what I mean by “genre” here. Genre, as an umbrella term, describes fiction that is hyper-realistic. Genre fiction isn’t preoccupied with real life as we observe it daily; instead, it elicits intense feelings and directly engages the imagination. It thrills, shocks, scares, and transports. Action, adventure, sci-fi, crime, espionage, mystery, horror, fantasy, you get my drift.
Storytelling requires, essentially, a heightening of events and emotions to create the desired impact, and it wouldn’t be complete without genre.
In Urdu literature, however, there exists a weird contradiction.
The respectable authors only include those who have written in the realistic vein: Prem Chand, Krishan Chander, Bedi, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Ashfaq Ahmed, Quratulain Hyder, Abdullah Hussain and others. These people – great writers, no doubt – wrote only about the real, the relatable, and the plausible. There was no room for fantasy, or hyper-reality, in their house.
In Western literature, on the other hand, there’s a rich variety of writers who located the same insights into the human condition and the same truths through genre fiction, and became as popular and respected as their more ‘highbrow’ counterparts. For every Hawthorne, there’s a Poe. For every Dostoyevsky, there’s a Bierce. For every Bronte, there’s an Agatha Christie. For every Hemingway, there’s a Chandler.
People like Poe and Lovecraft and Robert Howard elevated literature through their explorations of the macabre, the fantastic, the base and the ugly. They provided inroads into the unexplored areas of human psyche. While Raskolnikov pondered over a moral dilemma in the face of murder, Conan delighted in the crushing of his enemies and the lamentation of their women. Hammett’s Marlowe plumbed the same existential depths as Camus’s Stranger.
But, the status quo in Urdu literature did not let any other form of expression and storytelling come to fore; it still doesn’t. Genre exercises have been limited to cheap digests mostly.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#fcd203″ class=”” size=””]While genre fiction never got the respect it deserved in Urdu literature, perceived always as lowbrow and beneath the tastes of more discerning and high-minded readers and writers, one name elevated it with his distinct brand of storytelling. That name is Ibn-e Safi.[/pullquote]
Now Urdu digests have a very rich history in Pakistan. They are widely popular all across the country. They are published monthly, are inexpensive and contain enough pulpy material to keep the reader’s imagination fired up till the next issue.
I got introduced to digests as a kid through my older sister, a voracious reader, who was into an Urdu publication by the name of Suspense Digest. Suspense, along with Jasoosi, is probably the most famous of all digests printed in Pakistan. It publishes original short stories, along with translations of Western ones by mostly obscure, and sometimes famous, authors. The stories fall under the genre category because of their frequent fantastical content such as the long running series in Suspense Digest, Devta, which is a spy yarn revolving around a highly powerful telepath.
Digests, despite claiming to be family friendly, cater to adult readers mostly. For kids, back in the ’90s, tiny throwaway pamphlet-style books were one alternative. These booklets were pure pulp fiction, with titles such as Tarzan aur Khooni Balaa (Tarzan and the Bloody Monster), Behr-e Hind ke Qazzaq (Pirates of the Indian Ocean), Chand Par Atomy Shua’aein (Atomic Rays on the Moon), providing a gateway for them to indulge their imagination at a raw and primal level.
Printed on cheap recycled paper and 12 to 15 pages long, these tiny books had Frank Frazzetta-inspired covers, and were available at all book and stationery shops, even general stores. They were sold for one or two rupees at the most, with a particularly thick tome running as high as Rs. 5. A few candies along with one or two of these volumes made for a cheap, satisfying trip to the market for youngsters back in the day.
There were also the children’s magazines. Taleem-o Tarbiyat, the time-honored monthly magazine run by Pakistan’s largest publisher, Ferozesons, and the Karachi-based children’s literary magazine, Aankh Micholi.
Growing up, I was used to tame Enid Blyton mysteries, and kid-friendly stories in Taleem-o Tarbiyat and Aankh Micholi. In those tales, little children, through some clever sleuth work, helped catch the culprits of such dire and depraved cases as the loss of the Golliwog’s tail, the disappearance of Uncle Kami’s barfi (a local sweetmeat) and the broken glass in the kitchen on a rainy, ominous night.
While high-quality genre writing was frequent in Urdu digests, not many ‘respectable’ Urdu authors dabbled in it.
One exception though was A. Hameed, a great writer and precursor to the Romantic Movement in Urdu Literature, who penned a wonderful series of books called Amber Naag Maria, an exciting and action-filled tale about a shape-shifting snake set in a world of espionage and international intrigue. It was serialized inTaleem-o Tarbiyat. I remember I used to wait breathlessly for every new installment.
While genre fiction never got the respect it deserved in Urdu literature, perceived always as lowbrow and beneath the tastes of more discerning and high-minded readers and writers, one name elevated it with his distinct brand of storytelling. That name is Ibn-e Safi.
Ibn-e Safi, born Asrar Ahmed, wrote spy novels in Urdu, with the literary precision and elegance of a master. He is perhaps the largest selling Urdu author ever. Even Agatha Christie was a fan, remarking, “I don’t know Urdu but have knowledge of detective novels of the subcontinent. There is only one original writer: Ibn-e Safi.”
A highly educated and cultured man, our very own Arthur Conan Doyle, Ibn-e Safi gained prominence through a series of novels called Jasoosi Duniya, featuring two spies, Colonel Faridi and Captain Hamid in a mentor-apprentice relationship.
These were crisp, ‘family-friendly’ adventures. The plots were larger-than-life, featuring megalomaniacal villains that wanted to take over the world. But the extremely witty banter of the no-nonsense Colonel and his happy-go-lucky, philandering Captain transformed the stories to high art. Ibn-e Safi’s delicate wit and the chemistry between Faridi and Hamid can be sampled in this translated excerpt from the Jasoosi Duniyanovel “Faridi and Leonard”:
Hamid, after having heard the whole tale, picked up the discarded blouse from the chair and started sniffing it.
“What are you doing?” Faridi asked seriously.
“I’m trying to smell her age.” Hamid replied. “After seeing last night’s picture, I’ve become quite worried about you.”
“Get serious some time, you ass!” Faridi said tersely.
“If I’m an ass, then you shouldn’t doubt my seriousness.”
While the Jasoosi Duniya series was extremely popular, it was through the Imran Series that Ibn-e Safi cemented his stature as a literary icon. Imran Series can be compared to Sherlock Holmes in terms of popularity in Urdu fiction. Its protagonist, Ali Imran, is a goofy, flirtatious young agent of an elite secret service. The service is run by an unseen character called X2, not unlike Charlie from Charlie’s Angels; he only communicates through voice and none of the other characters have seen him or know his true identity.
But, we, the readers know who he is, and that’s what makes Imran Series such a phenomenon. For the legendary, enigmatic X2 is none other than Ali Imran himself! The silly, apparently incompetent guy is actually a cunning strategist and the head of the country’s top spy network. Think Inspector Clouseau as James Bond as M.
Apart from Imran, Ibn-e Safi’s world is populated by many other colorful supporting players, such as Black Zero, Juliana Fitzwater, Safdar Saeed, and Sir Sultan, each character having a distinct personality.
Ibn-e Safi was not only one of Pakistani fiction’s most widely read authors, he was also one of the most progressive and liberal. His writings brought society’s modern and urban facets to fore. His characters had adventures all around the world and hobnobbed in hotels, night clubs and bars with imaginative names such as High Circle and Fizaro.
Such was the power of Ibn-e Safi’s writing that famous Urdu poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar once said, “Ibn-e Safi’s novels created an imaginary city that could have been San Francisco of the ’50s (in Pakistan). 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 Singh and Mogambo.”
The Imran Series was so popular it continued even after Ibn-e Safi’s death. Other writers, most prominently Mazhar Kaleem, picked up the mantle and kept churning out Imran Series novels. However, they turned the originals’ direction to a more nationalistic bent, as is the predominant trend in Pakistani literature. Imran became a hard-nosed nationalist and the series acquired the tone of jingoism often associated with the country’s despotic ruler at the time, Ziaul Haq. In essence, the sophisticated magic and urban secularism of Ibn-e Safi got lost in that era’s nationalistic, anti-India and anti-Israel rhetoric.
In the mid-1970s, as Ibn-e Safi’s writing career was in its last stretch – he died in 1980 – another writer arrived to capture the stage of Urdu spy novels. His name was Ishtiaq Ahmed, and for the next twenty years or so, he would fill the vacuum left by Ibn-e Safi’s novels, despite there being major differences between their writing styles.
Where Ibn-e Safi’s books had an exclusively adult flavor, Ishtiaq Ahmed wrote spy and mystery novels for the tweens. They were his biggest audience. Perhaps it was because the youth were a major part of his novels.
He had three separate series going on at the same time. Two of these three – the Inspector Jamshed series and the Inspector Kamran Mirza series –had the eponymous officer of the special police and his respective trio of children as the lead characters.
The stories revolved around these two sets of school-age kids (Mehmood, Farooq, Farzana and Asif, Aftab, Farhat) helping their honest and extremely skilled fathers, Inspector Jamshed and Inspector Kamran Mirza respectively, save the fictional country of Ahmed’s novels, Pakland, from the evil plans of scheming villains time and again.
The third series actually had four young men, the Shauki brothers, who ran a private detective company. It is believed that Ahmed based the Shauki brothers’ characters on himself and his three brothers.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#fcd203″ class=”” size=””](W)here Ibn-e Safi’s novels were excellent prose, Ahmed’s stories would be considered positively kitsch by literary critics. In fact, purists would brand mentioning Ibn-e Safi and Ahmed in the same sentence as sacrilege.[/pullquote]
Ahmed’s books were tall tales and for young adults, the ultimate fantasy: naïve, chaste and full of heroism. But where Ibn-e Safi’s novels were excellent prose, Ahmed’s stories would be considered positively kitsch by literary critics. In fact, purists would brand mentioning Ibn-e Safi and Ahmed in the same sentence as sacrilege. For where Ibn-e Safi was all class and elegance with rich, fully-rounded characters and clockwork-tight plots, Ahmed’s writing was overly simplistic. His heroes were too goody-good and the villains single-mindedly nefarious. There was no distinguishing color or texture to them. Ahmed’s plots also tended to be quite straightforward and rather sloppy at times. Even though as a boy, I was addicted to his novels, in retrospect they seem even poorly crafted.
The biggest difference, perhaps, lies in basic ideology. Ibn-e Safi was an urbane, well-read man and quite progressive in his writing. His was a world of lounges, discotheques and cosmopolitan lifestyles. The characters were literate and extremely witty, trading quips and jibes worthy of Wodehouse. Ahmed was a conservative Muslim and used his novels to push his Islamist, jingoistic agenda, a vile symptom that permeated most mainstream Pakistani art in the ’80s.
A liberal purveyor of conspiracy theory and propagandist hokum, Ahmed’s villains were thinly disguised Israeli or Indian agents trying to weaken the Islamic state of his novels, Pakland. One of his lengthier novels, Baatil Qayamat (False Apocalypse), even featured a villain whose plot of world domination revolved around his appearing as Christ-reincarnate and getting the Muslim world to follow him. The plan of course was foiled by the virtuous and pious Inspector Jamshed, with the help of his similarly chaste but wisecracking kids, Mehmood, Farooq and Farzana.
While religion rarely figured in Ibn-e Safi’s novels, Ahmed’s characters never missed their daily prayers and espoused the virtues of Islam at every possible opportunity. And most dangerously, Ahmed also used the supplemental pages in his books to print advertisements carrying hate messages against the Qadiani community and overt propaganda for Islamist organizations.
Ahmed continues to write, but the general decline of Urdu readership, the failure of Urdu writers to experiment with genre, and the complete dearth of adapting Urdu fiction to movies or television have together made it difficult for Urdu spy novels to gain the popularity they once enjoyed.
The Indian publisher Random House released one novel of Ibn-e Safi’s in 2010, translated to English by Bilal Tanweer, and another group of Indian publishers, Blaft Publications in association with Tranquebar Press published four Ibn-e Safi novels in 2011, translated by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. There is a chance that the many Pakistan-based online forums devoted to Urdu fiction and prose might lead to a renewed interest in these novels, perhaps by sharing scanned copies or PDFs of these books.
For a believer, what can be imagined is infinitely more powerful than what can be seen and experienced. Urdu fiction requires a healthy dose of imagination to make the young generation stop and take notice. With translation and digitization of these works picking up speed, there is a sliver of hope that Pakistan’s current generation of young adults might get to taste the finesse of Ibn-e Safi’s works, even if not in their original Urdu form, and that someday genre fiction will be as celebrated in Urdu as it is in Western literature.