Getting a Library card issued for students was mandatory since class 6th back at my school- the Saint Mary’s High in Peshawar. This was a kind of a privilege given that before this age we were only made to visit the library, in fact we had a compulsory period for library, but nobody could issue books. So reaching the desired class to be able to issue books was something I waited for with excitement and pleasure. Students would be excited to get their cards but then many would loose interest over time and even stop going to the library by the time we were in senior classes. I, nevertheless, remained hooked on to my school library until I finally graduated and left my high school. I even remained a Librarian in classes 7th and 8th and remember wearing the Librarian badge on my blazer with pride while it didn’t matter at all to others. I sometimes wonder that this developed two things in my personality; A. the love of books and B. the habit of being associated with a library (I went on to be a member of the Archives and the British Council libraries for a long time).
I do not remember exactly how I got interested in detective fiction as a young kid and started off with Robert Arthur’s ‘The Three Investigators’ series. Read quite a lot of those and then switched on to Keene’s Nancy Drew. Then I tried the Hardy Boys as well but it just could not capture my heart so I had to look out for an alternative to keep the young sleuth in me going on. My life-long affair with Dame Agatha (Queen of Crime) Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple series was set aside yet by fate for a few years more. At that time I did not know that Agatha is going to steal my heart for quite a good number of my youthful years. So this was a point when a friend asked me to go seek out something called ‘Imran Series’ in the Urdu fiction section. It isn’t that I did not read Urdu literature, I did, as a matter of fact; had read much of ‘Umro Ayar’ ‘Aanglu-Banglu’ and ‘Chan-Changlu’ etc and had a taste for the detective investigator series Inspector Jamshed and Inspector Kamran Mirza by Istiaque Ahmad. However, I had never had a taste of Imran Series.
So I started off with Imran Series written by Mazhar Kalim and, like many other boys of my age, quickly got hooked. It was another world, mesmerising, captivating, suspenseful and action oriented detective fiction that knew no bounds and its characters could actually and literally do everything unimaginable. I started issuing the books and reading them at home. Then I started buying them as well and it was one fine afternoon of this reading frenzy when my father entered my room and inquired about the book. When I told him what it was he smiled and said he has read lots and lots of Imran series as a young man himself. I got amazed and said is it that old and he said yes. He then took the book from me and saw the cover page and said, ‘Who is Mazhar Kalim?’ to which I was surprised and told him he is the one who writes it. He took the book away and finished it in a couple of days and returned it to me saying, ‘This is crap. I have nothing against Mazhar Kalim but this is crap. You must read the original Imran Series written by Ibn-e-Safi.’ I wasn’t expecting this remark and so I got a bit infuriated and asked him not to say that as I really like Mazhar Kalim. This was the first time I had heard this dreamy name ‘Ibn-e-Safi.’
“I don’t know Urdu but I have knowledge of detective novels in the Subcontinent. There is only one original writer- Ibn-E Safi.”
Dame Agatha Christie
I got a bit upset by my father’s remarks against my favourite author of the time and continued immersing myself in to the world of Ali Imran M.Sc (Oxford) and his detective adventures. It was after quite some time when I was at a local bookstore when a book caught my gaze. It was ‘Khaufnaak Imarat’ by Ibn-e Safi B.A (later translated as ‘The House of Fear’). It was first published in 1955. I bought it as it was the first novel in the series and I thought it would give me a taste of what my father had been talking about. I finished it in a couple of days but those couple of days were the greatest days for me in terms with my world of Urdu Literature.
With only one novel I could clearly see what my father had meant and Mazhar Kalim started to feel a waste of time. (I personally hold nothing against Mazhar Kalim who is a very good writer of this genre however I was caught in comparison and in comparison to Ibn-E Safi the poor guy stands literally nowhere and at this point I completely understood my father’s remarks as well). So my affair with Ibn-E Safi’s Imran Series and ‘Jasusi Dunia’ started off. I went to get Imran Series books in the actual sequence they were written and read ‘Chattanon main fire’ ‘Purisraar Cheekhen’ ‘Bhayanak Aadmi’ (later translated as ‘The Dangerous Man’) and then the next 25 and then the next 50 and so on of both the series. By that time I had literally stopped reading everything else and dived deep in to the beautiful world of Israr Ahmad (Ibn-E Safi was his pen name).
Ibn-E Safi’s writings are original, captivating and represent the finest tradition of Urdu Literature. His plots masterminded and his themes teach lessons in morality between the lines. One cannot find any absurdities, anomalies and immorality in his works. His style is gentle yet forceful, his mannerisms are intense yet subtle and his flow is like a river in the summer, which is calm on the surface but fierce deep under. He is comparable to none other in Urdu Literature. He sways you or perhaps allows you to sway yourself in to his world of intrigue, crime, suspense, spies and double-crossing agents through genuine plots and carefully crafted characters. It wouldn’t be wrong to state that one has to read him well in order to understand the beauty of prose of this legendary writer of Urdu detective novels. The characters he created still live inside my memory as he had a classic way of introducing a new character in his novels by giving such a background of the character that in the minds of the reader that character would take real life form. The first 25 novels of Imran Series are a masterpiece in terms of plot and theme. His genius plotting of crime is what made him famous amongst other writers of his genre. He however does not leave a chance to entertain and even though his novels are highly serious in nature, he has a knack for comedy and would always amuse his readers with his sense of humour and his sharp wits that are a hallmark of almost all of his works.
“Why should man ever become serious when he knows full well that one day he will be buried along with his seriousness?”
Ibn-E Safi (1928-1980)
While he is not amongst us anymore, he will live on through the eyes of those who have read him. By the way this is the notion that frightens the writer in me. How many people would actually read him in this tech-savvy age that we live in? With the painful demise of libraries, bookstores and publishing houses alike- how many would know his works in say twenty-five years from now? The works of a writer who entertained and groomed my generation and that of my father’s need not only to be curated but promoted, however, how would one do that in a society that does not seem to have the passion for reading as such is the million dollar question! I hope we get back to reading and reading quality material once again on the whole and not in part and this society captures the essence and benefits of reading quality literature once more.
This is perhaps where the western society and the likes of John Le Carre win as they have Le Carre’s works to read, enjoy and cherish for a long time and have his movies produced to capture mass audience internationally. Do ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘The Night Manager’ ring a bell now? This is just an example of what intelligent nations do to honour their writers and other artists and keep them alive for decades even after their physical demise. Oh no, please do not think Le Carre passed away, he hasn’t, he is only 84. Ibn-E Safi did try something in a similar direction when he wrote the film “Dhamaka (1974)” based on Imran Series novel ‘Bebaakon Ki Talaash’ starring Javed Sheikh and Shabnam. This wasn’t and isn’t enough and new movie makers could make movies on Imran Series written by him as after all he never wrote anything like Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy (1759)’ that may fall in the category of an un-filmable book. By the way, just to put the record straight, even that book has been adopted as a film called ‘A Cock and Bull Story’ then why not Imran Series?
But well this is perhaps another topic to discuss in detail at another time. As for now, I am afraid, I shall have to say “Farewell- Ibn-E Safi. I Thank you so much for giving us all another reason to be proud of.”