The man with the golden pen

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Omar Ahmad Agha

Many fiction writers write for the critics or for themselves; they forget the common reader.

–Isabel Allende

During a talk by Shahnaz Aijazuddin on her eloquent English translation of Tilism-e-Hoshruba: Enchantment of the Senses, a passage was read featuring ayyar Barq Firangi, the trickster, who had impersonated an attractive handmaiden to deceive the Emperor Afrasiyab. After the symposium, I compared notes with Dr Ahmed Safi on how his father was besotted with the epic. “That’s what Imran used to do,” Dr Safi rightly stated. (Remember, Ali Imran is one of Ibn-e-Safi’s leading protagonists, who like other characters have remarkable, however aberrant, ability to assume form of any other self with the help of make-up (Rogan-e-ayyari).) Ibn-e-Safi himself tells us how enchanted he was by the dastan.

“… [Often] I find myself within the bounds of Tilism-e-Hoshruba.”

“… [And] it appeared to me if the darbar of Afrasiyab would be convened in the Garden of Apples, and Chalak bin Umroo would arrive along with Malika Hairat disguised as her handmaid.

“I used to reflect on Tilism-e-Hoshruba’s characters for hours. I had read all the seven volumes of Tilism-e-Hoshruba at the age of seven or eight. Among the mentees of Khwaja Umroo, Barq Firangi was my favourite character, and how I wished that instead of Chalak bin Umroo, Barq Firangi would have fallen for Malika Hairat. I’m not sure why, Chalak bin Umroo struck me as Molvi like.”

Tilism-e-Hoshruba was not the only inspirational muse for Ibn-e-Safi; he was equally enthralled by Rider Haggard, and his mysterious realm. His novel, Ab tak thie kahaan, is a sheer sample of this along with numerous other stories he has produced. In fact, the charter of Theresia Bumble-Bee of Bohemia or T3B also seems to be inspired by she-who-must-be-obeyed or Ayesha the Hiya of She.

Ibn-e-Safi’s world of espionage and investigation, spies and moles, detectives and criminals is not any less an “Enchantment of the Senses.” It’s so incredible that once you enter, you never want it to fade out. Faridi, Hamid, Imran, T3B, Sing Hee, Finch, Josef are no less wily than Umroo and his team of tricksters or for that matter Sarsar and her companion ayyaras. Safi’s imagination was as vastly rich and resourceful as that of the original authors of Hushruba chronicle. We should rather not compare him with the contemporary Western writers of escapist literature for the reason that Safi’s narrative is heavily based on meticulous imagination that is original to our soil and culture. He artfully combines fantasy, realism and wit with suspense and mystery and further exhilarates them with the allure of science fiction. The keystone that sets Safi apart from the modern crime writer is his fine quality humour and sharp wit. Thus, he brands a genre of its own class that is not commonplace in Western mystery and suspense literature. From the perspective of this genre’s technicalities or complexity of plot, Western fiction overtops Safi’s work but then we must cut him some slack, as he was the first, and alone to date, in the subcontinent to produce such kind of thrillers. His art and skill as a detective- and spy-story writer cannot be undermined in any case as his dexterity equates with the top-listed writers of such fiction. During its incipient days, the Pakistan ISI’s repeated requests to Ibn-e-Safi to deliver talks on spy-craft and criminology indeed substantiate his competency and accomplishment. How one can disregard the words of Baba-e-­Urdu Dr Molvi Abdul Haque: “The man has done a great favour to Urdu”? The eminent scholar Dr Rauf Parekh strongly concurs with this view: “If you ask me to name a few persons who in my opinion influenced Urdu in a positive way and helped popularise it, I would definitely name Ibn-e-Safi in my list.” Safi had sparked off reading habit in people in a way that many learned Urdu solely to read his books.

He was widely read and admired by the multitude for his spellbinding storytelling, and his popular appeal was disseminated in such a way that when he became unavailable to millions of his admirers due to his prolonged illness, scores of non-writers surfaced to employ their pens using his characters. All they could do was character assassination; what else one could expect from these delinquent plagiarisers! For public acceptance, most of them exploited his surname Safi and to appear taller than the creator, a few even placed a suffix of ‘MA’ in front of their names in contrast to Safi’s trademark ‘BA’ Obviously, none could survive long.

Notwithstanding his dexterity or resounding popularity, the literati of the Urdu language were too arrogant to acknowledge his due station. They completely sold a distinct new departure short in Urdu literature. His acceptance to the critics came much after his demise. A great deal of study on him is being currently carried out in Pakistan and India. In the past years, many books on his life and work had made to the shelves. Besides Hindi, a few of his books were also rendered into English; four of them were translated by none other than Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the prominent critic and theorist. After all, how long the honours could be held from a man as iconic as Safi! This brings some similarities to mind. Even though popularly known in his times, Mirza Ghalib’s well-deserved literary recognition was also broadly determined posthumously. Joseph Conrad, to boot, was also reproved for having produced his novel Secret Agent. (Later it was considered one of the best fifty fiction novels ever written). Acclaimed literary figure, Intizar Hussain explains the phenomenon, “Now, after a long time, our serious critics have turned to [Ibn-e-Safi]. It happens in the annals of literature that an opinion once formulated about someone gets modified in times to come; Nazir Akbarabadi is a vivid example.” Rais Amrovi’s views, however, are much more caustic: “As [Ibn-e-Safi] was alive, we thought we had kept him aloof, but now we have figured out our dispossession. We have realised how blatantly or rather cruelly we had remained oblivious to a gifted contemporary.”

* * *

Like any individual with unique abilities, Mr Safi’s versatility doled out multiple facets to him. Fascinatingly, each dimension of his catholic character goes by a different name. By birth he was Israr Ahmed; as a poet, Israr Narvi; as a humorist, Tugril Farghan, Senki Soldier and Akrab Baharsatani; and to his millions of fans, Ibn-e-Safi, the originator of Jasoosi Duniya. (He never took his artwork seriously for all that; the caricatures used on the cover jacket of his latest poetry book were drawn by Safi himself.)

Ibn-e-Safi was a trailblazer for indigenous detective, spy and mystery writing in South Asia. (Dr Parekh, however, credits two novels and their respective writers as the pioneer of our detective faction. Even so, Safi remains the first to propagate the genre to popular acceptance). He started his writing career as a poet and satirist by joining a fresh monthly Nikhat in Allahabad, India as a poetry editor, and contributed humorous essays and parodies to the magazine as well. A few years later, in 1952, he decided to start composing detective novels. Beginning in March, he produced eleven detective novellas, staring Inspector Faridi and Sergeant Hameed, that year. In the next 28 years, he ended up penning down over 250 books.

The strong suit of Ibn-e-Safi’s writing reposes in characterisation. Like any superior novelist, “the convolutions of the human personality, under the stress of artfully selected experience, are the chief fascination” to him. He dives deep down to a psychological level to fashion characters that are well-round, dynamic and very alive. Even though they possess some fantastic and fairy-tale characteristics, they appear to be one of us. The reader’s connection with them is instant, inspiring an everlasting impression. Their charisma never loses their bouquet even though they were employed in book to book.

Ahmed Kamal Faridi was Safi’s favourite character who always demanded laborious efforts from the author. The disposition of Faridi could be traceable in Nietzsche’s superman. He, however, is not a replacement of God, as Nietzsche had put it; he possesses the excellence of Iqbal’s mard-e-momin as well. Safi was very clear-headed in response to his socio-religious views; he believes in the ‘dictatorship’ of Allah alone and always stayed critical of the Western democracy. “In democracy, one flows with the current whereas Islam is to harness the current.” Islam, according to him, therefore, has no place for democracy; it is a polar opposite of the latter.

The remarkableness of his visionary fertility and unfailing creativity were the inventions conceived by him for his science fictions. A many of them materialised into reality later on. Thus, it makes him stand aligned with HG Wells—best remembered as father of science fiction. In 1956, one of his villains had developed worldwide television system to manage his organisation. One must bear in mind that television then was not even introduced in our region. Three years later, his scientists were manipulating the weather that is to say floods, and in the same book a human-like robot, Fuladami (Ironman), was shown walking in the streets managing the traffic. Zeroland—a rogue state, a safe haven for criminals and crooks—had invented a television that produced imagery in the air without any physical medium. Who could have so much as dreamt of around 1967 that the Holograms would be a reality one day? In Zeroland vertical take-off (VTOL) aircrafts were in operation before the British had built the Harriers. The laser guns named Electrogus were in vogue there before 1954. These are just a few cases to mention. Oh, by the way, his brain transplants have yet to wait to become a real life truth!

Safi’s reading depth reverberates throughout his writings. Whether it is Vish Kanyas (Poison-girl assassins) or a far-flung corner like French Polynesia in South Pacific or the life of Pomare V of Tahiti or a scientific explanation, his knowledge is extensive and thorough. One wonders how he cannily portrays the facts that people know so little about regardless of this Internet age, much less in his days.

In 1973, Safi knocked at the film world by writing screenplay, dialogues and songs for the movie Dhamaka (1974). Based on one of his own novels, Bebakoon ki Talash, and starring the then leading actress Shabnum and newbie Javed Sheikh, the film was not a box-office success. Safi had introduced two fresh characters—Zafarul Mulk and Jameson—for the movie, which, however, featured in his later books featuring Ali Imran. Interestingly, Safi recorded his own voice for the Secret Service’s chief, X-2. The versatility of the man drove him even to design the dress of the heroine. The singing of Mir Taqi Mir’s ghazal as pop and Shakespeare’s ballad as quwali caused so much of furore that the film and its soundtrack was banned on the PTV and Radio Pakistan.

* * *

Safi had possessed an innate poetic sensibility. His mentors in his schooldays opined that the poet in Safi had eminence in store for him. Nevertheless, he devoted his energies to creating pop fiction which overshadowed his poetry severely. His lone book on poetry, Mata-e-Qulb-o-Nazar, was published only last summer (34 years after his passing). What limited versification we get our hands on echoes refined perception, finesse of ideas, and versatility of thoughts. He exemplifies pragmatism rather than pursuing the traditional practice.

As a return of gratitude to a man of so many parts, a favourite son of the multitude, an ingeniously voluminous writer, respectful homage is much overdue from us as a nation. Most regrettably, we as a people are in a practice of disowning our heroes or showing least respect for their prodigious accomplishments. It is high time that we should come out of our slumber and the government must extend honours to Safi’s services by decorating him with due official accolades.

Omar Ahmad Agha, “The man with the golden pen,” in Pakistan Today, July 16, 2015. Accessed on July 16, 2015, at:

The item above written by Omar Ahmad Agha and published in Pakistan Today on July 16, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 16, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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