Ibne Safi - The Writer Who Sold More Than Agatha Christie
Written by LegendsofPakistan   

  In an interview about crime fiction, Dame Agatha Christie once surprised her audience by naming an obscure Asian writer who had written more and sold more than her.

Pakistan's early Governor General Khawaja Nazimuddin kept a shelf of his novels for 'intellectual entertainment'.Agatha Christie died in 1976 at the age of 77, after 80 novels and a record 3 million sales. Ibne Safi died in 1980 at the age of 52 after having written more than 200 novels sold by fake writers and pirates in seven languages in India and Pakistan.

Ibne Safi (born Israr Ahmad) came to Pakistan in 1956 and settled in Karachi. He was ten years old in his hometown Nara in Allahabad when he read his first thriller,Qaisi Rampuri’s Talismi Fawwara and was fired by the urge to write detective fiction.

His other source of inspiration was Talism-e-Hoshruba, the mammoth treasury of Urdu fable, which he read regularly throughout his life and which gave him the elegant style so admired by his readers.

While still a student Ibne Safi wrote his first detective story in a magazine called Nikhat in Allahabad in 1948, then continued to write under various names, till 1953. Although he wrote good humourous fiction and also contributed poems, it was his Shola Series of stories that made his pen-name famous.

When he came to Pakistan to marry and settle down, his hero Faridi was already an Asian counterpart of Perry Mason, Lemmy Caution and James Bond. Ibne Safi fashioned him out of the European-American heroes he had read. As he explained in an interview, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest crime writer and Sherlock Holmes the greatest detective hero. Sherlock Holmes’ basic principle had been laid down in 1840 by Edgar Alan Poe, the first detective writer, and that principle was ‘ratiocination’. Ibne Safi's Faridi was reared on that principle but his other ingredients came from other writers.

Next to Conan Doyle was Erle Stanley Gardner and Ibne Safi thought that the first half of the 20th century belonged to him.

He wrote at the same speed, in fact bettered Gardner by writing two novels a month as against one. But he followed his formula: no effort at characterisation, no emphasis on background and a racy progression towards climax. The professionalism of Faridi is of course similar to that of Perry Mason.

Ibne-Safi's background is not realistic and that is perhaps why his novels are never put on TV. He was a great admirer of Rider Haggard and took from him alien backgrounds more suited to adventure than detection. He wrote at Edgar Wallace's speed only he was less sloppy than the Englishman in his style.


Consider Ibne Safi characters. Faridi is from the landed aristocracy, is good-looking, strong, intellectually versatile and very well dressed. He is an officer in the police and has a hypnotic effect on his colleagues, especially attractive to women whom he takes in his stride. He heads the Black Force, looks like an outlaw but serves the law. Hameed, his valet and companion, is anti, completely devoted to his master but soft on women. There is Qasim, a gangling aristocrat who joins Faridi for adventure but is awkward with women. Anwar is a crime reporter who does odd jobs for Faridi and has a strong relationship with Rasheeda. Among them Faridi stands out as a perfect detective, impregnable and seductive in the extreme.

The hero of Ibne-Safi's second series is Imran. Imran is a maddening mixture of traits. He anticipates Columbo because he is a dumb hero; yet, he has many more sides. His background is uncertain and indefinite except that he has been driven into rebellion by a despotic father.

He is sharp, he is stupid; he is devilishly quick, he is plodding; he is fearless, he is a coward; he is tender, he is ferociously animal.

He went to London to become a doctor but received training in detection instead. His father considers him a good-for-nothing, criminals think him a police informer. But he is a patriot, a nemesis of the underworld and the espionage networks. He loves make-up and disguise, is a spendthrift, fond of horseplay, constantly munching on a chewing gum. He is the most feared X-2, an outlaw, but he is in fact an officer of the Foreign Office. In the former guise everyone is scared of him and wants to know his real identity; in the latter guise he is made fun of and considered a dumb bureaucrat.

Imran is trained by a Chinese, Sung Hee, in the martial arts. He knows how to dodge a bullet fired at him point-blank. Julia, a Swiss beauty, is Imran’s frequent aide but she is in love with him and finds the urge to explode his X-2 identity irresistible. But she always fails; Imran is too clever behind his dumb facade. Fayyaz is the local police inspector who gets all his good cases solved through Imran but hates him and wants to somehow catch him out on an unlawful adventure and put him in jail. Joseph, the black giant, who serves Imran faithfully like a dog against the bosses of Zeroland... and Theresa, the Bumble-Bee of Bohemia, the queen of the underworld who loves Imran as X-2 and wants him to join her gang.

It is surprising how Ibne Safi managed to create a credible fictive world out of such a mixture.

His Faridi is a professional like Perry Mason, not terribly forensic but definitely based on the Holmesian principle, reasoning things out in an armchair before taking action. Once action is indicated, he leaves Perry Mason and Holmes behind. Here Ibne Safi is not following the intellectual, non-action-oriented example of Doyle and Gardner; he follows the Anglo-Chinese writer Leslie Charteris, creator of the: 'Saint'. The elegance and suppleness of Faridi is that of the Saint and his willingness to identify himself with the underworld is that of Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheyney's hero. Then, in respect of style, Ibne Safi rejects the slang of Cheyney and favours the almost literary excellence of Charteris.

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In Imran too there are shades of the Saint and there is Fayyaz the police inspector who is very much like Inspector Teal, the much-abused official detective of Leslie Charteris. The confusing identities of Imran are no doubt borrowed from the Superman who is a dumb journalist when he wears his tuxedo. Ibne Safi wrote a number of spoofs on James Bond in his Karachi magazine Nae Ufaq but the influence of. Fleming is unmistakable in Imran. The world of espionage and spy-versus-spy depicted in the ‘Imran Series’ is clearly the world of Bondiana. The women too are there but the liaisons are all toned down and there are no torrid scenes because Ibne Safi has an eye to his own Asian readership.

Crime fiction is a direct borrowing. When it came to India adventure had already made its inroads. Rider Haggard’s She had been translated and read; most of Edgar Wallace had been read by the writers. In Allahabad, they caught the fancy of Ibne Safi; in Hyderabad, Zafar Omer produced his famous Neeli Chattri novels. Then Teerath Ram Ferozpuri created his popular modern, Robin Hood; a hood with a heart of gold. In 1932, the Detection Club had held its session in London and vowed to keep their fiction clean; but in 1930 James Hadley Chase had already embarked on his journey into the dark hinterland of the criminal mind with his No Orchids for Miss Blandish. In America, Dashiell Hammett and Dickson Carr broke away from the Detection Club resolution and began to explore the gangland reality.

It would be in order here to trace the limitations of Ibne Safi.

He took the outlandish background from Rider Haggard and Edgar Wallace with the result that his backdrops are more like Talism-e-Hoshruba than contemporary detective fiction.

He has definitely been impressed by Agatha Christie’s plots and her easy, flowing style but not her subtle emphasis on the locales. He has followed Gardner's cue on characterisation and eschewed the detailed inner scrutiny of Chase or even Dorothy L. Sayers. He consciously set his face against writers who chose their heroes from among the criminals. James Hadley Chase was not for him; Georges Simenon, minus Maigret, was also not for him. His heroes accepted transgressions only to the extent the Saint did; they were all morally immaculate, sexually virginal. Yet, he was no pastiche-writer. His humour and his style are native to him. He wrote a wonderfully elegant but fluid Urdu, somewhat like Manto, totally organic to what he wanted to describe.

He wrote for 30 years, two books a month, till he broke down in 1960, like Edgar Wallace and Dorothy L. Sayers, out of sheer strain.

Meanwhile, imitators kept catching up on him. At a given time there were seven or eight imitators snapping at his heels. Much addicted to Hitchcock's mystery films, he tried to go into the Urdu movies and actually made a film called Dhamaka but it was flopped. He also wrote a play for radio. TV showed no interest although he was once invited to the Zia Mohyeddin Show.

Ibne Safi is truly the only real bestseller in Urdu.

His novels have been translated into six languages of India and have sold more than any other novel. Out of a borrowed genre he created new cultural heroes, built his own microcosm of fiction that readers willingly accepted. He introduced humour into the rather serious world of detective fiction. And, above all, he wrote an Urdu style rarely seen in popular fiction.

Note: This Article and pictures have been taken from http://www.ibnesafi.info/ with the permission of Hanif Sahab. Please visit http://www.ibnesafi.info/ for comprehensive articles and information on Great Ibn-e-Safi.

By Khaled Ahmed (Monthly The Herald, February 1983)

Work of Ibn-e-Safi shared by Salman Siddiqui : Khaulfnak Imarat