When did you first read/discover Ibne Safi? What were your initial impressions?
I have ben an avid reader of detective stories, crime stories, thrillers and spy stories ever since I was a boy. At that time, the only resource in Urdu were the excellent translations made by Munshi Tirath Ram Ferozepuri from English detective and crime novelists of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Munshi Tiram Ram was a great benefactor of the genre in Urdu and the business of translating in Urdu owes a big debt to him. His translations read fluently and came out almost every month for a long time. I devoured all that came my way. (I was too poor to buy any for my own.)
Munshi Sahib’ s authors were all the great ones in English from George W. M. Reynolds and Conan Doyle onwards. But they were staid, almost stodgy, humourless and sedate. Ibn-e Safi produced something that was fast moving, hilarious and also rich in crimes and thrills. His Faridi was not really vey good at detecting (for Ibn-e Safi himseelf knew very littlle of that) but he was charismatic, aristocratic, nor interested in sex, encyclopedic in knowledge; he represented all that we all desired to be but could never be. We lived vicariously all the great life styles that Faridi epitomised.
For a lot the new readers, unfortunately, reading Ibne Safi follows years of consuming western classics of the genre, like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. (Even non-readers are exposed to it through popular culture like cinema). There is hence that constant triggering of resonant images in your head as you read. Would you think this is a major handicap for contemporary readers of Ibne Safi? Are there are any pros of this, you think?
I am not sure that the young people of today care or even know much about Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or even Edgar Wallace. I think the readership today for Ibn-e Safi will not come from those who want to see a homespun version of the great novelists of the thirties and the forties. I think Ibn-e Safi’s readers in English today will be those who like very short novels, clean and simple in content but rich in humour, bizarrerie, outré characters and situations, no sex please and no hard violence either.
Ibn-e Safi is a very rough and ready amalgam of Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey). But he outdoes both in hilarity and grotesquerie. As a writer he is much below the two, and in fact there aren’t many that can ever match the elegance and subtlety of Dorothy Sayers, but Faridi is somehow more appealing. Maybe it’s because the configuration of his character has as subtext a third world political temper which brings him much closer to us than Peter Wimsey or Holmes.
What, in your opinion, is the most debilitating effect of reading it in translation?
I think Ibn-e Safi is hard to translalte for he is so utterly steeped in the Urdu literary andsocial culture. The humour depends on wordplay, distortion of language and almost private social contexts. But given a translator who has a good sense of the rhythms of modern English, he should not present an unsurmountable vchallenge, for English is a very powerful language.
What makes Ibne Safi relevant to modern day detective/thriller readers? How would you recommend it to a modern day reader?
I think Ibn-e Safi can be enjoyed by those who want to combine a good laugh with a good number of short thrills and mysteries even if in the final analaysis, the thrills and the mysteries don’t really contribute much to the story.
What would be your comparative take on an Arthur Conan Doyle vis-a-vis Ibne Safi? And Sherlock Holmes vis-à-vis Faridi?
I think I have answered the question above.
Do you have a personal story of reading Ibne Safi? Do you have a favourite book?
I was an Ibn-e Safi fan for many years. But I couldn’t develop a real affinity with any of his numerous apparently memorable characters. They all sem to fizz away in a half-lit cloud of events and snatches of dialogues and situations. I remember the novels more for their atmosphere.
Faridi or Imran?
Even though Faridi is almost totally humourless and his Mr. Know-all, Mr. Do-all personality quickly shows itself to be rather tinselly, I’ll always vote for Faridi. He always gets his man in great style. I know that he doesn’t so much detect than let detection happen to him. But who cares? He has charisma. Imran seems to me too artificial., too friviolous and too schoolboyish to really fit the role of the powerful, shadowy, ever present X-2 that he is supposed to be.
Do you go back to reading Ibne Safi even today?
Even though he’s widely available in India and Pakistan, I haven’t read any Ibn-e Safi for many years now. Perhaps I’ve grown too cynical. Also, his novels are far too short. I like to have the feeling that I have a good long read ahead of me, not something which (in Urdu) I can finish in half an hour.
Does classifying Ibne Safi as pulp fiction work as a deterrent? (The new packaging immediately signifies it as pulp).
I am not sure that “pulp fiction” is pejorative, certainly, it’s not Tolstoy or even Dickens. But readers of Thomas Mann and Tolstoy don’t need pulp fiction anyway.
SHAMSUR RAHMAN FARUQI
Allahabad, May 7, 2011.
S. R. Faruqi's email interview with the Times of India, May 7, 2011::
I don’t know about what makes the novels work today. I haven’t read them in a long time now. But I suspect that readers who want to read short, clean, simple crime fiction which also has the merit of being a veritable storehouse of humour, bizarrerie, absolutely original characters (even if they don’t contribute much to the plot), and a slightly third world political subtext would like them greatly. I was attracted to Ibn-e Safi because I’ve always been an avid reader of crime and detection novels, spy stories, thrillers. When I was growing up, Urdu’s sole resource in that line of fiction was Munshi Tirath Ram Ferozepuri’s translations from the English authors of the 1930’s and the 1940’s. His authors were the typical English crime fiction writers of that age: sedate, somewhat stodgy, humourless whose main focus was on detection, not on thrills. Urdu detective fiction and the business of trnslating in Urdu owe great debt to Munshi Tirath Ram Sahib. But Ibn-e Safi provided humour, fast action, and later he invented some of the most bizarre characters in Urdu literature. And his hero was all that young people of that time desired: man of action, intellectual, aristocratic, amateur yet highly profossional, apparently all knowledge was his province. And he wasn’t interested in sex. So a truly superhuman type with a great lot of humanity.
* How close is the translation to the original? Is translation a difficult task? Are there other such works in Urdu that deserve to be brought before a larger audience?
I have stayed as close to the original as was possible without compromising the conventions and taste and atmosphere of modern English. I would say the translations represent Ibn-e Safi fairly accurately.
Translations are always difficult, particularly when you are translating into English a work which is steeped in the Urdu literary and social culture. But English is a powerful language. It can accept and meet the challenge most times, I think.
* How many of his novels have you translated and what was the experience?
These four are just what I have done. It was exasperating at times, exhilarating at other times.
Which is your favourite character and novel?
I think I will always vote for Faridi, the hero of the Faridi-Hameed novels. Among the master criminal or master spy types, I don’t think I have any favourites. Ibn-e Safi didn’t go in so much for verisimilitude as bizarrerie and grotesquerie and the great thing is that he pulled it off most of the time.
* How is the response to his books? Do they have more takers in the regional language or in English?
This question should be addressed to the publisher.
What do you think of detective fiction today? Who are your favourite authors in English and regional languages?
Not much fiction is being written in Urdu or in English that could accurately be described as “detective”. In Urdu, there’s hardly anything to replace Ibn-e Safi. In English, the most dominating positions are occupied by thriller writers too numorous and too various to mention.
SHAMSUR RAHMAN FARUQI
Allahabad, May 7, 2011.