This blog is no longer being updated. Last post was “Farewell”.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
One of the most significant things in my childhood were Urdu magazines and novels. I used to get two children’s magazines every month, Taleem-o-Tarbiyat and Aankh Micholi, and I absolutely loved to read Urdu stories published by Ferozesons. Then one day, my elder brother brought home an Ishtiaq Ahmad novel, which served as my introduction to detective fiction. (If you ask my Abbu ji, Ishtiaq Ahmad novels also served as my introduction to spectacles.) Then came the Imran Series, which got me completely hooked. Sadly, they were not the originals written by Ibn-e-Safi, but their “continuation” — bah! — by Mazhar Kaleem.
The first novel of Ibn-e-Safi’s Imran Series that I ever laid my hands on was Khooni Fankar. It was given to me by a class fellow of mine — I was in class VI or VII at that time — and I couldn’t get past its first couple of pages. One reason was that Khooni Fankar was the second part of a storyline that had started in an earlier novel, Mona Lisa Ki Navasi. Another reason was that I was spoiled by reading the trash written by Mazhar Kaleem. Third reason was that I was just a kid.
I had first read the name “Ibn-e-Safi” in some trivia in Aankh Micholi, in which it was stated that he was the pioneer of detective fiction in Urdu. I was also surprised to learn that the characters of Ali Imran and Colonel Faridi were created by him. At that time, I had become quite a nerd of Ishtiaq Ahmad novels, and was beginning to become a Mazhar Kaleem nerd, a fact that I now deeply regret. The only good that I gained from reading Mazhar Kaleem’s books was that I was able to truly appreciate the originals once I started reading them.
For those of you who do not know, Imran Series is a series of novels written by Ibn-e-Safi about a fictional detective and spy, Ali Imran. Ibn-e-Safi started writing these novels somewhere in the 1950’s, and continued to write them till his death in 1980. This series, along with the Jasoosi Dunya (another series of novels written by Ibn-e-Safi and which featured the character, Colonel Faridi), is one of the best-selling works of fiction in Urdu. Strangely, I have never read any book from the Jasoosi Dunya, nor do I feel the urge to read them. I sometimes wonder why that is the case, and some of my speculations about it follow later in the post.
So, the Imran Series. In my opinion, the whole appeal of the series lies in its central character, Ali Imran. Here’s a character who is bright, handsome, strong, clever, and ruthless… and a moron.
Yes, I know that’s confusing — or even silly, if you are a new comer to Imran Series. But that’s the real genius of Ibn-e-Safi’s pen; he created a character whose personality is such a paradox that the readers always keep guessing, and enjoying. Imran’s most apparent characteristic is always described as his foolishness (combined with his very good looks), and it is emphasized many times that his goofy behaviour is sort of his second nature. Here’s an excerpt from the novel Mona Lisa Ki Navasi, in which two girls describe his appearance:
”میرا خیال ہے کہ ذرا سی دیر میں یہ رونا شروع کر دے گا۔!“ ڈرائیو کرنے والی ہنس کر بولی۔
”میری جان تو جل رہی ہے۔۔۔!“ دوسری بولی۔
”کیوں جانِ من۔۔۔!“
”اتنا ہینڈسم ہے۔۔۔ لیکن چہرے پر کیسی حماقت طاری ہے۔ ذرا تصور کرو اگر سمارٹ بھی ہوتا تو کیسا لگتا۔!“
”واقعی اتنے دلکش چہرے پر چھائی ہوئی بیوقوفی گراں گذرتی ہے۔!“
”تو کیا تم کئی دنوں سے اس کے پیچھے ہو؟“
”نہیں صرف کل سے۔۔۔ کل میں نے اُسے ریالٹو میں دیکھا تھا۔۔۔ اپنی میز پر تنہا تھا۔ ویٹر نے اس کے قریب پہنچ کر سلام کیا اور وہ سلام کا جواب دے کر بوکھلائے ہوئے انداز میں اٹھ کھڑا ہوا اور اُس سے نہ صرف مصافحہ کیا بلکہ شاید سامنے والی کرسی پر بیٹھنے کی بھی استدعا کر ڈالی۔ ویٹر ہونقوں کی طرح اُس کی شکل دیکھے جا رہا تھا۔ پھر اچانک ایسا لگا جیسے اُسے اپنی حماقت کا احساس ہو گیا ہو۔ شرمندہ سا ہو کر بیٹھ گیا۔!“
Imran himself admits in one story that he is a fool of 1st degree in times of peace. However, his comical exterior serves as the perfect cover for his clandestine role of X-2, Chief of the Ministry of External Affairs’ Secret Service. As Ali Imran, he is a foolish young man, acting as an opportunist, police informer, blackmailer, and occasional detective. As X-2, however, he is ruthless, harsh, extremely diligent, and a sign of terror for his subordinates. During the whole course of the series, only three other people know that Ali Imran is actually X-2, and the way he guards his secret identity is highly entertaining.
To start with, Imran Series is full of many, many interesting characters. From Ali Imran’s family to the Secret Service Members to the villains to the minor supporting characters — each and every one of them is a great joy to read. Unlike Mazhar Kaleem, who transformed almost every character into a pseudo-intellectual giant, Ibn-e-Safi kept his characters closer to real life. For example, Sulaiman, Imran’s personal chef, is an illiterate villager in the original Imran Series, and his dialogues and actions superbly portray his mindset. Mazhar Kaleem, on the other hand, glorified Sulaiman’s character to an extent that he even played X-2 in some books!
Next comes the story. Some of the early stories in the Imran Series are simple whodunit mysteries, in which Imran can be seen making new contacts and learning new tricks. In one of such stories, he helps Sir Sultan, a high ranking government official, who in return realizes his potential and offers him the secret position of X-2. Thus start Imran’s adventures as a secret agent, and that’s where the series begins to gain its momentum.
And then there’s the beautiful use of Urdu, which really makes for a very enjoyable read. The narration and the conversations just keep flowing smoothly, and even though the language is not overly nastaleeq, I often wonder if we are capable of speaking such Urdu these days, i.e., without overusing English. (Just take a look at the previous excerpt and see if you use words like طاری, گراں, مصافحہ, and استدعا in your everyday conversation.) And then there are dialogues that immensely helped me in pretending that I am an Urdu geek. For example, the following conversation, taken from Khair-andesh:
”آخر ہم کہاں چلے جا رہے ہیں۔“ جیمسن تھوڑی دیر بعد بڑبڑایا۔
”بس کچھ دور اور چل کر ہم گاڑی کا انتظار کریں گے۔“ عمران بولا۔
”کیا عالمِ بالا سے آئے گی۔“
”کہیں میں پھر تمہارے چہرے پر ڈاڑھی نہ اُگا دُوں۔“ عمران اسے گھورتا ہوا بولا۔
”اس غریب الوطنی میں میری تشویش حق بجانب ہے۔“
”مجھ سے زیادہ گاڑھی اردو نہ بولنا۔۔۔ اچھا۔۔۔ بیگل سے فون پر کسی کو ہدایات دے چکا ہوں۔ گاڑی ابھی پہنچ جائے گی۔“
”دیکھا آپ نے گاڑھی اردو کا کمال۔ آخر میری تشویش دور ہو گئی نا۔“
”میں تمہارے وجود کو منصۂ شہود سے نابود کر دوں گا۔“ عمران اسے گھونسہ دکھا کر بولا۔
”ارے باپ رے۔ اتنی گاڑھی حلق سے نہیں اتری یور میجسٹی۔“
”کان پکڑو۔ میں ظفر الملک نہیں ہوں۔“
”یہ لیجئے!“ جیمسن اپنا کان پکڑ کر بولا۔ ”مطلب بتا دیجئے۔“
”میں نے کہا تھا کہ میں تمہیں جان سے مار دوں گا۔“
”ایسی شاندار اردو میں مارنا ہے تو میں تیار ہوں۔“
I am guilty of using the manassah-e-shuhood sentence a couple of times in order to show off my Urdu skills. *wink*
Prefaces that Ibn-e-Safi used to write for every novel have always been very interesting to me. Mostly, they contained letters from readers and Ibn-e-Safi’s witty replies to them, or his take on readers’ reactions to some earlier novel, but sometimes they also included lighthearted commentary on any social issue. Here’s an excerpt from the preface of Mahaktay Muhafiz:
تیسرے صاحب نے بہت ہی بیڈھب سوال کیا ہے۔ وہ مجھ سے سچے مسلمان کی تعریف پوچھ رہے ہیں۔ میری سمجھ میں نہیں آتا کیا عرض کروں۔ ویسے اپنے آس پاس جس قسم کی باتیں سنتا رہتا ہوں اُس سے یہ نتیجہ اخذ کیا ہے کہ سچا مسلمان وہی ہے جس کی بیوی کو چشمِ فلک نے بھی نہ دیکھا ہو۔۔۔ واللہ اعلم بالصواب۔۔۔
Specially if it’s a book from the Imran Series.
Since I have always seen and bought the re-prints of Imran Series novels, I have no idea what the covers of the original books looked like. (If any of you know anything about them, do let me know.) The very first novels that I’d bought had the same cover, and it looked like this:
Pretty simple and, well, dull. I have always wondered, by the way, if the black figure in this drawing should have yellow eyes instead of white. I mean, the red figure is on a blue background and has blue eyes; the yellow figure is on the red figure and has red eyes; so the black figure, which is on the yellow figure, should have yellow eyes. It’s only logical, no?
But anyway. Regardless of the choices of eye-colors for the weird looking armed figures, the cover is not that horrible. Yes, it’s clumsy, and a rather bad attempt to use abstract art for a spy novel series, but it, sort of, works… somehow.
Some years ago, Asrar Publications, the regular publishers of Imran Series, started publishing the novels in a new format. They took all the novels in a multi-part storyline and combined them in a single volume, so instead of 120 books, we now have 37 volumes. Now that’s a pretty smart decision, and it helps the readers to maintain their collection with less hassle. I, however, do have a problem with these volumes and — yep, you guessed it — it’s the covers.
Take the following cover, for example:
You might want to ask: what the hell is Catherine Zeta-Jones doing on the cover of an Imran Series volume?
But before you even try to think for an answer, I invite you to take a look at the following cover:
Now what the bloody hell is Robert De Niro doing on the cover of an Imran Series volume?
And that’s not all. I have seen Steve Buscemi, Nicolas Cage, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, and Jack Nicholson… all of them “featured” on covers of different Imran Series volumes. Combine them with that brilliant design work (which seems to be done by a Photoshop enthusiast who possessed only the mechanical knowledge of photo-editing) and you have an absolute masterpiece. And don’t get me started on the horrible typography (but then, most publishers of Urdu books don’t care much about typography anyway).
If you ask me, I would prefer that bland, old cover of three seemingly burqa-clad, armed figures any day over the new and glossy Hollywood-inspired paste jobs.
Honestly speaking, I’d be very surprised if someone makes it this far into the post.
I wanted to write about why I hate Mazhar Kaleem novels, why I’ve never bothered reading a Jasoosi Dunya novel, and why I sometimes shake my head at the science fiction presented by Ibn-e-Safi. Don’t get me wrong, Ibn-e-Safi’s science fiction is not that absurd. Sometimes, however, he does use terms which show his lack of research on the topic, but that’s very rare. He once stated that a writer’s task is to review all possibilities, and with the exception of few cases, he does that job very well.
But anyway, since this post is already much longer than I had planned, I think I should stop now. I’ll save the rant against Mazhar Kaleem for a future post.