DAWN The Review, July 10-16, 1997
Literature for thrill seekers
For the generations that grew up in the decades between 1950s and the 1980s, Ibne Safi was such stuff as dreams were made of. Competing with the ever-growing popularity of radio and cinema until the late seventies (and that of television somewhere in between those years), the wonderful penman kept on churning out ten or twelve novels every year and selling over several thousand copies of them every month. No matter how we rate him on his literary merit, he surely deserves some credit in a country where people who read are virtually negligible in number. For such was the magic of his words that some who could not read themselves would get others to read the novels aloud. And it is also on record that many non-Urdu readers (including East Pakistanis) learnt Urdu just in order to be able to read Ibne Safi.
In this article I intend to make some suggestions on Safi's literary merits, too, but let me just add that the functional value of his work is immense. Even the worst of his opponents have had to admit that Safi's writing is among the best samples of Urdu prose with its choicest vocabulary, brevity, clarity of expression and almost an unsurpassed lyrical fluidity. To maintain such quality in over 250 books (approximately 40,000 pages of printed prose!) is not an ordinary achievement.
Then their is the panorama of themes. No other writer in Urdu can claim to have presented so many diverse venues of human world and human thought in his or her work.
There are those colonial hill stations, post-colonial mega cities, Amazonian forests, glamorous five-stars, plague-ridden ghettos, mountain tribes, town-dwelling citizens.... as his characters move in and out of various situations we are carried with them to look at places all of us cannot possibly visit in one lifetime, (as well as places, some of which could never have existed on this planet.) Yes, that sounds like James Bond, except that the similarity ends there. Ibne Safi had already published fifteen books when the first Bond novel appeared. And then, of course, the canvas of Bond's world is moderated by the sad fact that Ian Fleming could write only thirteen books about his master seducer.
It is indeed no exaggeration but quite an understatement that for a very large number of his readers, Ibne Safi's novels were windows into such concepts of human thought as Freudian psychology, Jung, Confucius, Nietzsche, anthropology, art, Picasso, debate against racism, political economy, international affairs, modern technology.... in fact, the novels were handbooks of "all you need to know but nobody taught you at school." In that way they still remain very good tools for cultural orientation and uplifting of young readers.
The moral dimension of his novels is also worth a note here. The three major characters. Faridi, Hameed, Imran, are presented with irresistible glamour,nevertheless they keep restraint over their sexual desires. I know friends who admit that they were 'saved' from several 'vices' in their tender age predominantly because of these characters, whom they had idolised.
The question of his literary merit is still unsettled, but it seems as if the tables have already started tilting in his favour. One obvious reason is that those who used to read his novels, hiding themselves from their elders under bed-sheets, are now well into their forties and fifties. They are teachers, professors, writers and parents. But they are also old friends of Safi's like Dr Abul Khair Kashfi, one of the few senior critics of that generation to be still writing today. The sum total of the positive bias of these people is that some of the prejudices against Safi have been lifted but an open acknowledgement of his literary greatness remains to be seen.
I think that the issue is deeper. It has got to do with our literary values, and the way we have come to understand our own literature. Why is it so, I would like to ask, that a critic like Waqar Azeem deplores the pathetic vulgarity (according to him) of Raees Ahmed Jaffri and gives him a place in his book at the same time (Dastaan Say Afsanay Tak)? And forgetting even to mention Ibne Safi, whose output was definitely larger than Raees Ahmed Jaffri?
In my opinion the tradition of modern literary criticism has been established on very apologetic lines in Urdu. Until late nineteenth century, the dominant form of fiction in Urdu was dastaan. Then came Hali, Azad and Nazeer Ahmed. For better or worse they declared that the entire bulk of the classical Urdu fiction is worth being burnt - the hero in one of Nazeer Ahmed's novels actually does that. What came to replace this classical tradition of Urdu dastaan writing was the westernised novel, and later, the short story. From Nazeer Ahmed down to the novelists of our own time, everyone has accepted the western forms as consummation devoutly to be pursued. Our "histories of Urdu literature" are single-track narratives, hypothesising an evolution of Urdu fiction from dastaan to novel to the short story.
The Urdu critic seems to be saying this: the more your novels conform to the western format (as if there was a western format), the more highly evolved your novel is. Some of us would perhaps remember how Qurat-ul-Ain Hyder's Aag Ka Darya was hailed as the Ulysses of Urdu literature. It seems as if the Urdu writers have all accepted their western counterparts as standards.
All, save one - Ibne Safi, who was once asked by someone why doesn't he write the way Earle Stanley Gardener writes. Safi's reply to this was: "Do you have the gal to go and ask Stanley Gardner why he doesn't write the way Ibne Safi does?"
Although he knew quite well that all he had to do in order to win literary acknowledgment was to prove his equivalence with Doyle or Christie, he stubbornly insisted that his writings do not conform to any western genre, nor does he have a predecessor in any foreign writer. Whatever else he might or might not have been, Ibne Safi is to me a breeze of the fresh air of confidence against an atmosphere of suffocating apologeticism.
The final question is: if the western detective fiction was not a source of inspiration for Ibne Safi, then what was? Any reader of Ibne Safi will answer this one without taking five seconds of waiting time: Talism-e-Hoshruba, the classical Urdu dastaan, as Ibne Safi had admitted in several of his prefaces and in both of his autobiographical essays. And this should answer everything. Ibne Safi became virtually inconceivable for the modern Urdu critics because the two belonged to different traditions. Ibne Safi was in a way reconstructing the genre of dastaan for modern times. The intellectual forefathers of the modern critic had done away with that genre a century ago, throwing it into the flames of Toba tun Nasuh. From the point of view of the modern critic, Ibne Safi must have had been burnt, in the seed form, into the same flames that took the lives of his elder predecessors. That he was alive and flowering into a garden was not a fact to reckon with.
The secret of his unparalleled popularity also becomes explicable then. He was popular because the source of his inspiration was the dastaan, the genre that was familiar to the masses of this land since a long time - he was not trying to initiate some foreign form.
A greater question for us to think about is this: are we willing to look back through all these hundred-and-some years, and find out what was there in the lost traditions of classical eastern literature - the baby we threw away along with the water? "A reconstruction of literary thought in the East" sounds like a good idea, doesn't it.
No other writer in Urdu can claim to have presented so many diverse venues of human world and human thought in his or her work.