As a kid in the 1970s, one of the first Urdu authors that I began reading was Ibn-i-Safi. Most Pakistani kids and young people in cities did that and probably many still do; going on to continue reading his novels well into their less curious adulthoods.
I don’t anymore though, outgrowing the fantastic sounding cities and countries full of quirky spies, strange gadgets and racy plots that Safi offered in his novels, making him one of Pakistan’s most popular and best-selling Urdu novelists of all time.
However, I returned to reading Safi again a few years ago when English translations of some of his many novels began appearing in local book stores. Though much of Safi’s highly imaginative style of writing gets lost in translation, it was nice to see someone actually attempting to introduce this most prolific and popular author to a whole new generation and breed of readers.
More interesting though is the reality of Safi, the man. A reality that is not well-documented but can be pieced together with the help of the many snippets on him that appeared in various Urdu newspapers and magazines in the last many decades.
While Ibn-i-Safi blended mystery with humour, espionage, law enforcement, science fiction, adventure and drama; was he aware that his own life was a curious blend of the above?
A majority of his fans simply know him through the colourful and inspired characters that he created operating in an environment creatively culled from the archetypical political paranoia of the Cold War (during which Safi authored his novels).
Very few are aware that many of Safi’s characters and plots also emerged from a serious bout of schizophrenia that he suffered in the early 1960s. Though the mental illness rendered him incapable of writing anything at all, he eventually recovered and actually converted some of the delirious delusions and even hallucinations that had suffered at the time into creating brand new characters, scenarios and plots for his comeback novels!
Ibn-i-Safi was himself a fascinating character. A young school teacher in 1952 but raring to make a name for himself as a writer, Safi began writing highly imaginative spy novels.
From 1957 onwards the pace of his writing more than doubled, and by 1960 he had written over a hundred short novels, all taking place in the imaginary and fantastical world that he had created, full of colourful, flamboyant and wise-cracking spies, beautiful women, strange-sounding villains, exotic places and odd gadgets.
But as Safi came up with one exotic story after another, he also began to isolate himself from his family. He eventually collapsed within himself, suffering a crippling spell of schizophrenia for which he needed to be committed to a psychiatric ward.
Very few are aware that many of Safi’s characters and plots also emerged from a serious bout of schizophrenia that he suffered in the early 1960s.
In 1960 his career seemed to be as good as over when he was put on heavy tranquilisers but he continued suffering from hallucinations and severe paranoia. The budding raw genius had crossed that thin line into ‘madness.’
He began to believe that the characters that he had created were real and that the villains among them were conspiring against him. He hid in his room, refusing to come out, as strange-sounding men plotted and conspired against him from subterranean bases.
After a long stint in the psychiatry ward of a hospital, Safi was shifted back to his home where he was patiently nursed back to health by his wife (and a family hakeem).
Amazingly, just three (painful years) later, he was back writing again. Some of the characters that had haunted him during his illness actually made their way into his new novels.
The demand for his spy novels reached new heights (both in Pakistan as well as India) and he kept producing them with incredible speed. By the early 1970s he was dishing out an average of three to four novels a year, setting new standards in the ability to produce racy and highly imaginative Urdu pulp fiction.
In another interesting twist, in 1973 Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, actually invited him on a few occasions to lecture new ISI recruits on the ‘art of espionage’. I actually stumbled upon an old 1973 newspaper cutting (from a local Urdu daily) that had a photograph of Safi lecturing a group of ISI recruits in Islamabad. In the short report that accompanied the photograph, an ISI officer is quoted as saying that it was “Safi Sahib’s understanding of the politics of the Cold War and his knowledge of the history of modern-day espionage that made them [the agency] invite him to deliver a few lectures”.
Becoming Pakistan’s best-selling author, one of Safi’s books was also turned into a film by Hussain Talpur (a maverick film-maker who was also known as ‘Maulana Hippie’). However, the film, Dhamaka (Explosion), released in late 1974, bombed at the box-office as the director simply failed to convincingly translate Safi’s animated words and imagery into celluloid reality.
But despite being a bestselling author, Safi made half the amount of money that he should have mainly due to the crookedness of many of his publishers and his own lack of understanding of the financial side of his art.
In 1977 a TV series based on some of his novels was produced by PTV. However, its run was disallowed when in the same year the government of Z.A. Bhutto was toppled in a reactionary military coup. The reason given by the military regime that replaced the Bhutto government was that the series was ‘vulgar’.
In 1978, Safi, who had continued to be on medication ever since the early 1960s, fell ill again. His legendary productivity as a writer slowed down and by 1979 he was bedridden again, as friends, family and publishers fought around him over how much money was made and owned to whom from his books.
Then in 1980 he passed away, dying quietly in his sleep and in the process finally getting the rest that he had longed for decades. He left behind an enormous body of work that is still being reproduced. He was just 52 at the time of death.