Detective Fiction in Urdu: Form, Function, Genealogy
December 2021, volume 45, No 12

Detective fiction, like spy thrillers and crime fiction, is a genre concerned with crime, and has had its origins in the rationalist impulse of modernity. Like all crime fiction, it was used to mediate and contain the anxieties brought about by the experience of modernity. Even as serendipity as a concept might have had its origins in the Indo-Persian literary work of Khusro, Hasht Bahisht (‘The Three Princes of Serendip’) and may have travelled to Europe via translations, the detective genre was imported readymade into India. Urdu literary sensibilities, however, much like their response to modernity, resisted the European version and inflected it with their own tradition of ajaib and gharaib with emphasis on thrillers.

This article would attempt to trace the growth of detective fiction in Urdu under the broad rubric of colonial modernity in India, which may be deemed in terms of the nineteenth, early twentieth-century experience of imperialism, the post-WW I period, the high watermark of urban capitalism, and post-WW II period, which may be termed as postmodernism. The article would try to situate detective fiction within these contexts. Detective fiction, in this sense, is surmised as responding to various socio-cultural and political formations corresponding with dominant ideologies in diverse ways of opposition, resistance, and incorporation.

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The rise of detective fiction goes back to the 1800s, when with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in England, a large number of people began moving to cities, which led to escalation in crime and suspicion in inter-human interactions. Developments such as the formation of London’s police force in 1829, and New York City police force in 1845 and a rise in crime rates in the cities, created fertile ground for the detective fiction genre. Allan Poe is credited with having written the first modern detective short story, ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’, published in 1841 which introduced the character of a detective to the Anglophone world in the figure of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This was followed by the publication of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, arguably the first detective novel. Yet the genre did not attain its height until the birth of the character of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate and most famous detective till date, known for his extraordinary blend of wit and intelligence. Its creator, a young doctor, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, desiring to supplement his income, began writing Sherlock Holmes novels in 1887, which did not reap immediate financial success. However, Doyle later reworked the formula and with a huge success following him, he continued to write till 1927. With Agatha Christie’s detective novels and her famous detective characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, the genre witnessed newer heights. Thereafter, several experiments have been done with the genre in England and America, ranging from the puzzle solving, and hardcore crime fiction to the cinematic adaptations of classic detectives.

Modernity in India was not experienced in the manner it was experienced in the West. The public sphere too did not evolve here along the western pattern. There neither was any industrial revolution nor the subsequent urbanization. Modernity in India was introduced under the spectre of colonial rule that founded modern state institutions. Contingent upon this, social transformation began to take shape, paving the way for other features of modernity such as secularization of ethics, privileging of individual over community, rise of capitalist economy, and growth of technology including the print technology. The genre of detective fiction too, like modernity came readymade to India. It was initially introduced through translations from English into Bangla, later from Bangla into Hindi and English, Urdu, and so on. As Francisca Orsini, in her essay ‘Detective Novels: A Commercial Genre in Nineteenth Century India’ has exposed, each Indian language and the commercial presses of the language much like modernity, responded to the genre differently and adapted it at a different pace. It cannot be disputed, however, that by 1891, Indian readers had easy access to the English popular literature and the popular English fiction writers like George WM Reynolds, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and H Rider Haggard were read and translated widely into Urdu. Yet, Urdu commercial press and reading public still wallowing in the pleasures of fantasy tales of Dastan-i-Amir Hamza and Tilism-i-Hoshruba, did not readily lap up the quick-witted, rational figure of a detective. Unlike Hindi where fiction monthlies like Jasus (1900), Guptachar (1906), and Hindi Daroga Daftar (1910) filled with stories of suspense, mystery, indeterminacy, and so on, had caught the imagination of Hindi readers and writers alike, Urdu only had a few stray and ‘not so successful’ attempts at translating thrillers like Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s translation of Marie Corelli’s novel Wormwood (1919) as Khooni Ishq (1920) or his later translations of detective novels such as Khooni Shehzada in 1921, Khooni Bhed in 1924, Khooni Joru in 1928, and Bahram Ki Wapsi in 1928. Muhammad Ameer Hasan’s translation of Reynolds’ Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf as Fasäna-e ‘Alä’uddin va Lailä, was serialized in the Avadh Akhbar around 1890, or the publication of translation of five of Reynolds’ novels in 1896 by the famous commercial Urdu press, Newal Kishore Press of Lucknow.

Interestingly, while Sherlock Holmes was readily adapted to Indian settings by Panchkauri De in Bengali and also in Hindi through the translation of De’s works by writers like Gopalram Gahmari, Karrtikprasad Khatri, Ramkrishna Varma and Ramlal Varma, Urdu speakers continued to prefer thrillers over Holmes. This perhaps was the reason why Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin was the first to be translated into Urdu, by Tirath Ram Firozepuri and Zafar Omar (Neeli Chhatri) in 1916 (cf. Orsini 2004; Naim). Some of the earliest translations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle include M S Jauhar’s Khuni Daku published by Daya Singh Publications, Lahore, in 1914, Langra Qatil published by Sannat Singh and Sons, Lahore, 1929, Sheikh Firozuddin Murad’s Sharlak Homz ka Pehla Karnama (Darul Isha’at, Punjab), Hikayat-e-Sharlak Homz (1921), Yadgar-i-Sharlak Homz published by Indian Publishing Company Anarkali, Lahore, in 1927, and Amar Nath Muhsin’s Khunnaba-e-Ishq. Both Murad and Muhsin emphasized the scientificity of the tales in their introductions and blurbs. Following Panchkauri De and Gahmari, Murad also adapted Doyle’s characters to Indian settings. Thus, The Adventure of the Three Students became Teen Talib’ilm and The Adventure of the Reigate Squire was translated as Rai Ghat ke Ra’is. Murad also made all secondary characters Indians.

Many reasons can be ascribed to Urdu’s slow recognition and adaptation of detective fiction. For instance, Urdu writers of detective fiction were deemed inferior to the reputed historical fiction writers like Sharar. Publishers of jasusi novels aspired for commercial success rather than artistic recognition and hence published them as chapbooks, one cover often used for many books and sold for four annas or eight annas. Also, since Urdu press still used lithograph, the text had to be kept short to make it commercially viable. Some of the earliest practitioners of detective fiction in Urdu included Luqman Baba Hoshiarnagari who wrote Zalim Daku published in 1937 by Ashraf Book Depot, Munshi Muhammad Na’imullah Raibarelvi who wrote Bahri Tufan published in 1938 by Khwaja Book Stall, Naulakha, Lahore, Nadeem Muhammad Ya’qub, who wrote Daku Shahzada published by Imperial Book, Amritsar. In most Urdu detective fiction, the cerebral quality of the hero is overpowered by his heroism. The emphasis is not so much on ‘suraghrasani’ or decoding of clues and solving the puzzle but rather in heroically tracking down the daku and thus, the stories are mostly thrillers than the tales of detection (cf. Daechsel 2003).

It was only with the emergence of Asrar Ahmad ‘Narvi’ (1928-1980), popularly known as Ibne Safi, on the Urdu fiction scenario that the genre of detective fiction in Urdu attained its zenith. He was born in 1928, in the village of Nara in Allahabad. After finishing his education, he migrated to Pakistan with his mother and sister in August 1952. He was a prolific writer, and in a career spanning 25 years, wrote no fewer than 245 detective novels. Ibne Safi published his first story when he was in the seventh grade. The story was ‘Nakam Aarzoo’ and it was published in the prestigious Urdu monthly Shahid that was published from Bombay by the famous writer Adil Rashid. Thereafter, Ibne Safi continued to publish stories in the monthly. He also tried his hand at writing poetry and satires under the pseudonym ‘Taghrul Furghan’ or ‘Sanki Soljer’. It was in 1952 while writing for the periodical Nikhat that Ibne Safi began writing detective fiction and initiated the series Jasoosi Duniya, publishing 125 novels in the series. In 1955, after his migration to Pakistan, he began his own printing press and started the Imran series in which he published 120 novels. These novels gained a cult status.

Ibne Safi’s main fictional characters, Colonel Faridi of (also known to readers as Colonel Vinod when he was translated into Hindi from a press in Allahabad) Jasoosi Duniya, Ali Imran of Imran Series are men of honour whose moral universe is guided by the principle of justice. Refusing to align themselves with communal antagonism or their times, they seek peaceful coexistence. What stands them out is their intelligence and their quick and incisive wit. Ibne Safi’s novels abound in refreshing humour and wit. His fictional world is populated by many fascinating supporting players as Black Zero, Juliana Fitzwater, Safdar Saeed, and Sir Sultan, each character having a distinct trait. His larger-than-life villains like Sing-Hi, Finch, Gerald Shastri, Qalandar Bayabani, and Doctor Dread transcend national or religious stereotyping. Even places he describes can be anywhere in the world such as Zeroland and High Circle Hotel. Having said this, one has to acknowledge that even Ibne Safi’s novels are more of thrillers than stories of detection and scientific problem-solving as is evident from their titles like Purasrar Ajnabee, Raqqasa Ka Qatl, Khooni Patthar, Khaufnaak Hungama, and Laashon Ka Abshaar.

The commercial success of Imran series amongst the masses was such that even after Ibne Safi’s death, it was continued by Mazhar Kaleem (1942-2018) who wrote the later issue of stories in the series. Yet, after Ibne Safi, the genre of detective fiction once again slowly receded to the low-brow rung of inferior, pulp literature. Though Ishtiaq Ahmed (1941-2015) did produce a considerable amount of detective fiction (he has written nearly seven hundred novels), his writings were meant for the tweens. Of his three series, Inspector Jamshed series, Inspector Kamran Mirza series, and Shauki brothers series, the first two had police officers, Inspector Jamshed and Inspector Kamran Mirza, as their heroes while the last one has four brothers running a detective company. Ahmad’s prose lacked the literary flavour, urbane humour, and elegance of Ibne Safi and was more jingoistic in its content. Ahmad’s central characters are out to save Pakland and hence his villains are either disguised Israeli or Indian agents. Mohiuddin Nawab is yet another writer whose Devta, a rags-to-riches story about a man with telepathic powers, rich in crime and sex, ran from 1977 to 2010 and is a favourite among the Urdu-speaking masses of Pakistan.

While the genre has nearly disappeared from the Urdu literary scenario in India, in Pakistan, it is now mostly confined to cheap digests like Jasoosi Digest, Suspense Digest, Kiran Digest, Dar Digest and their online portals, which is a testament to the decline of the genre. Apart from these, the thrillers published in children’s magazines in Pakistan like Taleem-o-Tarbiyat or Aankh Micholi are mostly copies of Ibne Safi’s frames. The book-mills of Pakistan rope in lesser-known writers like M A Rahat, Riaz Aqib Kohler, Amjad Javed, Arshad Ali Arshad, who churn out titles like Bhagoda (2016), Daldal (2016) and Aurat Zaad (2016). In addition, there are twelve to fifteen-page pulp fiction booklets sold for children in Pakistan for one or two rupees with titles like Bahr-i-Hind ka Qazzaq, Tarzan Aur Khooni Balaa. Most of the detective fiction published in the above digests printed in Pakistan toes predictable lines with villains mostly being Indians or Chinese (Schaflechner 2021).

In short, the genre of detective fiction in Urdu flourished temporarily in the mid-War period and remained in ascendance for some time. However, it is the stories of suspense, thriller, horror and crime that have always been the preference of the Urdu reader and writer than the tales of detection. Bilal Tanveer’s English translation of Ibne Safi’s novel in 2010 followed by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s translation in 2011 have revived the interest of Anglophone readers in Urdu detective fiction in general and Ibne Safi in particular. Such efforts are significant, for once the current generation of young adults gets to taste the elegance of Ibne Safi’s works, even if not in their original Urdu form, there is hope that the genre may see its revival in Urdu.

Daechsel, Markus. ‘Zalim aku and the Mystery of the Rubber Sea Monster: Urdu Detective Fiction in 1930s Punjab and the Experience of Colonial Modernity’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 13:1 (April 2003), pp. 21 – 43
Naim, C.M. ‘The Holmesian Canon in Urdu’. Dawn. October 29, 2021. Web. Accessed on 26 October 2021.
Orsini, Francesca. ‘Detective Novels: A Commercial Genre in Nineteenth Century India’ in India’s Literary History. Edited by Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalamia, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 1990. pp. 435-485
Schaflechner, Jurgen. ‘A Specter is Haunting Pakistan! Nationalism in Pakistan’s Horror
Pulp Fiction’. Asian Ethnology. 80:1(2021)
pp. 31-56.

Nishat Zaidi is Professor and former Head of the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.