The House Of Fear
Translated by Bilal Tanweer
'So, young man. So now you have also started frequenting these places?'
'Yes. I often come by to pay Flush,' Imran said respectfully.
'Flush! Oh, so now you play Flush…'
'Yes, yes. I feel like it when I am a bit drunk…'
'Oh! So you have also started drinking?'
'What can I say? I swear I've never drunk alone. Frequently I find hookers who do not agree to anything without a drink…'
The dialogue above sounds suspiciously similar to the 'Veeru ki Shaadi' proposal scene in the biggest Hindi blockbuster of all time, Sholay. Well, these lines are from The House Of Fear, written by the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction, Ibn-E-Safi. The novel was originally published in Urdu in 1955 as Khaufnak Imarat. It was the first in the series of 120 odd books that Safi wrote featuring the quirky detective Ali Imran MSc, PhD.
Sholay was released in 1975. And we finally know from where Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (the writers of Sholay) copied (or should we say ‘drew their inspiration from’ as they say in Bollywood) the scene which is regarded by many as the greatest comic scene in the history of Hindi cinema.
Ibn-e-Safi was the pen name of Asrar Narvi, who came from the village Nara in the Allahabad district. Born in 1929, his pen name literally means 'son of Safi' (his father's name was Safiullah). Narvi, who moved to Pakistan after Partition, was a poet who started writing detective fiction in 1952, with the Jasoosi Duniya series which had Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed as the main protagonists. In 1953, Saifi started writing the Imran series.
Imran (who appeared as Vinod in Hindi) is a quirky character who keeps quoting Confucius all the time, and is thought of as a good for nothing fellow by his parents even though he has a PhD in criminology from Oxford. But he helps his friend Captain Fayyaz solve any mystery that comes his way.
The House Of Fear is the story of a few murders in a spooky house on the outskirts of the city. Fayyaz gets involved because the property is owned by his next door neighbour Judge Sahab. And that's how the case comes to Imran and he goes about solving it.
The plot is wafer thin. What works for the book is all the 'smart talk' of Imran. What doesn't, at times, is the translation. Of course, what sounds good in Urdu may not always sound good in English. For instance, "I swear by Madhubala's youth I will return the bag…" sounds nowhere near like "Madhubala ki jawani ki kasam main bag lauta doonga." Also, all the couplets of Ghalib that Imran keeps mouthing have been translated into English, but the original is not printed. For those who have read and understood Ghalib, reading him in English can be a show spoiler. A better option would have been giving the original couplet along with the translation.
The second novel in this set is Shootout At The Rocks. This has Imran solving a case in a hill station, helping out Colonel Zargham, who is being threatened by Li Yu Ka, an international drug smuggler. The plot again is rather weak and the know-all Imran figures out everything in his head. With Safi churning out nearly four books a month in the early part of his career, there wouldn't have been much time for detailing.
Safi provided entertainment to a whole generation in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1961, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and did not write for three years. He starting writing again after a miraculous recovery and wrote till he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1979. He died on July 26, 1980.