Critical Muslim 4: Pakistan? 133-142 October 2012
When I visited Bahwalnagar in May 1975, I found little had changed. A new generation of goll guppa-wallas, chaat-wallas and paan-wallas had taken over the stalls in Railway Bazaar. It was still the direct route from the Railway Station to our house in the centre of the town, where we lived and I grew up. I had left the city at the age of nine, when my parents migrated to London. And I expected no one would know me. Indeed, they did not know me. But they recognised me: I was the returning grandson of Hakim Sahib.
Abdur Razziq Khan, known locally and affectionately simply as ‘Hakim Sahib’, was one of the most distinguished citizens of the town. I called him Nana. He hated the Raj and the British with equal measure. Not least because the British had outlawed his profession: hikmat, the traditional Islamic medicine. He looked after his mostly rural patients from his surgery, ‘Haziq Dawa Khana’, which was situated in the middle of Railway Bazaar. Everyone in Bahwalnagar knew him; and everyone knew that his grandson had come from England to visit him.
I had arrived the prevision night; and it was my first day in Bahwalnagar. Nana had asked me to meet him at his surgery after lunch. ‘And bring a copy of the latest ibn-e-Safi with you’, he had instructed.
I knew ibn Safi well. During my childhood in Bahwalnagar, the entire extended family, consisting of scores of uncles and aunties, were addicted to ibn-e-Safi. We read ibn Safi; and had ibn Safi read to us. He published two best-selling series of Urdu spy novels. The first, Jasoosi Dunya (Spy World), featured two detectives, Colonel Ahmad Kamal Faridi, the exceptionally cleaver and highly ethical Chief of Police, and his partner and assistant Sajid Hameed, a humorous and playful young man who appears to be careless but in fact has great presence of mind. The second, the Imran series, featured Ali Imran: a playful, highly intelligent detective who is also a master of disguise. Two novels came out every month; and there was always a new ibn Safi to read every fortnight. Nana had assigned a cupboard in the house where all our ibn Safis were stored; and I was proudly made in charge of this treasure. It was also my responsibility to secure the new novels as soon as they hit the street. I remember that at a tender age of seven or eight, I had to fight my way through the crowds that always gathered in front of newspaper vendors and street sellers to buy the latest adventures of ‘Hameedi-Faridi’ and Imran.
I sat off for Nana’s surgery at about three o’clock. As I walked on Railway Bazaar, I was beckoned by the paan-walla. ‘Young Sahib, young Sahib’, he shouted, ‘you are the grandson of Hakim Sahib. Right? I will make a special paan for you – in your honour’.
It is practically impossible to escape a paan-walla anywhere in Pakistan. Paan is the heart-shaped leaf of the betel plant, a type of creeper, on to which a number of spices are smothered, seeds and nut are added, and the complete concoction is then folded into a triangular shape. It has three basic ingredients: katha, a reddish solution of the heart-wood of the tree Acacia Catechu Wild; choona, lime paste; and chalia, areca nut (which in botanical terms is not a nut, but a seed), which is also known as supari. Beyond these, a whole range of different spices, seeds, nuts and dried fruit can be added to give the paan specific taste and flavour. The most visible ingredient of paan is the katha which produces natural red colour. Folklore has it that paan was popularised by Queen Noorjehan, the mother of Mughal Emperor Shahjehan who built the Taj Mahal as a symbol of his love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Noorjehan used paan, presumably with a lot of katha in it, as a lipstick! In Bahwalnagar, lipstick coloured spit graces most of the city’s walls, particularly if they have been recently white washed.
The paan-walla picked a betel leaf from a tray, carefully dried it, covered it with katha with a round spoon, dropped a few drops of choona on one side, and placed a small pinch of chalia in the middle. ‘Not too much chalia’, I said. ‘And make it small pieces. I find them too difficult to chew; I don’t want to break my teeth’. ‘Do not worry Sahib’, the paan-walla replied as he continued to add other ingredients: cardamom, aniseed, grated coconut, cloves, rose essence, chutney… Eventually he handed me the paan.
‘My best! I call it Asmani pan. Direct from the heavens through me to you’. I took the paan and placed it in my mouth: it simply melted away.
Ibn-e-Safi BA is as indigenous to Pakistan, and as ubiquitous, as the paan. His real name was Asrar Ahmad; the ‘BA’ in his nom de plume was integral. When Asrar Ahmad obtained his Bachelor of Arts from Agra University, in the late 1940s, it was a still rare for a Muslim to be so highly educated. He was born in the small village of Nara in Allahabad, India, on 26 July 1928. He published his first detective story in 1948 in a magazine called Nikhat, which was printed in Allahabad. And then went on to write under various pseudonyms; eventually settling for ibn-e-Safi BA after the success of his Shola (spark) series. He was a progressive writer; and branded as such both by the British and then the Indian authorities after them. Warrants were issued for his arrest and he ended up escaping to Pakistan. Jasssi Duniya began in India in 1952; Imran series started in Pakistan in 1958. Ibn Safi published his novels simultaneously in India and Pakistan, and kept the Subcontinent enthralled till his death by cancer, age 52, on 26 July 1980 (coincidently the same date as his birthday). He left some 232 novels behind him. A whole generation of Pakistanis grew up on his novel, idolising Hameed, Farid and Imran. This vast output took his toll and in the middle of his career, and between 1961 and 1963, ibn-e-Safi developed schizophrenia. But he recovered to make a sensational comeback, with the bestselling Imran novel, Dairrh Matwaalay.
Like the paan, ibn-Safi novels have three basic ingredients. First, there is the language – the katha. Ibn-Safi writes with wit and panache, taking great pleasure at word play. Imran frequently quotes and misquotes the great Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir, as well as Confucius, to poke fun at himself. The dialogue is always crisp, scintillating, and punctuated with layer upon layer of innuendos and puns. Yet, nothing is over written; everything is precise and measured. Even the titles of the novels play with words: Larazti Lakeeran (Shivering Lines), Adhura Admi (Unfinished Man), Tabut Main Chikh (Scream of Iron) and Lash Gati Raay? (The Singing Corpse). And the villains are just delicious: Qalandar Bayabani, the spy story teller; Theresia Bumble-Bee of Bohemia, who behaves like a chameleon; Gerald Shashtri, the western expert in Sanskrit; and the most ingenious and treacherous of all, Sing Hee. Second, the emphasis on virtue – the choona. Ibn Safi was a highly moral man who took religious virtue seriously. Although religion itself is never mentioned in the novels, his protagonists are highly ethical, indeed critical Muslims: they follow the law impeccably, do not believe in unnecessary violence, do not drink or gamble, and they never, never have sex. Even when the playful Hameed and naughty Imran are surrounded by irresistible glamour – in five star hotels, for example – they are not allowed even a side-ways glance at desirable pulchritude however enticingly displayed. Moreover, they are thoroughly professional, exceptionally rational and precise in their actions. The virtues are not overplayed, or thickly layered; they are just there, a natural and integral part of his characters. They should be, ibn Safi seems to suggest, the norms of Muslim society. Third, the plot – the supari. While the plots are crafted deftly, the pleasure in reading ibn Safi is not so much in discovering the mystery that will eventually resolve itself at the end, but how the drama is unfolded, how the story is weaved, and how the familiar set pieces are manipulated and twisted not just to surprise but to delight. Ibn-e-Safi wants his readers to be involved with his creation, to appreciate how the narrative is put together, to enjoy how his familiar tropes perform in unfamiliar situations, savour the texture and every morsel of the story.
Then there is the paan leaf itself: the landscape of the story. The novels are set in an unnamed country. But we know that Hameedi-Fradi are defending India. But it is an India that stretches from North West Frontier to the Far East, and it is seen as a civilisation rather than a nation state. The Imran series is clearly set in Pakistan; but it is not a Pakistan that we would recognise. Ibn-e-Safi’s Pakistan is a confident nation with unimpeachable integrity. And his characters are at ease everywhere. The entire globe is ‘home’. The protagonists travel all over the world in pursuit of the villains (who invariably tend to be white men): plague infected ghettos in the US, colonial settlements in South Africa, the congested streets of cities in England; and, a fictional country known as Zero Land (where, naturally, everyone is a non-entity). There is also an awareness of progress and of the future. In the 1957 novel Toofan Ka Aghwa (Hurrican Kidnap), we find a loveable robot, ‘Fauladmi’, who performs household chores, controls traffic, and even settles minor disputes between citizens. But ibn-safi is also aware of the downside of technology. In Jungle Ki Aag (Jungle Fire), written in the 1960, the villain invents a machine that turns three crippled beggars into a gorilla.
Before I could thank the paan-walla, I was assaulted by two young boys. One pulled my arms; the other was firmly attached to my right leg. They were intent on moving me in two different directions. It took some effort to disentangle myself and control the enthusiasm of the boys. ‘Sahib! Sahib!’ the boy attached to my arm was urging me to the goll guppa stall. And for old time’s sake, why not?
‘Only one goll guppa, please!’ I pleaded with the goll guppa-walla. ‘Teek hai, Teek hai (OK), just for today. One is enough to get you hooked’. I opened my mouth as widely as possible, prepared to receive his bounty. But he recoiled in horror. ‘No sir!’, he said. ‘Never! Never will I be putting my divine goll guppa in a mouth full of paan’. I quickly spat the remaining paan from my mouth; drank a few sips of tamarind water from the small glass he placed in my hands. ‘Now you are ready for the goll guppa experience’ he said exultantly and carefully placed a large goll guppa, full of chickpeas and tamarind water, in my mouth. As the goll guppa exuded its divinity in my mouth I found my body encrusted with a new effusion of boys all anxious to drag bits of my being in sundry directions. I manage to wriggle out and ran towards a bookseller. His wares were displayed on the street next to a pharmacy. He sat on a stool, a fan in his hand, surrounding by books and magazine. There were several ibn-e-Safi novels neatly displayed.
As far as I know, goll guppa is a totally desi, that is local, concoction. Not unlike ibn-e-Safi novels. Arrogant and ill-informed Pakistani literati have dismissed his work as derivative, not worthy of serious attention. He is said to have borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle, Leslie Charteris, Ian Fleming and a host of others. Such dismissal says a great deal about the deep inferiority complex one detects in the Pakistani literati. Imagination is not something that Pakistanis, the desis, are allowed to have. The desi is always seen as inferior to the ‘western’. Of course, there are shades of Bond in ibn-e-Safi just as there are shades of Bond in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. It’s a genre for God’s sake. In any case, by the time Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (under the title You Asked For It) in 1953, Ibn-e-Safi had already published well over a dozen novels in the Jasoosi Dunya series and the characters and adventures of ‘Hamidi-Faridi’ had been well established. While Bond certainly knows his drinks, his gadgets and his weapons, Ibne Safi’s characters are more at home with Freudian psychology, Nietzsche, Confucius and Omar Khayyam. The Saint may be as suave as Imran, his adventures are mundane and he cannot match Imran’s ability to disguise himself or dodge bullets.
Ibn-e-Safi’s literary output is about as Pakistani or Indian as one can get. No doubt, like most of us, he was influenced by what he read. He was honest enough to acknowledge those who influenced him. But Jasoosi Dunya and Imran series are part of a very specific genre of Urdu literature that played with magical realism centuries before magical realism was invented. The genre can be traced back to the sixteenth century and to such classical novels as Dastan-e Ameer Hamza (‘The Narrative of Ameer Hamza’) and Talism-e Hoshruba (‘The Magic That Robs the Wits’; translated by Shahnaz Aijazuddin as The Enchantment of the Senses). These are sprawling narratives of kings and Jinn, battles and romances, moral imperatives and ethical choices, deeply rooted in the imagination and the soil of the Subcontinent – just like the goll guppas. Ibn-e-Safi’s plots as multi-layered, complex, and convoluted as the stories in Talism-e Hoshruba.
‘Do you have the latest ibn-e-Safi?’, I asked the bookseller.
‘Yes, Sahib’, he shot back. ‘The latest and the original’.
‘Original?’, I was intrigued.
‘Yes, Sahib. You can’t be too careful nowadays. There are vandals out there who produce fake copies of his work. Ibn-e-Safi has himself complained. But they don’t listen’.
‘Here’, he said, handing me a novel, ‘Khooni Panja (Blood Claw). Hot off the press’.
I bought the novel and ran all the way to Haziq Dawakhana.
Hakim Sahib was sitting crossed-legged on a cushion listening attentively to a patient. I composed myself. I took a seat near him, keeping a respectable distance from the private space between a hakim and his mareez, the patient. When he finished, Nana looked up.
‘I see you have got the latest ibn-e-Safi’.
He paused for a thought. ‘Can you still read Urdu?’
‘I think I can’, I replied.
‘Then begin at the beginning’.
Khooni Punja was from the Imran series. The comical and apparently incompetent Ali Imran, 27, Oxford PhD, also known as X-2, lives in a modest flat with his three faithful employees: his cook, the cook’s wife, and his personal body guard, Joseph, an African. Handsome and a flamboyant dresser, he speaks several languages, and is an expert in a number of fighting arts. When he has to fight he fights like Jackie Chan: aiming to humiliate the opponent into submission rather than physically beating them up. He is a master of the Chinese ‘Sung Art’, which he learned from one of his arch enemies, Sung Hee, a Chinese criminal and spy. Imran has a string of agents working for him, but they do not know his identity; whenever any of his subordinates are in trouble X-2 appears mysteriously, as if he were a ‘spirit’, to save them. The most fearsome of his criminal opponents, Theresa Bumble Bee of Bohemia (T3B), is deeply in love with him. At the beginning of each novel, Imran appears in disguise as some insignificant character in the background, ever present, but almost invisible. The readers themselves do not know it is Imran until well into the novel. What we do know is that an elaborate trap is being set. And we may suspect there is more to that beggar with the twisted body who insists on praising Allah incessantly, or the paan-walla who is trying to attract customers by juggling his ‘Asmani paan’, or the incompetent motor mechanic who is taking forever to change a wheel.
‘Well, get on with it then!’ Hakim Sahib jogged me from my reverie.
I had forgotten to read; and I was struggling a bit with my Urdu.
‘It is possible that this event would not have happened. Or it would have. We cannot be sure that the riot was not used as a front for something else. It started innocently enough and then developed into wide scale looting. Shops were vandalised. Paan-wallas and goll guppa-wallas were robbed’.
‘What?’ Hakim Sahib asked sharply. ‘Read that again’.
‘Shops were vandalised. Paan-wallas and goll guppa-wallas were robbed’.
‘May be we can say that another event was unfolding behind the riot. The initial impulse for the troubles was provided by the bulky man, with an ill-fitting suit, eating ravenously in the restaurant. A young couple arrived and sat in front of him. He looked at them while placing a handful of rice in his mouth. The girl was exceptionally beautiful. Did she look at him? Qasim did not know her. But he knew the man accompanying her. He was the son of a well-to-do businessman. He really liked the girl. Did she look towards him again? Qasim tried to ignore the couple and concentrate on his food. His eye was caught by a Pathan, sitting at one end of the restaurant. Wearing an ostentatious shalwar kameez, in bright blue shades, the Pathan had finished his meal. The waiter brought him some coffee and biscuits. The Pathan dunked a biscuit in the coffee and ate it as though he was performing an act of high ritual significance.’
‘What? What?’ Hakim Sahib leaned forward as if he hadn’t quite heard what I read. ‘Read that again.’
‘The waiter brought him some coffee and biscuits. The Pathan dunked a biscuit in the coffee and ate it as though he was performing an act of high ritual significance’.
‘Qasim became aware that the couple were laughing at him. He tried to ignore them. But then they started pointing at him. They were openly mocking and humiliating him. Qasim just could not take it anymore. He picked up the chair next to him and threw it at the young man. Within minutes the restaurant was engulfed in an all-out brawl. Chairs, tables, plates, shoes – everything was flying. The brawl spilled out into the street. And the fight in the restaurant turned into a riot in the bazaar’.
I paused a minute to make sure Hakim Sahib was still attentive. He was. But there was a slightly troubled look on his face. ‘Why have you stopped?’ he said. ‘Carry on’.
‘Inside the restaurant, the lights went off. Everything fell into darkness. There was a scream. “Let me go, let me go”, yelled a woman. It looked as though someone was trying to suffocate her. When the light came back a few minutes later, the young girl had disappeared. Her companion was lying on the floor, bleeding profusely. He had been stabbed. Qasim had been knocked unconscious. The restaurant was in total disarray. But the Pathan still sat on his table at the corner. He surveyed the scene. “Array baap ray”, he said. “What a mess!’”
‘That’s enough, that’s enough’, Hakim Sahib shouted. He was agitated. ‘I have heard enough. Where is my walking stick?’
I got up and handed the walking stick to him. ‘Come with me,’ he said. ‘And bring that wretched novel with you’.
Hakim Sahib closed the door of his surgery. Walking stick in his left hand, he set off at a determined pace, with me walking as fast as I could to keep up. As we passed other shops in the Bazaar people turned to watch the parade and quickly ascertained Hakim Sahib was not in a very good mood. ‘Something agitating you Hakim Sahib?’ asked one. Hakim Sahib gave no acknowledgement but carried on walking, brandishing his stick with a no nonsense swagger. Soon people started to follow us. After twenty minutes or so, we arrived at a large, dilapidated house. Hakim Sahib knocked at the huge wooden door with his walking stick. There was no reply. Hakim Sahib knocked again. ‘Master Chaudhry, Master Chaudhry, come out’, he declaimed. ‘There is no point hiding from me!’
A window, adjacent to the large door, opened. A man, in a dhoti but naked from the waist upwards, leaned forward. ‘Oh Merciful God’, he said, ‘is everything all right? Hakim Sahib you look too agitated. You should think of your heart at your age’.
‘My heart is stronger than your brain’, Hakim Sahib shot back. ‘If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times. Have I not?’
‘What Hakim Sahib, what?’
‘Not to peddle your fake novels Master Chaudhry!’
Hakim Sahib grabbed the novel from my hand. ‘This, this trash. Khooni Punja. This is one of yours, isn’t it? Why do you have to disgrace the good name of Ibn-e-Safi BA.’
‘But, but…Hakim Sahib’.
‘‘But, but…Hakim Sahib how did you know?’
The question transformed Hakim Sahib. He became calm. ‘Oh, Master Chaudhry’, he said. ‘It is so obvious. Ibne Safi would never cause a riot in a street for a kidnapping to be staged in a restaurant. That’s just grotesque violence. You have tried –unsuccessfully – to combine the opening sequences of two Imran novels: Lash ka Qahqa (‘Laughter of the Corpse’) and Mahaktay Muhafiz (‘Cheeky Protectors’). Anyway, who would want to rob the poor goll guppa-walla?’
‘Those who want to eat the goll guppas!’
‘Just shut up, Master Chaudhry and listen. This was not your cardinal mistake. Your unforgivable sin was to give Imran’s identity away right at the beginning of the novel. Don’t you know that only Imran says “Array baap ray”, (Holy Father) that is his takya kalam (pet phrase). The moment someone says “Array baap ray”, the reader knows it is Imran in disguise. And Imran never, never dunks his biscuit in his coffee. With or without high ritual significance. He is a tea drinker.’
‘I am really sorry, Hakim Sahib’. Master Chaudhry slipped a kurta over his head and came out. ‘I cannot apologise enough for causing you so much distress. Please accept my sincere apologies for the same. Next time I will try and do much better’.
‘What do you mean next time? There will be no next time. Next time you will put your own name on your own trash’.
‘But Hakim Sahib no one buys novels with my name on them. Ibn-e-Safi sells.
I have to try and make a living somehow!’
Hakim Sahib became reflective. ‘That’s true’, he replied. ‘People do not appreciate desi literature. Particularly when it is so bad.’ He paused for thought. ‘Ok then, if you are determined to have a career writing fake novels, make sure you don’t give the game away on the first two pages. But try and keep your hands off our national writers. This farangi fellow, what’s him name, Sheik Spear, fake his books. Who knows? You may capture an international market!’