Introducing "Ahmad Kemal" Bhutto
- This is a special issue of the newsletter commemorating the 28th
death anniversary of the renowned Urdu writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980),
which falls on Saturday, July 26. Discussion on the works of Iqbal
will continue in the regular issue on Monday.
Ibne Safi is unique among fiction-writers of Urdu on several counts.
He was equally popular in India and Pakistan, and right up to his
death in 1980 his works used to be published simultaneously in both
countries (in India they were even available in Hindi editions in
which the names of the two Muslim protagonists Faridi and Imran were
changed to Hindu names, Vinod and Rajesh respectively).
This was quite an achievement if we remember that unlike some other
writers of the time, Safi's purpose was to instill patriotism. Nor
was he indifferent to religion, sovereignty, the importance of
national identity and issues of foreign policy, all of which found
substantial representation in his work. On all these issues the
governments of Pakistan and India remained opposed to each other in
the days of Safi and fought three wars between themselves. That Safi
should be able to infuse patriotism equally among readers in two
warring states is remarkable. It is something which Ian Fleming
could not achieve: despite all the promotional tactics of Eon Films,
James Bond could never become acceptable for the "political others"
who lived behind the Iron Curtain.
The importance of Safi's work can hardly be ignored today when
Pakistan and India are trying to find common grounds for peace and
prosperity in the region. This is because the works of Safi reflect
not only his own mind but also the collective fantasies of his
society. That society practically collaborated with him in those
writings, especially the longer "sequences" of four or more
installments which created interest and commotion among his readers.
On such occasions his readers started suggesting what should happen
next in the story, and Safi tried to please as many as he could.
In this sense he did not write alone. He gave unusual importance to
feedback of his readers regardless of their social standing,
religious background or literacy level. Like Shakespeare, he tried
to charm even the most illiterate among his audience. This is the
other distinction which he has among his contemporaries: he was
neither a "popular writer" in the commonly understood sense nor was
he an elitist. Instead, he took the middle road. He was a "consensus
One example of the relevance of his works may suffice here. The most
outstanding phenomenon in the late 1960s in West Pakistan was
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the popular leader who pledged to make the "big
fishes" become accountable before the law. There is an uncanny
similarity between what people expected of him and the fantasies
presented in the work of Ibne Safi.
In the late 1960s it was generally perceived that 22 families had
usurped all the wealth of Pakistan and nobody could check them
because they were well-connected. Bhutto, despite his feudal
background became a man of the masses and promised to bring these
influential "culprits" to the book.
Interestingly, the legendary hero in Safi's works is Ahmad Kamal
Faridi (first introduced in 1952). He too comes from feudal
background but works as a humble investigation officer, using his
hereditary wealth in this cause. He protects the weak and the
innocent, even ignores the petty crimes of the poor and the meek,
but he never lets go the big fish.
It seems as if Safi picked up a fantasy from the conscience of his
people and Bhutto picked up the same a decade and a half later.
Bhutto as a politician had to depend on a think-tank for giving him
a political ideology and it is quite likely that his coterie of
intellectuals made a mistake in interpreting this fantasy, thus
precipitating Bhutto's tragic downfall. Those intellectuals were
liable to making mistakes because they believed that their wide
reading in political economy had taught them all they needed to
know. They spoke on behalf of the people but had never listened to
Fortunately, we hear more often about the need to find indigenous
solutions today. We must not forget that indigenous solutions cannot
be found unless we are willing to look at indigenous wisdom.
Whatever the literary standing of Safi's work, its value as a
resource bank of such wisdom seems to have become only more urgent
and more pressing with the passage of time.
Incidentally, the entry on my blog this week is "the first thriller-
writer of Urdu". It is about an early nineteenth century writer who
may be seen as a precursor of Safi in many respects. You may like to
take a look at http://republicofrumi.blogspot.com
NOTE: Information about Ibne Safi is available online at