In Urdu Crime Fiction, 1890–1950: An Informal History (Orient Blackswan), C. M. Naim unveils a tapestry of Urdu’s crime fiction evolution, tracing its origins from Europe to its resonance in Urdu-speaking cultures. Meticulously researched, this book resurrects the birth of jāsūsī adab, the world of Urdu thrillers that enthralled the masses. From the transcreation of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin as Bahram to the minds shaping secular spaces, Naim’s book captures a facet of India’s pre-independence identity.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
A railway station bookstall was, of course, the safest and most ‘democratic’ place for an Indian booklover to obtain English language books, particularly for anyone who didn’t belong to the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, any more modestly placed Indian could enter a public place that was frequented by the ruling Sahibs and Memsahibs or the ‘Notables’ of his own colour only at the risk of some injury to his self-respect. But at major railway stations, by holding a ticket for a journey or by just buying a ‘platform ticket,’ any Indian with some extra cash and a fondness for books could visit the bookstalls run by the A. H. Wheeler & Co. (est. 1877) and purchase much the same reading material that was available to his counterpart in England. We should also remember that while Lahore, Agra or Lucknow could be expected then to have at least one English language bookstore, places like Ferozepur and Ambala in the Punjab or Aligarh, Faizabad and Gorakhpur in U.P. had only the bookstall at the local railway station. When we see a Munshi Mahbub Alam start at Gujranwala in 1888 a weekly journal, Paisa Akhbār (The Penny Newspaper), modeled on English penny journals, thirteen years before he travelled to Europe, or a Munshi Ghulam Qadir Fasih open a press in 1891 at Sialkot and serialise his translations of novels by G. W. M. Reynolds much in the same manner as Reynolds had done himself, while the prestigious Punjab Public Library at Lahore never made available to its patrons even one title by that author—we know that the ‘tawdry’ stuff that made Matthew Arnold fret and fume was not only reaching the mofussil towns of India but also gaining delighted admirers in increasing numbers, courtesy of the local railway bookstall.33
The earliest examples of crime fiction in Urdu that I have yet found were published by the above-mentioned Munshi Mahbub Alam from his newly established press at Lahore. Both are described on the title page as translations from the English done by the staff of the press, but no mention is made of their original authors and titles. The first, published in 1893, is titled, Dā’īk aur Barr, Do Harīf Surāghrasāñ (Dyke and Burr, Two Rival Detectives), and it is doubtful if any mention of its author’s name would have significantly added to its appeal, which chiefly lay in its being a translation of an English book.34 Thanks to the WorldCat we now know that the original book was written by someone named Ernest A. Young (1832–1873), who often used an alias, Harry Rockwood, and the original title was Dyke and Burr: The Rival Detectives. Its earliest copy listed in the WorldCat was published at New York in 1883, just ten years before its appearance in Urdu. Other titles listed to Young’s credit include: Walt Wheeler, the Scout Detective; Nat Forster, the Boston Detective; and Abner Ferret, the Lawyer Detective. Young, interestingly, also published a novel titled, File no. 114: a sequel to File 113 by Emile Gaboriau. The Urdu book has a few explanatory footnotes on such matters as ‘doorbells’ and ‘gaslight’ and the use of the word ‘Miss’ in English. Similar helpful notes are found in later books too, and indicate how newly arrived material objects and concepts were explained to common Urdu readers who were generally not that proficient in English.
The second book came out a few months later; it is titled Chaltā-Purza yā Filip Iskāt, Gharb-al-Hind kā Surāgh-rasāñ (‘Crackerjack’ or Philip Scott, the Detective of the West Indies).35 Again, the original title and author are not disclosed. Both books are described on the title page as ‘Translated by the Management of the Press.’ Tracking down the English original in this case was rather amusing. The original novel, it turned out, was titled Phil Scott, the Indian Detective: a tale of startling mysteries, and was published around 1882; its author was Harlan Page Halsey (1837– 1898), whose best-known alias was ‘Old Sleuth’ but who also used ‘Judson R. Taylor’ occasionally. However, the book’s hero, though an ‘Indian,’ was neither from India nor from the West Indies—he was an American Indian, i.e. one of the original inhabitants of the mainland. It was amusing to see how the Indian translators resolved the problem they faced by using the word hindī (lit. from Hind) with reference to the detective throughout the book, while making it clear only on the title page that the hero of the book was not from India.36 The title pages of the two books inform us that the book in hand was one in a promised series of surāgh-rasānī ke nāvil (lit. novels of detective work).
Both books make for rough reading now. The translator, most likely Mahbub Alam himself, displays his command of learned, i.e. Arabic and Persian, vocabulary, but was clearly not a fiction writer himself; while his Urdu is not ungrammatical, it is not evenly colloquial either. He seems to believe that to be accurate a translation should be strictly literal; consequently, while we have words such as muqirr (one who confirms some fact) and bil-mushāfaha (face to face) used accurately—they are bound to force most present-day readers to reach for a dictionary—we also have the English expression ‘to see’, as in ‘I want to see the doctor,’ translated with dekhnā in three consecutive sentences. This insistence on being strictly literal damages narrative clarity at some places—I frequently found myself reading some passages twice in order to make certain I had understood them correctly.
Returning to Mahbub Alam, I failed to gain access to any file of his Paisa Akhbār—not many seem to have survived—and so could not determine if any translated novel was ever serialised in it. However, when a few years later, Alam started another journal, Intikhāb-e Lājavāb (A Matchless Selection), modeled on the famous weekly Tit-Bits, founded by George Newnes in 1881, it carried serialised fiction, including translations. That was at least the case in 1912, the year for which I found a bound file; one of the pieces of fiction serialised in it was a perfectly readable translation of Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.37
Here a short digression on the use in Urdu of a Persian compound, ‘surāgh-rasāñ,’ for the English term, ‘detective,’ may not be out of place. Its second element literally means ‘the bearer’ or ‘the bringer,’ while the first element, surāgh, is presently understood in Urdu as an equivalent of the English word ‘clue.’ Among the latter’s several meanings listed in F. Steingass’s invaluable A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary (1892) we find, ‘Sign; mark, footstep [sic] … a thing searched for or cried [for?] publicly.’ It does not, however, list the compound. In John Shakespear’s A Dictionary, Hindustani and English (1834), the earliest dictionary of Urdu available to us, the word surāgh is glossed: ‘1. Search, inquiry. 2. Sign, mark, trace, intelligence. 3. Spying.’ The third meaning, however, is not included in the two subsequent, and more influential, dictionaries: S. W. Fallon’s A New Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879) and John T. Platts’s A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English (1884). The two latter dictionaries present surāgh as synonymous with khoj, and the English glosses for the two words underscore the action of tracing or tracking. They further list an uncommon word, surāghī, as synonymous with khojī, the well-known word for professional ‘trackers.’38 Like Shakespear and Fallon, Platts too does not list surāgh-rasāñ, though he includes a verbal-noun derived from it, surāgh-rasānī, and glosses it: ‘Tracing, tracking, detection, discovery.’ Platts also lists, in appropriate places, khabar-rasāñ, ‘a messenger,’ and citthī-rasāñ, ‘a postman.’
However, within a decade after the publication of Platts’s dictionary, surāgh-rasāñ had come to be a commonly understood word signifying an investigator of crimes who was not some lowly traditional tracker such as a khoji or thāngī. That impression is supported by the fact that in 1892, when a former police officer, S. Habib Ahmad, published a translation of Everyman His Own Detective! (1887) by Richard Reid, arguably one of the first officially designated ‘Detectives’ in India, he comfortably titled the book Usūl-e Surāgh-rasānī (The Principles of Detection).39
33 In 1909, the annual subscription of the weekly edition of Paisa Akhbār was Rs. 2, annas 8. The daily edition cost Rs. 15. The annual subscription to Intikhāb-e Lājavāb was only Rs. 4. 34 Dā’īk aur Barr, Do Harīf Surāghrasāñ (Lahore: Matba-e Khadimut-ta’lim, 1893), 183 pp., first edition, 700 copies. Its price, 12 annas, appears high, but we should remember that Urdu books were seldom sold at their indicated price; even in the 1940s, booksellers gave significant discounts to regular customers and anyone who bought several books. 35 Chaltā-Purza yā Filip Iskāt, Gharb-al-Hind kā Surāgh-rasāñ (Lahore: Maktaba Khadimut Ta’lim, 1894), 102 pp., first edition, 1050 copies. Price: 10 annas. The larger size of its first edition suggests that the sales of the earlier book had been encouraging. 36 I found the book at the Punjab Public Library, Lahore, but was unable to manage a detailed look. Very likely the translators explained the use of the word hindī (a person from Hind/India), and made it clear that the book’s hero was actually a ‘Red Indian.’ (The indigenous people of North America are even now referred to by that name in Urdu books.) 37 I owe access to this file to Musharraf Ali Farooqi of Lahore, an admirable novelist and translator in his own right. An ad in one issue reflected the enterprising spirit of Mahbub Alam: more than a hundred books on a wide range of subjects, including some popular fiction, made available for purchase at the rate of ‘1200 pages for one rupee!’ 38 Surāghī is listed in Farhang-e Āsafiya, whose learned compiler, Syed Ahmad Dehlavi, had assisted Fallon in his work; I have not come across the word in any other Urdu text. Dehlavi also lists thāngī as another name for the same professional. 39 Richard Reid headed the ‘Detective Department’ of the Police at Calcutta in its formative years, and published four books of memoirs after retirement: Reminiscences of an Indian Detective, Revelations of an Indian Detective, Everyman His Own Detective!, and The Romance of Indian Crime. Only one book, apparently, was translated into Urdu. A useful article on him, ‘This Gentleman Sleuth Modernized India’s Police