‘Humankind, I like to believe, can be divided into two groups: one group swears by science fiction, the other cherishes only mysteries. I belong to the latter.’ Thus begins C. M. Naim’s homage to the writers who once provided generations of Urdu-speaking mystery-lovers hours of sleepless delight.
Meticulously researched, this ‘informal history’ unravels how crime fiction first originated in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, how Urdu writers responded to this new stimulus, and the rapid emergence of what then became the jāsūsī adab in Urdu. Described as ‘wonder-inducing’ and ‘sleep-depriving,’ bearing titles like Khūnī Chhatrī (The Murderous Umbrella), Tilismī Burj (The Magic Turret), and Mistrīz af Dihlī (The Mysteries of Delhi), Urdu thrillers sold in the thousands.
Aficionados of the Netflix series Lupin may be surprised to learn that a century ago, Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, was adored by Urdu readers in his desī avatār, Bahram, ‘transcreated’ by Zafar Omar in a 1916 bestseller that made Bahram a household name. We discover Tirath Ram Ferozepuri, the prodigious translator of mysteries and thrillers—114-odd titles, spanning 60,000 pages. We meet Nadeem Sahba’i, of unfettered imagination, who produced masterpieces of Urdu pulp fiction.
Urdu crime writers were quick to capture the new material realities of urban India—from the ‘exotic’ mannequins, latex masks and ‘truth-serum’ to the everyday advertisements, gramophones and cameras. Significantly, they also highlighted India’s new ‘secular’ spaces—railway platforms, public parks, libraries, restaurants and cinemas, where people interacted, unburdened by tradition or identity—in ways that other Urdu writers failed to do. Their stories hold a mirror to ‘the idea of India’ before independence.
Naim’s book, the first on the subject and illustrated, will delight and inform anyone passionate about crime fiction in any language.
C. M. Naim is Professor Emeritus in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. He founded and edited the Annual of Urdu Studies from 1981 to 1991. His translation of the autobiography of the famous Urdu poet Mir was published as Remembrances in 2019 in the Murti Classical Library of India. He is the author of several books, including A Most Noble Life (2021).
List of Illustrations
Index of Names