Tales of Masud Rana’s spycraft shook and stirred an entire generation of readers
It’s a sun-drenched, ocean-front, posh hotel where the scene is set. A diabolical fiend is cheating in a game of cards with the aid of an earphone and a skimpily clad assistant with a pair of binoculars.
Enter our hero.
Watching the classic scene for the first time all those years ago, my thought was, “whoa, 007 ripped off Masud Rana.” I had read Swarnamriga a few weeks before watching Goldfinger -- the first Rana novel and Bond flick for the schoolboy who didn’t know the original. I suspect many Bangladeshis of a certain age would have stories to share.
Okay, it is quite possible, likely even, that the typical reader has no idea what I am talking about. A brief primer from wiki: “Masud Rana is a fictional character created in 1966 by writer Qazi Anwar Hussain, who featured him in over 400 novels. Hussain created the adult spy-thriller series Masud Rana, at first modelled after James Bond, but expanded widely. Books are published almost every month by Sheba Prokashoni, one of the most popular publishing house of Bangladesh … ”
Although there is no superpower as such, his attributes would make a potential combination of Batman, Bond, and Bourne pale in comparison. Of course, superheroes need supervillains. Rana’s arch-nemesis is a megalomaniac genius scientist criminal mastermind named Kabir Chowdhury, who’s also a fellow Bangladeshi. And then there is Israel. However, it’s his foes from the first decade or so of the series that make for a fascinating political study.
Appropriately, for a Pakistani major, Rana’s early adventures were often against India. In Bharatnatyam, the second book in the series -- and a rare original story -- our hero foils an Indian plan to decimate East Pakistan’s agriculture, in the process nearly marrying an enemy agent.
Of course, a 30-year-old Pakistani major would be contemporary of Majors Zia and Khaled. Much like those real-life majors, Rana also seemed to have become politicized by the winter of 1970-71. None of the books published in those months was set in the sub-continent. But in a number of stories, there are monologues or throwaway remarks along the lines of Rana no longer identifying with Pakistan because of West Pakistani bigotry.
Couple of books were published during the Liberation War, but the war (or anything sub-continent related) is not mentioned at all in these stories.
The war is, however, central to Ekhono Shorojontro, the first one to be published in liberated Bangladesh. In this original story, we learn that the Dhaka office of the then Pakistan Counter Intelligence was destroyed in the early hours of March 26. Of course, Rana joined the resistance. But instead of becoming a sector commander like other majors, he fought in many battles alongside soldiers and guerillas. The conspiracy of the book’s title is one hatched by an Islamist politician and the American intelligence to destroy the new-born country.
We are told about Rana’s unease with social injustice, and observations on the frustrations of early-1970s youth. Meanwhile, his former Pakistani colleagues become adversaries. He rescues his boss, Maj Gen Rahat Khan, from Pakistani prison and nearly kills General Tikka Khan in Bipodjonok.
While Rana battles Pakistanis in the early 1970s novels, Indians aren’t always allies. There are rogue Indian agents, or crime syndicates, with nefarious activities that harm Bangladesh. In throwaway remarks, we are told that, unless eliminated, these scum will have significant consequence for Indo-Bangla relationship.
Then, in the summer of 1975, something curious happens -- the sub-continent disappears from the series, and Rana is shown to be in Europe on various private adventures. He returns to Dhaka in late 1976, in Espionage (based on a James Hadley Chase novel). Both Indian and Pakistani spies are operating in Dhaka in this story, trying to find the Bangladeshi wife of an Indian national with a complicated past and information that is of value to all three countries.
This book is notable for two things: First, there is an action-packed high-speed chase sequence in Mirpur Road and Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. I can only imagine how empty those areas were four decades ago.
Second is the antagonist -- a university teacher who is blackmailed/honey-trapped by the Indian intelligence. This person is shown to crave intellectual accolades from Calcutta, which is used to influence his actions, until a point where he is shown to helplessly betray Bangladesh. The portrayal of India, in some pages of this book, could well have been written by Mahmudur Rahman.
So, in a span of a decade, our hero goes from battling India as a professional to fighting Pakistanis and Indians alike as a left-leaning Bangladeshi nationalist. Is Rana’s political evolution a reflection of that of his creator?
Qazi Anwar Hussain has never been politically active. But anyone remotely familiar with the cultural history of Bangladesh would know the impeccably liberal milieu to which he belongs. The author’s liberalism acutely shines through in his creation. While the spy codenamed MR9 experienced significant evolution in terms of identity politics, it is striking that his personal lifestyle remained thoroughly Westernized throughout the years. Indeed, Hussain had to fight legal battles against the so-called guardians of moral values to keep Rana going.
Consider our hero’s attitude towards women and alcohol: Unlike the traditional Bengali protagonists in the mould of Debdash, Rana doesn’t drink to forget lost love. Rather, he drinks expensive cocktails and wine for pleasure. Nor does he pine for unattainable women or grieves over unrequited love. He attracts women, makes love to them, but never gets into a lasting relationship.
In fact, his attitude in this matter is quite radical. He isn’t a sexist. Rather, it’s his dangerous, peripatetic lifestyle that stops him from settling down. And women in these books aren’t quite damsels-in-distress. Rana likes and respects independent women, and eschews marriage or other traditional institutions. Not quite the typical hero like our Major Rana, is he?
My partner once told me that she was never into Rana, but understood why guys read it -- same reason as why I read Mills & Boon. My sense is that the evolution of Rana’s nationalism reflects the broader nationalist mainstream of the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, that nationalist consensus has been hit by waves of identity politics -- unnoticed by the cultural elites to whom Hussain squarely belongs -- Islam-infused romance, and thrillers are thriving.
But I digress.
Jyoti Rahman is a political blogger. This article was first published on jrahman.wordpress.com.