A Bangladeshi superhero

Posted in adventure, Bangladesh, books, desi fiction, history, thriller by jrahman on May 11, 2017

It’s a sun-drenched, ocean-front, posh hotel where the scene is set.  A diabolical fiend is cheating on a game of cards with the aid of an earphone and a skimpily clad assistant with a binocular.

Enter our hero.

Watching the classic scene for the first time all those years ago, my thought was — whoa, 007 ripped off Masud RanaI had read Swarnamriga a few weeks before watching Goldfinger — first Rana novel and Bond flick for the schoolboy who didn’t know the original.  I suspect many Bangladeshis of certain ages would have similar Rana 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 combination of Batman, Bond, and Bourne pale before Rana. 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 of 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. In Mrityur Sathe Panjaadaptation of Alistair MacLean’s The Last Frontier, Rana rescues a prominent Kashmiri scientist from Indian captivity, while in Durgam DurgaThe Guns of Navarone grafted on the 1965 India-Pakistan War — he destroys an Indian naval base.

In these stories, Rana seems to have a pretty straightforward attitude: what is it matter to you, when you’ve got a job to do and you gotta do it well, you’ve gotta give the other fella hell. 

Of course, a thirty-year old Pakistani major would be contemporary of Majors Zia and Khaled.  Much like those real life majors, Rana also seems to become politicised by the winter of 1970-71.  None of the books published in those months was set in the subcontinent.  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 subcontinent 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 26 March.  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.

In that story, and the ones that followed, 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 — a reprise of Mrityur Sathe Panja.  And in Rokter Rong, Pakistanis are shown to be working with a Burmese crime lord to destabilise Bangladesh.  Oh, we also hear in this book about Rana’s firm belief in the economic potentials of Bangladesh pursuing a socialist development model.

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 scums will have significant consequence for Indo-Bangla relationship.  Indian secret service is also shown as a rival or competitor in some cases.

Then, into the summer of 1975, something curious happens — the subcontinent 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 scene in Mirpur Road and Sher-e-Bangla Nagar.  I can only imagine how empty those areas were four decades ago.  A chase scene in today’s Dhaka probably would involve running, not driving.

Second, and more relevant for this post, is one of the antagonists — a university teacher who is blackmailed / honey-trapped by the Indian intelligence.  This person is shown to crave intellectual accolades from Calcutta, which are used to influence his actions, until a point where he is shown to be helplessly and in a cowardly manner 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 socialist-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 westernised throughout the years. Indeed, Mr Hussain had to fight legal battles against the so-called guardians of moral values to keep Rana going.

Consider our hero’s attitude to women and alcohol.  Unlike the traditional Bengali protagonists in the mold of Debdash, Rana doesn’t drink to forget lost love.  Rather, he drinks expensive cocktails and wine for pleasure.  Nor does he pines for unattainable women or grieves over unrequited love.  He attracts women, makes love to them, but never gets into a lasting relationship — the Bangla tagline is taane, kintu badhoney joraye na.  In fact, his attitudes in this matter is quite radical.  He isn’t a sexist womaniser from the Mad Men era.  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 typical hero 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, while unnoticed by the cultural elites to whom Mr Hussain squarely belongs, Islam-infused romance and thrillers are thriving.

I digress.  A post such as this should note my favourite story.

AgnipurushMan on fire adaptation — is widely considered to be the best Rana novel.  But somehow I never warmed to it.  That book contains this hit song, penned by Masud Karim, after whom our hero was named.

My favourite is a retelling of Operation Salam, set prior to the Six-Day War.  It took me two decades to finish Shangket, because I was rudely interrupted by a teacher while reading something like this:

Oh, what wouldn’t I give to go back to reading Masud Rana at school?


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