Essay by Rafee Shaams
Unlike the majority of my generation, my first experience of Sheba came not from reading dog-eared copies of the intense, swashbuckling adventures of everyone’s favorite Bengali spy or any of the young adult detective fiction perennially available in any street corners. It rather came from discovering, at the age of twelve, a black trunk full of old books and manuscripts my father kept locked away in shame, among which was a slim volume, its graying, thinning newsprint enveloped in an even thinner paper cover, sporting a dreamy illustration (these were days before their slapdash, cut and paste cover making was a staple) stamped over with the ever familiar yellow-red butterfly logo.
This was a romance novel written by my father for Sheba’s “Sheba Romantic” series. It wasn’t any good, his novel, and one would be forgiven to have never doubted its immediate failure. He was one of many to present his talents on top of Sheba’s conveyor belt, hoping to find his mold to stand out in Sheba’s brute-force breeding of genre novels every single month, which was perhaps why Sheba was already a household name, an ubiquity with a bad reputation among the adults, who treated it as a nuisance brought on by the prevalent middle-class boredom.
Over the years after my discovery, I would hear from mummies and aunties, who, having dethroned their parents to inherit their cynicism and paranoia in regards to the “dangers” of such volumes, now told stories of one “addiction” or other as words of caution: there was the time when my older aunt was so ingrained in reading “one of those Masud Rana books” that she forgot to feed her newborn who was putting up a storm in the room below or, when the house help, a boy of eleven or twelve, was caught reading them in the toilet, having taken it there by concealing the paperback inside his shorts. At school, one kid rented out his used copies on a 10 takas per two weeks basis.
In my late-teens, still untouched by that world, I saw my cousin next door bring a carton full of Masud Rana titles and read them at a stretch on his bed, languidly throwing one away to pick up the next one with the adeptness of a chain-smoker. It was only in my early twenties, a decade after my first brush with Sheba that day, when I finally chose to borrow a copy from a friend and start reading, just to see what it was all about.
Sheba Prokashoni was founded in May of 1963 by Qazi Anwar Hussain, who named it after their office location: Shegun Bagicha. Selling at cheap prices, they first found success in their Robin Hood-type adventure and detective series, Kuasha. While popular, the series was short-lived. It was in 1966 with the publication of Dhongsho Pahar, a potboiler full of evil scientists and ecological intrigue set in Kaptai dam, that the poster child of their publishing house, the spy Masud Rana was born.
Masud Rana’s immense popularity was a boost for the house (all copies had been sold out, success even made their way across the border to Kolkata). It paved the way for Sheba to bring out other popular series, notably their Kishore Classics line, which were among the first mass market attempts at translating authors such as Charles Dickens, Robert Luis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Boroughs, and countless others. These were for many the first instance they had read any fiction of this kind, the first time they encountered the wonderful world of Tarzan or the melodrama of Dickensian Englishness.
Tin Goyenda, a detective series penned by Rakib Hasan, combined Robert Arthur’s The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys to produce appetizing gauntlets of whodunits and other mysteries. The suspense twinned for the first time with Bengali characters and sensibilities won large audiences in the country.
Even today, these series are going strong. The changing covers and typeset reflect how the decades have passed, but the words inside promise the same punch, the same excitement as they have from the very start.
The makings of a cultural phenomenon lead us to a topic worthy of its own separate research. There is a reason Masud Rana—450 plus titles strong and still going—is a brand so successful. The spy, as was intended, embodies all the qualities of James Bond: aloof, strong willed, principles intact, glamorous. He was born in Dhaka, is an orphan, is athletic, and fights back “wherever he encounters injustice, oppression, and wrong.” You get the picture. In fact, Masud Rana follows a narrative template with the discipline of a sonnet: its adventures clean-cut and its morals fine-tuned. No need for over-thinking. Just sit back and enjoy the trip.
Whether it be fighting off Soviet weaponry in the Mediterranean in Shatru Bhoyonkor or dealing with foreign submarines and deadly sharks off the coast of Chittagong in Shagor Shongom or in the quest of retrieving crores of takas worth of Emeralds from pirates in Ratna Dwip, or even investigating missing scientists in Manila in Guptochakra, one enjoys from start to finish the exhilaration of the events unfolding in their lively and energetic sequences, as they were intended to be.
Reading Masud Rana is a straightforward affair. You don’t brood over the stylistic choices of the writers, for there rarely are any deviance, you don’t question the wholesome dose of escapism you are offered, for you can’t get enough of it. You’re supposed to finish one and move on to the next. Stay hooked. That’s your job. Even the physical aspects—pocket sized, printed in thin newsprint—is there to make it easier to carry around or even discard once done with it.
The arrangement worked well for them and continues to do so. Masud Rana has been this long-lasting precisely because of its disposability. Even if you don’t like a particular adventure, there are hundreds of others to choose from. Sheba wasn’t interested in talks of legacy. They concentrated on keeping everything like a business, proving, perhaps better than anyone, the remarkable literature that one gets in the most consumerist of circumstances.
Being a genre-apologist may never be as fashionable as now, and one would find no shortage of writers and editors and historians peddling out their newfound fascination for the many good qualities that genre fiction doubtless has, but talking about Sheba in enthusiastic tones just for possessing the veneer of the pulp is to do disservice to its years of hard work in being almost the sole provider of genuinely entertaining reading fodder for the country. Absence of Ace and Bantam, however penalizing to American literature, would not have stopped American teenagers from discovering the joy of reading, but for a long time Sheba was all we had. Sure, there were countless juvenilia, but none so thrilling, none so vital, none so “adult” as to be taken as seriously as Sheba. It is unthinkable to talk about reading habits, let alone literature, in this side of Bengal without Sheba coming into the picture at all.
Go to any school, any park, and if you find a kid that reads, chances are, she’s reading a Sheba book. Hanging out at coaching centers for long parts of my teenage life, I saw many a child my age bring out The Exorcist or maybe a Jules Verne (both from Sheba) and read them in-between lessons or when waiting for a parent to pick them up.
It was only later that I realized the experience would’ve been strikingly similar to how the kids in America must have felt reading the unauthorized Ace version of the Lord of the Rings, how similar their exuberance must have been when going along for a ride that they were treated to almost Robin Hood-style, almost magical in how something unreachable was out here in their hands irrespective of the bureaucracy and logistics that gate-keep art from reaching its audience so unacceptably even in this modern age.
It’s not like if Sheba hadn’t done anything like it, we’d be all cultural illiterates festering around everywhere. But it is because of Sheba’s incessant and energetic reproduction of classics that many of us had grown up “experienced” of a vast cultural landscape, at least relatively unfettered.
Sheba’s arsenal boasts a great number of ghostwriters (I’m not sure how many can be termed ghostwriters anymore, since they get credit as co-writers now), and a common complaint often levelled at them is their plagiarism, or as they like to call it: “liberal borrowing.” Call it what you want, it is part of Sheba’s legacy, and has helped it grow into what it is today.
The art of sampling, usually widespread in music, has never been so extensively used in print and the novel form as it has been by Sheba. That they combined plot points from the best and varied sources they could find and fed it through a tube of Bengali locations and characters made for great exploitation art. The meat may have been foreign bought, but they were cooked locally, adorned with all the spice and seasoning available at our disposal.
You don’t have to be a genius to realize Shwarnomriga is basically Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, that there are countless Alistair McLean and John Gardner and Frederick Forsyth stories stringed out and ironed into the stories of Masud Rana, but does it matter?
Most of these writers or their books weren’t available. Masud Rana was. It catered to the needs of a big number of population that were estranged from such entertainment. Be it Tin Goyenda or any of its Western series, Sheba’s appropriation is undoubtedly an act of love, something that comes from a deep appreciation of the genre novel. They even acknowledge it: you’d find lists of their “inspirations” online quite easily.
But how does it leave Sheba in the internet age, when availability is no longer an issue, when Sheba finds, just like every other publisher, its sales taking a dive due to the easy accessibility of e-books? Even though one can effortlessly download any Sheba book they desire from the internet within minutes, scores of people still crowd every year at the Ekushey Book Fair in front of Sheba’s stalls. Its books are what attracts many to go there in the first place, what most children tell the cameramen when they are asked what books they will buy.
It will not be out of place to suggest that Sheba has carved a permanent place in Bengali literature, one that will have long-lasting future influence in our literary spheres. Most writers and artists today already concede to the impact it has had on them. There is even a new Masud Rana movie in the works. It would be fascinating to see how future generations deal with Sheba’s legacy and where they choose to place its contributions in the literary history of this country.
Sheba’s golden age, when it had dominance over the young minds, helped foster an appreciation for good, entertaining storytelling, carried over for many generations. One can only hope their future pursuits continue that trend.
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and author of Who Even Cares Who Cares? (Bengal Publications, 2016)