THE adult spy-thriller Masud Rana is no longer solely Qazi Anwar Hossain’s. Not at least 260 of the novels. Not solely because a dispute running for about 10 years has apparently been drawn to an end. Qazi Anwar Hossain, who created the fictional character in 1966, had more than 460 novels of the series to his name until June 14. The copyright registrar in a verdict on the day instated Sheikh Abdul Hakim as the writer of more than a half of the titles. A final say, legally speaking, is pending decisions of the copyright appeals board and the court of law, if approached, which may happen in three months or more.
With the news having made the headlines, it immediately started doing the rounds on social media, apparently with much of the condemnation heaped on Qazi Anwar Hossain, who made popular inexpensive paperbacks with spy and Western thrillers and translations from the repertoire of world classics, rather than the fact Anwar Hossain has not had a hand in writing the novels. It is said that only the first 11 titles of the series were written by Anwar Hossain and he had the rest written by ghostwriters who worked with Seba Prakashani under some sort of an agreement. Anwar Hossain is not known to have claimed his sole authorship to all the novels and many other titles that Seba published even under his name.
We, who grew up reading Seba paperback series, have always known that a pool of ghostwriters had been behind the work. Anwar Hossain has also admitted to the fact more than once in interviews although he has not named the writers, or the ghostwriters. Ghostwriting is as much as writing, with the same efforts that writers put in, only with the names of the writers mostly being put on hold, for some time or for life. This is not a rare phenomenon that when some novels with some fictional characters that form a series heavily draws in readers, pushing up the demand for regular publication, ghostwriters are hired who write the novels, at times on being briefed, and the writer who puts the work into fame with the name printed on the cover edits the text for the sake of consistency, literary flair that has gone with earlier titles and some tuning, if needed, such as adding subplots or doing away with loose subplots.
Seba and Muktadhara are two publishing houses that have fed readers for a considerable period of time. While Muktadhara made its mark by promoting local writers by way of publishing books on a wide range of subjects especially for children and the juvenile, Seba Prakashani may very well have claimed the credit of introducing world classics to readers in translation. It has not mostly been the case that Seba titles coming out in translation have always been true to the original.
In school and college days in the 1980s, we enjoyed reading classics such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and the like in Seba translation. They hardly fell short of drawing us into the realm of classics with the required imagination typical of the age. But when we read the novels again as part of our bachelor’s course syllabus in the University of Dhaka, we could reasonably feel what Seba had deprived us of. But that was, perhaps, part of the trade — sifting the chaff that we might not need to worry about from the wheat that we enjoyed reading at that age. Pruning a whole fat novel with shades of meanings down to a slim enjoyable reading material for the juvenile is not an easy task. It has never so been. Yet, Seba did it. René Guillot’s Kpo the Leopard (French: Kpo le panthère) coming out in translation by Rakib Hassan as Cheetah in 1985, I clearly remember, had me mesmerised for weeks.
Seba Prakashani created writers and promoted writers. It also employed ghostwriters, many of whom may have had titles published to their name from the publishing house. In writing books under their own name, pen name or even under the name of Qazi Anwar Hossain, in cases of series such as Masud Rana and Kuyasha novels that have always been in high demand, the writers may certainly have done this under agreements of sort and for payment — one-off payment, monthly payment or staggered payment as is the case with royalty. Any violation of such agreements, oral or written, should have been adequately looked into and settled keeping to the due process of law. But people all coming to know all of a sudden that Qazi Anwar Hossain employed ghostwriters — and, thereby, deprived the writers of their share of the writing credit — heaping condemnation on Anwar Hossain on social media is way too much.
Soon after the initial days of the Masud Rana series that became popular under the name of Qazi Anwar Hossain, titles coming out under any other names may not have taken well. The good will of Anwar Hossain may have contributed to the immense success of the series as it may have done with the Kuyasha series. Ghostwriting is almost the norm in cases of autobiographies and memoirs of many politicians, actors and players who are otherwise busy but have stories to tell or in cases of celebrity blogs. But this is all about the pleasure and pangs that come up in the face of Manish Gupta, played by Aftab Shivdasani, in the 2007 Bollywood social thriller ‘Life Mein Kabhie Kabhie’, which was a box-office disaster.
Manish, a freelance journalist, agrees to write the autobiography for Rupali Chitnis, a celebrity who wants her life to be made into a book, for the payment of Rs 1 million that Rupali readily agrees to write a cheque for. On the day, Rupali signs her book, Bombay Nights, for readers, Manish attends the launch. As Rupali sees him, she walks over to him, calls him behind a sign and asks why he is there. Manish says that he wants to congratulate her and ‘socha ke apni book ka response bhi dekh loon’ (and has a mind to see how people responds to his book). Rupali tells him: ‘It’s not your book, dear. It’s my book’ and says, ‘What if somebody recognises you?’ Manish says: ‘Log mujhe pehchante to mujhe yeh kam karne ki zaroorat kyun parti?’ (If people had recognised me, why would I have needed to do this job?) Manish, who later succeeds to become a published writer, enjoyed the glory of the success of the book, manifest in his smile, but tormented within for having sold his ‘atma’ (soul) for the money that he needed.
Ghostwriting, in essence, violates an apparently unwritten innate trust that exists between the writer and readers. People reading books are apt to think that the text is crafted by the name that goes with the title on the cover. When Qazi Anwar Hossain and Sheikh Abdul Hakim, or any other ghostwriter, decided to breach that trust in their intention of publishing the work, any of the Masud Rana or the Kuyasha series, there is no logic in treating Anwar Hossain as an outcast in the literary or publishing world. They both helped each other as they both needed each other, barring any issue of financial settlements now having surfaced, pending further legal proceedings.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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