Sometimes the best way to find something is to look for something else. This happened to me recently. I stumbled upon the stories of Naiyer Masud while searching online for one of Ismat Chugtai’s stories. I came across to the Annual of Urdu Studies, a wonderful journal which often publishes translations of short and novella-sized Urdu fiction. It was as if I’d wandered into a wondrous bazaar in a strange town, except that the excitement had to be tempered by the realization I had a train to catch. The journal was filled with possibilities. What to read? What to download? So I only read the first paras of stories, skimming biographies, critiques, but the sampling only made the decision harder.
Here, I must interrupt myself and tell you about the Angel in the Bookcase. Since the universe is twisted like a pretzel and there is no God, it so happens there are men who’re more fortunate with the ladies than other men. So too is the case with some readers and good books. I’ve been unusually lucky with books. This realization struck me early. In my sated moments as a teenager, I’d often contemplate my unexpected success in finding this or that book, and I slowly convinced myself that there was someone– the Angel in the Bookcase– watching out for me. This fanciful theory was reinforced by a rather peculiar incident which I feel compelled to also share.
I was with a friend, a fellow named Ashwin Desai who was majoring in Chemical Engg, and we were in the stacks of the college library because he wanted to locate a book on transport phenomena. The book was as likely to be in the non-existent gardening section as it was to be in the chemistry stacks. I began to hold forth on my privileged connection with the Angel in the Bookcase. He was listening somewhat humbly, and it incited me to prophetic rashness. ‘For example,’ I declared, ‘the Angel tells me your book is– here.’ I turned around and grabbed a book from the stack at random.
‘Bhenchod!’ said Ashwin, breaking the hushed silence.
It was, of course, the book he’d wanted.
So here I was in a digital library, not very different from my college stacks, faced with too many choices and too little time. I happened to remember this old story and without thinking grabbed the first pdf file I saw in the fiction section. I didn’t even bother to inspect the file.
Later, I discovered I’d downloaded Naiyar Masud’s novella Itr-e-Kafur (The Essence of Camphor).
Of course, such classifications are always arbitrary. As Sikandar Ahmad has pointed out, Masud does his best to describe his work in terms of what he does not do. For example, in an interview with Asif Farrukhi, Masud denied he works in the fantastic:
As for fantasy, I try very hard to steer clear of it. My stories are not fantasies, at least not in the sense of the fantastic. You cannot say their events don’t occur in real life.
Urdu fiction has always had a fantastic and florid turn and Masud is partly distancing his work from that tradition. One way to do so is to give up on Urdu’s fondness for ruin. Masud also resists writing story-like stories. Like many modern writers, he breaks most of the traditional rules of short fiction– for example, the rule of economy that insists every character must have a role in the story or Poe’s rule of ‘unity of mood’ or Chekhov’s rule about not mentioning things if they aren’t used and so on. But these violations, unlike those of the modernists, are not really experiments in making things anew. Novelty is the unhappy spouse of Time. The literature of unhappy spouses is usually about escape or recrimination. Masud is interested in neither.
Things happen in his stories, and what happens is always clear as well as interesting, but as in life, it’s not necessary that the events arrange into larger meaningful patterns. The events have no deeper rationale. To invoke A. K. Ramanujan invoking Davidson:
‘Actions have actors, actions express actors. Actions have reasons, actors are responsible for what they do, and character is destiny. But events happen to people. Events have no reasons, only causes. Narratives motived by karma convert all events into actions; in which everything has a reason.’ [Telling Tales, Daedalus 118(4), '89]
A.K. Ramanujan was discussing Indian folktales, but it seems to me this insight can greatly help in understanding how Masud’s fiction does what it does. Masud eschews karmic fiction; his events have causes but not reasons, his characters are not entailed by the plot and his realism is of the Kafkaesque variety but without its oppressiveness or obsession. The result is a story as infused with the possibility of possibility as camphor is with its fragrance. In most fiction, possibility gets hard-wired. The possibility of things being possible is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, effects to achieve.
Consequently, one must give up the sense of an ending. His endings often aren’t. Masud’s invented, I think, a kind of short story in which we stop reading not because we’ve reached closure but because we’ve left the chai-ki-laari, we’ve caught the bus, we’ve parted from our story-telling friend. Stories fade in Masud’s world, they don’t end.
Naiyar Masud is still around. It seems he rarely leaves Lucknow, which makes sense since the city has long celebrated the good life; Umar Memon has helpfully provided a brief biographical sketch. He writes about one short-story a year. Much of the time, he says, is spent removing what he’s written. Among other things, he’s translated Kafka’s works into Urdu, so naturally he has to be punished with the label ‘Urdu’s Kafka’. There are some similarities between the two writers, yes. Kafka also wrote stories where causality, not reason, is the governing principle. Gunther Anders remarked that Kafka’s characters are ‘people attached to a job.’ So too Masud’s characters, who are busy making perfumes, building bird cages, steering boats, fashioning glass, catching snakes. Both authors use unadorned styles, but while Kafka uses sleights of grammar to make the unreal real, Masud uses sleights of memory to make the real unreal. However, all these similarities and differences pale in face of the fundamental division between the two men: Masud’s fiction affirms possibility, while Kafka’s denies it. Perhaps this is why Kafka’s fiction leaves one in despair, while Masud’s stories, even the tragic ones, leaves one feeling exhilarated.
Muhammed Umar Memon, professor emeritus at Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison and editor of AUS, has been indefatigable in making Masud’s work available to the English speaking world. Thanks to his efforts, we have two story collections The Essence of Camphor and The Snake Catcher containing some of Masud’s best stories. The Annual had a special issue in honor of Masud, and many other stories can appeared over the years. My favorites– what day is it? Saturday? Well then, my favorites are Sheesha Ghat and Ojhal (literally, the word means ‘Invisible’ but Javaid Qazi & Memon’s translation captures the title’s spirit with ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’.
News is news only to those who haven’t heard the news. I was walking with my friend Geeta Patel who’d done herthesis work on the Urdu poet Miraji (Sanaullah Dar). I mentioned that I’d just come across this writer, Masud.
‘Oh yes, Naiyar,’ said Geeta. ‘You’ll really like his stories.’
My first feeling was outrage. Damn it woman, if you knew that, why didn’t you mention it earlier! How was it possible that it’d had taken me so long to make Masud’s acquaintance? I, who had an efficient and conscientious personal Angel! Urdu is hardly an obscure Indian dialect. How could it be that I’d read my way around this remarkable writer all these years? Who else was I missing?
Such questions are tied to the politics and economics of the subcontinent. Contemplating them leads to a certain exhaustion.
No matter. Stories find their readers. Friends, this may hardly be news to some of you, but do check out the strange and wonderful stories of Naiyer Masud.