Naiyer Masud, a curator of the unsaid: Remembering the award-winning writer, his dream-like and elusive style
First-time readers are usually bewildered, desperately trying to ‘make sense’ of Sahitya Akademi award-winner Naiyer Masud's stories. Curious and haunted, they return, to feel their filigree-like negative spaces.
“Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested.”
- Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
Naiyer Masud was a short story writer and scholar who was awarded the Sahitya Akademi prize for Urdu and the Saraswati Samman in 2007. Recognised as one of the finest Indian Urdu writers, Masud’s fiction has received wide global acclaim, and has been translated into many languages, such as Spanish, French and Finnish.
There is a dreamlike, elusive quality to Masud’s stories. Temporality becomes a felt bodily sensation, and familiar spaces turn deeply mysterious.
A recluse, the writer refused to travel nearly all his life. Perhaps his lifestyle wouldn’t have changed much during the coronavirus lockdown. Perhaps, there is no better time to inhabit Masud's shimmering, seemingly fantastic yet realist stories than his third death anniversary. He passed away at the age of 81 on 24 July, 2017 in Lucknow.
The late poet Agha Shahid Ali called Masud ‘the poet’s storyteller’; poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria describes his stories as being ‘shadows of smoke’. Amit Chaudhuri called him ‘a passionate but calm realist of the strange’. While writer Anil Menon talks of his own inability to ‘give in’ to fiction because of an intense awareness of the writer’s craft, he finds that Masud’s stories surprise him, even after repeated readings. Academic and translator Muhammad Umar Memon observes that ‘his style is sui generis in the history of Urdu prose fiction, with no predecessor, nor will there be a follower’.
First-time readers are usually bewildered, desperately trying to ‘make sense’ of the story. Curious and haunted, they return, to feel its filigree-like negative spaces. A curator of what is left unsaid, Masud has left behind a world where readers find themselves easing into shadowy silences and unspoken mysteries. His protagonists experience isolation, helplessness, fatigue; they live through dislocation, delusion and uncertainty. First-person narration and a precise, unadorned prose style which is shorn of idioms lends this 'felt' sense to his writing, because there is no extraneous detail about action or thought.
However, the narrators are also somewhat preoccupied. What are they dreading? What are they not saying? Growing up in the 1940s, Masud witnessed much erosion of wealth and pride, the loss of friends, and a starkly diminished practice of Urdu and Persian. Is this longing and eeriness, which marks his writing and which is experienced by readers too, a consequence of living through such experiences?
Masud’s oeuvre is as distinct from the fabulists’ as it is from the progressive realists’. What genre does it fall into then? In an interview with Asif Farrukhi, Masud had responded, “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.” In another conversation with Sagaree Sengupta, he had spoken of the telepathic process of writing; that when a writer writes of a complex personal experience in a straightforward language with all the details clear in his own mind, somehow the experience reaches the reader.
Early on, Masud faced the criticism that his writings didn’t have 'kahanipan', that they were not as story-like as stories should be. Readers and critics accept inexplicable poets more readily than inexplicable storytellers. (Perhaps they feel cheated out of a secret, like the protagonist-narrator in The Color of Nothingness (Nusrat, in the original Urdu), whose anticipation about the ‘bad woman’ in the story is stoked twice, but never satisfied. Or they are fearful of the unknown, in the absence of neat plot coordinates and the security they provide.) Masud responded by writing The Myna of the Peacock Garden ((Taoos Chaman Ki Maina, in the original Urdu), set in the pre-Independence Lucknow, of nawabs and kings co-existing with the British. A welcome anomaly in his oeuvre, The Myna in the Peacock Garden is a dramatic story with a discernable plot and subtextual patriotism. It centres on a little girl’s love for a stolen singing bird. These qualities may have made the story his most popular one. Masud heeded criticism with grace and respect, and the deep love he had for writing stories.
In the spectrum of his writing, from the least story-like at one end and The Myna of the Peacock Garden at the other, Sheeshaghat stands somewhere in the middle. It is the poignant story of an orphaned boy, set in an unknown location — perhaps the outskirts of Lucknow — at an unknown time. There is Jahaz, a retired bazaar-clown, who could make sculptures of tobacco smoke mid-air. Then there is Bibi, the wife of a dacoit, who lives on a boat in the middle of the lake, and her daughter Parya who was born underwater and has never stepped on land. Clearly, there is no dearth of dramatic subjects here, and the story leaves its reader unmoored and gasping.
Not only did Masud gently dismantle parochial ideas of story, plot and ending, but he also fashioned swathes and swathes of time and dimly lit space for his characters and readers to wander in forever, with the ability to move in any direction, at any pace. History is preserved as memory within the characters and their houses; the future is uncertain. A timekeeper’s dilemma and a cartographer’s puzzle, this world holds within it the universality of human experience: ordinary people going about arduous professions, witnessing a decadence in ruins.
His stories are not so much a refusal of clean, sharp endings, as they are a mystical, mysterious ode to the interconnected continuity of life.
The petrified protagonist of The Color of Nothingness (Nusrat) who is running away from the vision of a dead girl becomes the assistant of the titular character in The Snake Catcher (Maar Gir) and watches the snake catcher save the victims of snake bites. The tiny yellow leaves covering Nusrat’s face in The Color of Nothingness return in the final passage of Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire (Ojhal). “But when I am seized by an attack of despair, I feel as if tiny yellow leaves are coming down in a shower between the nurse and myself.”
Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire (Ojhal) is a complex, erotic story. It begins with a palpable sexual attraction between the narrator and a visiting distant relative. But whenever they come close to each other, they get an impression that someone is looking at them through the shut door. This story also explores the writer’s relationship with houses. Naiyer Masud loved buildings – mansions, verandahs, arches, pulpits and doors are recurring motifs, rendering the atmosphere of Lucknow across his stories. Arches held a hypnotic pull over him. He couldn’t, however, write outside of his house. While writers such as Gaston Bachelard and Yi-Fu Tuan have written copiously on the interrelations of architecture, thoughts, and literature, Masud goes one step further: he renders the interrelation between architecture and temporality too.
The protagonist in this story inspects houses for a living. “I was sure that the speed of Time within these houses was not the same as it was on the outside. I also believed that the speed of Time could vary from one part of the house to the next,” he notes. “At some point it finally occurred to me that there was one part of this house that aroused fear and another part where one felt that some unknown desire was about to be fulfilled."
His four collections of short stories that were collated into Collected Stories by Naiyer Masud, edited and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon and published as a Penguin Classic, are only part of a huge body of work that consists of translations of Franz Kafka’s works, stories for children and other literary and scholarly writings in Persian and Urdu. Perhaps he didn't know it at the time, but decades later, his translated works would mesmerise readers across the world.
Passionate about Urdu literature and painstakingly particular in his own use of the language, Masud felt that very few contemporary writers were paying attention to the intricacies of Urdu. Some of Masud’s favourite writers were Ghulam Abbas, Hayatullah Ansari, Intizar Husain and Emily Brontë.
Interestingly, Masud submitted his first story Nusrat (The Color of Nothingness) under a pen name, Rooya Nasij, to the Urdu journal Shab-Khūn run by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in 1971. 'Rooya' means dream and 'nasij' is the weaving of cloth. This was a story based on one of Masud's dreams, but he presented it as a translation of the Persian translation of a text written in an unknown language.
On occasion, his stories may be obliquely reminiscent of works by Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka and Nirmal Verma, but Masud's ability to render dreams as self-contained stories suspended in a non-contiguous time and space is highly original and delicate, reducing the distance between fiction and poetry. They are indisputably stories, with their ungraspable yet intact inner logic.
'Naiyar Masud: The Storyteller of Lucknow', Anil Menon
Smita Sahay is a poet and writer based in Mumbai, India
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