India Today - - LEISURE - —Ra­jesh Devraj

The Essence of Cam­phor, a book of short sto­ries by the Urdu writer Naiyer Masud, opens with a strik­ing black-and­white portrait of the au­thor as a sickly boy of four or five, ly­ing on a bed, clutch­ing a ball. It’s a haunt­ing im­age that ap­pears to be­long to an­other era; one can al­most see the wraiths hov­er­ing in the air above. Masud’s cap­tion ex­plains that he had been run­ning a high fever for 40 days and his par­ents, los­ing all hope, had sum­moned Mirza Mughal Beg, a renowned city pho­tog­ra­pher, to take a pic­ture of their child. The grim tableau he com­posed, with its shad­owy depths and an omi­nous-look­ing clock oc­cu­py­ing the cen­tre, was in­tended to be a mourn­ing portrait.

Masud’s fever ul­ti­mately abated, and the im­age turned out to be his first pho­to­graph, not his last. The fated en­counter with death was de­ferred for an­other 76 years or so—till last week, in fact, when Naiyer Masud passed away in the very house where he had been born and nearly suc­cumbed to ty­phoid. In the in­ter­ven­ing years, he taught Per­sian, trans­lated Kafka and wrote sev­eral short sto­ries—no more than 35 of them, go­ing by his Col­lected Sto­ries—which be­came known for their cryptic nar­ra­tives, set in a derelict city never iden­ti­fied by name but patently Masud’s home­town, Luc­know. Masud’s pre­ferred method in craft­ing them was to write longer works which he then sliced and spliced like a film edi­tor, be­liev­ing a story lived in its el­lipses, its ab­sences. There was lit­tle in them by way of dates, his­tory, lo­cal colour, or flour­ishes of lan­guage; in­stead, they were con­cerned with de­scrib­ing strange events and in­ter­nal shifts in a plain, some­times repet­i­tive style, with no ap­par­ent logic be­yond that of dreams.

If there is a cen­tral theme be­hind Masud’s elusive tales, it is time, which be­comes a pli­ant, malleable thing in his hands. Take the open­ing pages of the story ‘Baad­numa’, where time slows down to a crawl as the un­named child-nar­ra­tor stud­ies the minute, trem­bling move­ments of a weather vane, ob­served by a girl from a nearby rooftop. To­wards the end of the story, he leaves his dy­ing fa­ther to check on the vane dur­ing a storm, and a flash of light­ning re­veals some­one who is pos­si­bly the same girl, aged into an old woman. The years have gone by with­out our know­ing—or per­haps time, the great de­vourer, has leaped for­ward at that very in­stant. It caught up with Naiyer Masud too last week, and the world is poorer for it.

NAIYER MASUD 1936—2017 Last week, Naiyer Masud passed away in Luc­know at Ad­abis­tan (the Abode of Lit­er­a­ture), the very house where he was born in 1936

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