THE LOGIC OF DREAMS
THE PASSING OF NAIYER MASUD HAS LEFT THE LITERARY WORLD A POORER PLACE
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