“Destitutes Compound,” a story by Naiyer Masud, is about a young man who leaves his home after an argument with his father. After his only friend dies, the man concludes that it is time for him to return to his family. As he makes preparations for his homecoming, he realises that the children he met when he first arrived at the compound now have greying hair. When he returns, he learns that both his parents have passed away, but an old, blind grandmother still sits in the house’s entrance cracking betel nuts, just as she had when he left. The image of the grandmother rhythmically cracking betel nuts has stayed with me for years. To me, she symbolises time itself, resting still, awaiting our return.
Masud is the author of four acclaimed collections of short stories in Urdu. Most of his stories meticulously detail everyday feelings and sensations, but in ways that render them unfamiliar, uncomfortable and new. The narrator of “Ba’i’s Mourners” is consumed by a fear of brides when he learns of one who died from a scorpion bite before reaching her groom’s house. In “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire,” the narrator describes the complex sensations that old houses evoke in him—some sections of them make him feel afraid, while others evoke an eerie expectation that a distant desire will soon be fulfilled. “Dustland” features a narrator who experiences an uncontrollable attraction towards dust storms. Most of Masud’s stories are told in the first person. Sabeeha Khatoon—Masud’s wife, who was always his first reader and critic—told me, “When I read his stories, I felt I was the narrator. I never quite understood what was happening or why it was happening, but felt that I was experiencing the same emotions as the narrator.” Masud’s focus on sensations, rather than events, helps create this effect. For the most part, I find it hard to recall the plot of Masud’s stories, even immediately after reading them, but I can never elude the feelings they conjure.
Not all critics have praised Masud’s disregard for narrative. In 1994, partly in response to readers’ criticism that his stories, while enthralling, lacked kahanipan (storytelling) and were difficult to follow, Masud wrote “The Myna from the Peacock Garden.” This endearing tale is set in Lucknow, during the mid 1850s, when it was the capital of the state of Awadh. In it, the main character, Kale Khan, tends to the king’s mynas in the royal garden, and his young daughter begs him to gift her one of the birds. Kale Khan is reluctant, but eventually he succumbs to his daughter’s pleas and steals a myna from the king’s garden, knowing he will face dire consequences if his crime is discovered.
“The Myna from the Peacock Garden” is arguably Masud’s best-known story. It earned him the Saraswati Samman, one of India’s most distinguished literary awards. This story, however, stands apart in Masud’s oeuvre. Not only does it have a clear plot and plenty of kahanipan, but it is also set in a very specific place and time—during the last years of the rule of Wajid Ali Shah, the final nawab of Awadh. Masud explained in an interview that he hoped this story would “offer a corrective to the bad reputation Wajid Ali Shah had acquired. Certainly, he had weaknesses but he had good qualities as well. I wanted to deal with him, Lucknow, and the culture of Lucknow in a story.” Masud’s father, Syed Masud Hasan Rizvi, a renowned scholar of Urdu and Persian literature, had long being fascinated by Wajid Ali Shah, and collected many of the aesthete king’s works. Rizvi also owned several hundred books and manuscripts about nineteenth-century Awadh. Masud’s story was in large part inspired by his father’s research, and, in particular, by a poem that describes Wajid Ali Shah’s decorative birdcage and his affection for mynas.
Masud was born in 1936 in Lucknow, and lived there, in a house built by his father, for most of his life. His father chose to stay in Lucknow after Partition, even as most Muslim families in north India faced increasing pressure and discrimination, and many migrated to Pakistan. Masud taught Persian literature at Lucknow University, from 1967 until he retired in 1996. In addition to his fiction, which earned him world fame, Masud also authored countless articles and radio features about the Lucknow-born marsiya (elegy) poet Mir Anis, and the city’s literary culture. In particular, Masud’s scholarship explores how Lucknow became a literary centre under the patronage of various kings, while the Mughal courts in Delhi declined. Naturally, many readers associate Masud with Lucknow. Yet, I believe that his stories possess a vision simultaneously larger and smaller than his native city.