Finding the Timeless and the Universal in Naiyer Masud’s Short Stories

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. Courtesy Sabeeha Khatoon
18 August, 2017

“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.

Lucknow, of course, does show up in Masud’s fiction. Its artisan culture features in many stories: the glass worker in “Sheeha Ghat,” the chikan embroiderer in “Ganjefa,” the perfume maker in “Essence of Camphor.” In “Interregnum,” a mason carves designs of fish into the facades of buildings. Fish designs just like these were once the emblem of Awadh, and they adorn Lucknow’s Asifi Imambara, as well as the frontages of many buildings in the neighbourhoods of Chowk, Ashrafababad and Aminabad. Whenever I spot a fish on an old Lucknow building, I inevitably think of the mason in “Interregnum.”

I am, however, uncomfortable with tributes that bind Masud to Lucknow. They form part of a larger tendency to read South Asian authors, particularly those who write in Indian languages, as windows into a distinctive local culture. This approach misses the essence of Masud’s fiction. His Spanish translator, Rocío Moriones Alonso, once noted that Masud’s stories show us that the universal can be found in the extreme local. The blind grandmother cracking betel nuts in “Destitutes Compound” might be an undeniably Lucknavi—or at least north Indian—character, but the sensation she evokes is that of motionless time and placelessness.

Moreover, Masud was in many ways a global writer. He was a professor of Persian, a former global language, and a translator of Persian and English into Urdu. His own works in Urdu were translated into many languages. A few years ago, I found a Spanish translation of a collection of Masud’s stories in Mexico City, in a bookstore called Libreria Gandhi. As I sat rereading “Essence of Camphor,” I realised that Masud might have hardly left his native city, but he travelled more widely than most who board a transcontinental flight every year. One of his most commendable accomplishments is that, through his stories, he ultimately expanded Urdu’s reach. And he did so precisely at a time when the language—as well as its speakers, readers and writers—faced harsh political pressure, and many in India actively sought to restrict and confine it.

I had the pleasure of knowing Masud during the last decade of his life. By then he was ailing. Nonetheless, it was not hard to see how his writing reflected his lifestyle. He owned several books about crafts, and his home was decorated with pieces of art he had created. Masud once told me that he often was afflicted by “craft spells” and described how, two decades earlier, he had become obsessed with making wood and clay sijdegah—small tablets used by Shia Muslims to rest their foreheads on during prayers. He made many sijdegah and gave several dozen away to friends and relatives. Some of them, however, are still lying around his house, and his son, Timsal Masud, offers namaz on one of them every day.

Masud’s writing style echoes the rhythm and meticulousness of his craft projects. His prose stands out for its precision and unhurriedness. Muhammad Umar Memon, his English translator, once said that “there is absolutely nothing arbitrary or rushed” about Masud’s “verbal choices.” The unhurriedness of his prose also helps create the sensation of motionless time that permeates his stories.

More than a decade ago, Masud suffered a stroke that left one side of his body paralysed. Later, a series of fractures further impeded his mobility. Not being able to leave the house with ease, however, did not seem to concern him. Even before falling ill, he left only sparingly and reluctantly. “This is the only place where I can write,” he remarked. “I’ve never written anything outside of my home.” Even while his imagination spanned great distances, Masud’s home is undeniably present in his writing. The neem tree, the entrance, the staircase and the garden of Masud’s home show up in various stories, as do the people that inhabited the place. Home to three families, Masud’s house was never a quiet library, but rather a place filled with the noises of a full life: the laughter of children, the clatter of cooking pots, the azan from nearby mosques, the singing of visiting beggars, the unceasing traffic and the voices of people going about their daily lives.

Masud passed away on 24 July 2017, at the age of 81, with his wife and son at his side. A few days later, I asked Sabeeha Khatoon how long it had been since her husband had stepped outside the house. Maybe three years, she responded. I told her that in the seven years I had been his daughter-in-law, I had not seen or heard of him ever leaving his home. “Well, he went to Delhi to receive an award,” she said. “I think it was 2007.”

“I believe he briefly attended a Muharram procession. It must have been after that trip to Delhi,” his oldest daughter intervened, but she could not recall exactly when. Neither woman seemed surprised at their inability to remember.

The day after the panjum ki majlis, which commemorated the fifth day after Masud’s death, I visited his grave. He rests next to his mother and father, in a cemetery only a few blocks away from his beloved home. When the wind blows, white flowers from a nearby tree fall and decorate Masud’s grave. As I stood in the cemetery thinking of the life and death of a great artist, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that I was standing in one of his stories.