A review of Naiyer Masud’s stories: the essence of camphor


I came to know about Naiyer Masud some months ago when I read about his sad demise in a few literary conscious online sites. Recently I started wondering about why our curiosity about a writer’s work suddenly escalates when he becomes out of reach. Articles with ten best stories and so forth popped out within days. I looked up about his writing online and read a few pages in the amazon preview and I was very impressed. It was an unpleasant surprise of discovery and joy. It was unpleasant because what I was looking for had been right there, the things I find absent in most of the great stuff had already been so nicely written by an Indian writer who had been alive all this while.

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I found his short story collection The Essence of Camphor in my local Sahitya Academy library which had come out in 1998 and immediately started with it. It contains nine short stories and one novella, all beautifully translated from the original Urdu. The first story, which is the title story is about the innocence of childhood and how a scent can be evocative, even if it is not a powerful one. The boy in this story tries to imitate a kafoori sparrow but couldn’t exactly imitate no matter how many times he try. During this he develops the art of making intricate objects from clay. His diligent effort reminds a neighbouring girl of her childhood and soon they became friends. But she was suffering from an ailment. Now here Masud tries to evoke the abstract by constantly reminding the reader that there is something special about the perfume made from camphor and that particular scent is the scent of death. He does it so confidently that even a cold, rainy afternoon and a dead bird can incite a strange forlornness in the reader. We sometimes feel something and try to link it to something entirely absurd. When an author identifies similar things and writes them down in a fictional form, the resulting work unsettles the reader. I felt vulnerable as if the author has touched something raw in me. I had a similar feeling when I read Clarice Lispector’s stories for the first time.

In ‘Interregnum’, which is one my favourite stories in the collection, a father-son relationship has been shown in ways I seldom see. Of course, there are books like “The Master of Petersburg” that can challenge the above statement, but there is something entirely different in this story. The motherless son is possessive about his father from a very early age. His father is a mason, he designs patterns and makes sculptures. The son would hide his tools every day and he has to beat him up to let him go to work. Thus their chemistry changes with time and nearly in the end, in one afternoon, the father met an accident. He was bedridden for weeks. And there is this passage:

“After he was seated, supported by several pillows, he became absorbed in thought. Never before had he seemed to me to be a thinking individual. But now, as he sat propped up against a pile of pillows, dressed in clean and proper clothes, he was in deep thought. And, for the first time I considered the possibility that he might be my real father.”

That passage hit me. I was in awe, to be honest.

‘Sheesha Ghat’ was another story that dwells on a similar theme.

Another story I really liked is called ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. I read a preview of this story before in Amazon. And upon finishing the story, it turned out to be strangely dreamy. Throughout, his techniques have been similar. You always feel that the author is talking about something out of your reach or grasp. I remember V.S. Naipaul once advising young writers to not go for the abstract, and go for preciseness and clarity. I believe he meant to say only the skilled and the gifted people should try to handle the abstract ideas in their writings.

Not all his stories are like this. ‘The Myna from Peacock Garden’ is a simple tale of a father trying to fulfil the wish of his daughter. In all his stories, I found his prose to be clear and precise. Masud was a gifted writer and he writes about stuff no writes about. I hope his works get translated in more languages, especially now that he is no more.

 

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