In Naiyer Masud’s short story “Obscure
Domains of Fear and Desire” the narrator possesses the preternatural instinct
for assessing emotions released by a house. He is a house inspector who shares
a subliminal bond with houses and develops a theory that every house has a domain
of fear and a domain of desire, and at times these domains overlap. As he steps
into a house he can sense a frisson, tremors of either anxiety or longing.
While in the spot of fear, he could feel nervous, in the other, that the space
had the potential to fulfill an “unknown desire”, much like the zone in Andrei
Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.
Masud was born in Lucknow in 1936 and died on 24 July, 2017, in Lucknow. He was one of the most innovative short story writers in Urdu in the ’70s, publishing four collections of short stories that paid no heed to simple, linear storytelling. His stories often enter the ambiguous, liminal territories of the arcane and the psychic. His characters have strange compulsions and fears. In “Dustland”, the narrator is consumed by a passion for dust storms, in “Bai’s Mourners”, the narrator is afraid of brides. The stories are often told in roundabout reminiscences and are plot-free.
This is evident from the complicated “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”. It opens with the narrator, having relinquished speech, in a silent visual communication with a relative who is the last link with an old house where he was born. The narrative veers to that old house where the narrator had a short affair with a distant aunt who was only slightly older than him. The writer plays hide and seek with the readers by revealing small aspects while holding back major details.
For example, we read that the short affair started, like many other affairs that started, after the lovers “had stood together and compared their heights”. We know that in its brief duration the woman was constantly worried that the gaze of an unknown person was following them. The house becomes a sentient figure, with lurking presences. We know that the woman had to leave the house urgently in the middle of the night but we never know whether the affair continued later or what was the cause of the narrator’s abrupt decision to leave his house and drift across cities and women, away from his roots. What memories and demons of his past was he fleeing from?
In parallel, he develops an unusual passion as he gets increasingly mystified by houses, which appear to him sphinx-like, whose secrets he is determined to prise open. He surmises that there are some areas in each house where light cannot reach and that they can serve as hiding places for a person.
All this sounds cryptic until we reach the final part of the story in which the narrator visits a lover’s house (you wonder if this is the aunt in the beginning of the story) and feels the vibration of someone’s gaze from the house next door. One day, in the absence of his lover, he goes to the neighbour’s window and through an aperture enters it. This was the darkest place of the house, the hideout and sanctuary, where light cannot enter. He can feel the “waxen foot” of a woman tethered there; he unfastens her and makes love to her. After the encounter with this ghostly woman, a resident of utter blackness, he abandons speech.
This enigmatic story borders on the gothic, defined by Horace Walpole as a genre that focuses on the “theatre of sensation—a direct appeal to the body.” The suspense builds as the story moves, with a whiff of the supernatural. There is confusion whether the architectural features of the spaces and houses are real or reflect the inner landscape of the narrator. We start to doubt his hold over objective reality, and see his slow unraveling and erosion of identity, from a man of uncanny powers to a wordless man.
Masud was a scholar of Persian and Urdu. His father, a professor of Persian at Lucknow University, had a vast and varied collection of books that sparked Masud’s early interest in the world of books. His father named his house “Adabistan” or House of Literature, where the reclusive Masud lived most of his life and died there. As he said in an interview, “I have never really written anything outside of this house.”
He started writing as a boy but published his first story only in the ’70s. As a boy he dabbled in stories, plays and some poetry but later was involved in writing research papers. It was only after friendship with the writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi that his interest in fiction was rekindled. His first story “Nusrat” appeared in Shab-Khun, an Urdu literary journal edited by Faruqi.
Initially, Masud wrote under a pseudonym. Faruqi reminisces, “Naiyer Masud gave me the story quite casually and somewhat diffidently, saying that it was a translation of an English short story by an obscure writer but he liked it so much that he made an Urdu translation. He wanted me to see if it was worth publishing in Shab-Khun. I forget the name of the putative English author, but according to him, the title in the original was Nowsrath which he translated into Nusrat, a common enough proper name in Urdu.”
“Nusrat” (translated as “The Colour of Nothingness”) again features a man inextricably linked to his house and surroundings. The story opens one afternoon, on the day of a trial of a “bad woman” on some unspecified charges in his house when he is a boy. As the delay of proceedings exasperates him, he finds Nusrat (perhaps a neighbour) sitting under an ancient tree in the courtyard. Nusrat is an elusive, mysterious figure with downcast eyes, who talks in a low voice as if she is unused to talking. Today, however, she is in pain as her feet are mangled and stuck together after an accident. She has come for treatment from the surgeon who lives in the narrator’s house.
After the trial ends and Nusrat’s feet are disentangled by the surgeon, the story jump-cuts to an unclear, future time with the sentence, “Soon afterwards my house began to empty out. My people, all of them, began to expire, one by one in quick succession… as though they were a heap of rice grains pressed by a damp hand against a surface, lifting them clear off.”
The narrator remains the sole occupant of the house and he anxiously visits each part of the house to ensure that not “even the smallest space remain unoccupied by me for too long.” Another indicator of the passage of undulating time is the sudden mature voice of the narrator filled with the gravitas of felt grief. One day when he is in the outer room, he is visited by Nusrat, who is clad in white, and they recollect the day of the trial and talk about the virtue of different colours. Nusrat says that the narrator likes black because it is the colour of nothingness.
As she leaves the room, spots of blood from her feet drop and stain the floor.
You soon realise that Nusrat is an apparition or a figment of the narrator’s imagination, because one day while cleaning the garden the narrator sees Nusrat sitting under the tree, immured, as “dry yellow leaves held together by cobwebs” cover her face “like a veil”. Everything around him had turned into rubble and nothingness. That day he shuts the door of the house permanently, never to open it again.
This story was a huge success. Faruqi had his suspicions that it was not a translation, but an original composition and Masud was the author, not the translator. But he didn’t quiz him on that. After its success, Masud confessed to Faruqi that he was the author, but since he wasn’t sure whether Faruqi would like the story, and feared that it might get rejected, he pretended to be a mere translator.
The time was just ripe for the absurd, strange Masudian prose to arrive in the world of the Urdu short story, with its temporal rhythms and motifs of the subconscious. The short story in Urdu at that time was breaking from the past. The Premchand model, which treated it as an instrument of social protest and reform, was in decline and so was its extension, the Progressive model. The Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu, spearheaded by writers like Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan, Sajjad Zaheer and Mahmuduzzafar, took the socio-political framework of Premchand forward—it was committed to Indian Independence and the nationalist movement—besides incorporating literary influences from writers like Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy. There were Freudian undertones to many stories, and sex became an important element in the short story.
The influence of the Progressives declined as the inner life of the individual was suppressed vis-à-vis the recording of social upheavals. The writers were also not experimenting with the narrative devices required to dig deep into the subconscious of the individual, which would perhaps have stressed plot and linear structure less than the way events are felt and experienced. They were driven by causality and seriality with an O. Henry-like twist and dramatic ends.
There was a need to stretch the expressive potential of the short story, with a stream of consciousness flow and driven by internal, psychic connections. This was done by the “jadeed afsaana” or the new short story practised by writers like Intizar Husain, Enver Sajjad, Surendra Prakash and Balaraj Manra, who are credited with ushering modernist fiction in Urdu. Some of the features of modernist fiction were the collapse of serial time, an abstract causality, and the inward turn of the fictional narrative.
The theory and practice of fiction as promoted by Shab-Khun produced a new generation of short fiction writers. As Faruqi said, “The plot didn’t occupy primary place in such stories, nor did the characterisation. There wasn’t much concern for ‘social realism’ or ‘socialist realism’. The intensity of prose, of observation, preoccupation with metaphor, or even abstraction, with oblique rather than direct narrativization; these were much in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Masud had struck a new note. “His story had a distinct narrative, if not an organised plot; it was written in apparently plain, unadorned, ‘artless’ prose, with no effort to dramatise or ‘poeticise’ the narrative. There was, of course, nothing like ‘realism’ either, socialist or social. But in all other respects, his fiction was unique; still, it was mainline modernist fiction and owed nothing to the so-called ‘tradition’ of Urdu fiction established by Premchand and the Progressives,” said Faruqi.
His appreciation of the story and the approval from readers encouraged Masud to write more fiction. “I hugely admired his stories, and my admiration was not based on ‘ideology’—he was clearly non-Progressive, if not anti-Progressive—nor was he a ‘modernist’ in any obvious sense, but there was the unaffected beauty of his prose, which had an uncanny ability to evoke, or even create menace and alienness and indecipherability in life. These were (and in fact still are, to me) the things that both he and I found life to be full of, but I could see none in Urdu who could bring those murky feelings (or realities) out into the open.”
His story had a distinct narrative, if not an organised plot; it was written in apparently plain, unadorned, ‘artless’ prose, with no effort to dramatise or ‘poeticise’ the narrative. There was, of course, nothing like ‘realism’ either, socialist or social. But in all other respects, his fiction was unique.
Masud was not a prolific writer. He described himself as a reader and an occasional writer. In total he came out with four collections containing 33 stories. He was also a translator and translated Franz Kafka’s books into Urdu. In 1999 his second book Itr-e Kafur was published as Essence of Camphor by The New Press, New York, later translated into Finnish, French and Spanish. Penguin came out with a selection of his stories titled The Snake Catcher in 2006 and The Occult (translation of Simiya) in 2013. In 2015 a complete anthology titled Collected Stories edited by Muhammad Umar Memon was translated and published by Penguin comprising all the 33 stories.
Some of the most important artistic inventions of modernism are the collage, the fragment and the method of juxtaposition. Tony Hoagland in his essay, “Fragment, Juxtaposition And Completeness: Some Notes And Preferences” writes that collage “takes disorder, coincidence and chance materials as part of its method and inspiration. By eliminating transition, it embraces ambiguity, improvisation, speed, and multiplicity of meaning. It is expressive, but not primarily self-expressive. It places priority neither on closure, nor on conventional notions of completeness. In the constant conversation between unity and disunity, juxtaposition plays with omission and collision. It loves the energy of disruption and dislocation.”
Masud should be considered as one of the torch bearers of this narrative device in Urdu. He employed the unit of fragments and juxtaposed them to create narratives that remain permanently floating “in the middle”, without any conclusion.
What is more disconcerting is that his febrile stories, without names of persons and places, are often inspired by real dreams, so there is a doubling of discomfort and slippage of meaning because both form and content are equally elusive. They convey sense and understanding through motifs, moods and erasures. Masud’s stories often lack temporal and spatial coordinates, which leads to an atmosphere of discomfort and incompleteness, outside the fold and familiarity of reality. The drama often happens indoors, the features of the outer world, the city, are kept to a minimum. The character and his environment cannot be distinguished and you feel the narrative taking place in the labyrinthine and claustrophobic cities of his mind.
Sikander Ahmad in his essay “Demystifying Naiyer Masud: Preliminary Notes” reveals that Masud’s pen-name, Rooya Nishej, which he used in his first story, is Persian for “one who fabricates dreams”. He also used the first-person as a licence to include “bizarre and unexplainable circumstances”, as the narrator lacked the omniscience and objectivity of the third-person voice.
Even Faruqi said, “He did tell me, once or twice, that he actually ‘saw’ his stories as dreams. That is, he dreamt the stories in their full panoply of detail, and could recall everything when he woke up, and thus had no difficulty putting his story-dream on paper. I wasn’t sure that I believed him literally, but I could see that something like what he claimed could happen, at least frequently, if not always, and if not always correctly to the most meticulous detail. After all, who hasn’t heard of Coleridge and ‘Kubla Khan’, the poem that he actually saw in a dream and could remember in full detail when he woke up? But could this be a habit with someone, to ‘see’ the story in a dream and then remember its full detail and also be lucky to find the leisure to write it down? Maybe. The labyrinths of creativity are more complicated and circuitous than the labyrinth of Minotaur.”
Forgetfulness is the counterpart of the act of dreaming, so the elliptical narrative with breaks reflects the rupture and forgetfulness of dreams after waking. The abstract stories lack wholeness and Masud admitted that “the hardest part of writing is deciding what to keep and what to leave out, what to describe and, more importantly, what to leave out”. Instead of a plot there is “a ghost of the plot”. All these features create an atmosphere of evanescence. As Zeno (Safdar Mir) wrote, “We discover a nervous and tremulous uncertainty, as if the image is impermanent and ready to disappear, or as if it is being looked at through a body of clear and transparent water.”
The characters of these stories seem spectral—chance encounters in the congested traffic of dreams. Faruqi said, “Masud’s stories had an uncanny power to create characters who were real (or ‘realistic’) to all intents and purposes, but they didn’t run according to any type that one could imagine. Yet they were convincing, and had the ability to evoke strong emotions in the reader.”
The stories retain their freshness and power in the present dystopian climate with its multiple fractures and distractions. Most of Masud’s stories are concerned with the process of remembrance in which the narrator goes back in time to his childhood. Otherwise the stories are told by child-narrators. In the miniature world of children, the world seems large and overarching. Objects and toys are often the point of reference for a narrative that is often fantastic and that venerates interiority. We get only glimpses of women, who are portrayed either as hankering mothers or haunting lost lovers. Father figures are interchangeable with the self, almost like doppelgangers.
The Occult (translation of Simiya) is
situated at the cusp of a novel and a collection of short stories. It consists
of five stories that overlap and coalesce with recurrent motifs, characters and
images. Both “The Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire” and “Nusrat”, which form
the first and second chapters respectively, consist of protagonists given to
the hold of fraught living spaces, with traces of memories and associations of
affect sticking to them. The collection features many recurring motifs that form
the nodes around which most of the stories unfold: a house with an outer room
filled with antiques, a courtyard with an ancient tree “bearing unusually tiny
leaves”, a garden and a portico inhabited by an old surgeon. The image of the
waxen foot of the ghostly figure in “The Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”
resonates with the deformed foot of Nusrat. You wonder whether it was Nusrat’s
foot that the narrator of the first story saw in the dark recesses. Is Nusrat’s
foot bleeding because of his assault?
The next two stories feature narrators-on-the-run, fugitives from their past. In “The Snake Catcher” the narrator, who is “running away from a dead girl” arrives in a damp forest, and is bitten by a snake. He is saved by a snake catcher who uses bezoar, a dark-coloured stone, on his wound to suck out the poison. The bezoar sticks to the wound, gets “unconscious” when it is filled with poison and regains consciousness after releasing the poison in a vessel filled with milk. Later in the story, the narrator becomes the snake catcher’s helper and helps him catch snakes and find antidotes and herbs for snake poison. Over time the landscape changes with more construction, and one night the snake catcher dies after he loses his talismanic stone, the bezoar. That night the narrator leaves the forest settlement.
This story forms the most subterranean layer of the book as if plunging from the surface into the coiled human unconscious teeming with symbols of primitive animals. Here the anxieties of the runaway narrator are present in the form of the animalistic images and the atmosphere of a lurid and twilit forest.
“Simiya” is the central story of the book, and the most descriptive. In this the narrator lives in a house in a city with a river and a graveyard. The narrator is obsessed both with the river, as a young virgin had drowned in it, and the graveyard, as it houses her symbolic grave. After a failed attempt to cure a handicapped boy, the boy’s father and his neighbours turn against each other and he vacates his house. He is offered shelter by a man with a black dog who lives in a black, ruined palace. While at the palace, he is told by the owner that he is practising an occult ritual to bring rain. It rains but the man has made a mistake in the ritual and he develops hydrophobia and dies. The narrator again leaves the house in dread.
The last story “Resting Place” comes back to the house with the courtyard and curios in the outer room, and completes the cycle. The narrator, who has spent his life wandering, arrives at the house and is invited by the owner to reside in a certain portion of the house after he sees his proclivity for curing diseases through the use of the medicinal herbs in his garden.
He lives in the house for an indeterminate time, and one day he sees a strange man who has stopped talking move into the house with a girl. This is reminiscent of the narrator of the “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”. The narrator talks to the nurse to find more about the mute patient but as his questions become frequent and relentless, his despair increases and feels that “the ceiling of my resting place feels as though it’s right on top of my chest”.
This book could be compared to a labyrinth with meandering corridors. These stories, individually, are enigmatic without any closure, but together they create a hint of unity while retaining their incomprehensibility and circularity. There are certain repetitive gestures, echoes of conversations that serve as their ligature. They are built like spatial narratives with, as Memon wrote, “key words deployed at varying intervals horizontally across the fictional space.”
For example, in “Simiya”, the narrator and the occultist with the black dog and black palace have a conversation about colours and the occultist repeats what Nusrat had said, “Black is the colour of nothingness”. There are several such instances that bind the book. Its architecture is reminiscent of Borges’s garden of forking paths in which time was split like a maze that facilitated the possibility of multiple narrative universes for the same character.
In “Occult Museum” Masud writes, “dreams are
my personal property”. But we see him slowly expand his concerns and areas in
“The Essence of Camphor” and make minuscule gestures to the outer world. The
exterior starts taking an inchoate shape, acquires some distance from the
individual. Its role is not merely metaphorical—though to a large extent it is
still subsumed within the personal.
Masud starts putting sparse details like the name of a character and place, in “The Essence of Camphor” that places the stories within a known landscape. He tackles the subject of historical forgetfulness wrought by the cupidity of rulers through “Sultan Muzzafar’s Chronicler of Events” in which a chronicler does not record the foul death of a woman during the sultan’s desert campaign. In “Epistle” the narrator writes a complaint to a newspaper after visiting a house of his acquaintance in the dilapidated part of a city. This activist strain is to animate a space of affect that he frequently visited as a child but now is in a state of limbo. Upon entering the scary room in that old house where the narrator had once locked his playmate, he finds it a weary ghost space enclosed in its own stultified personal climate, without rhythm or movement, its air stuffy, waiting to be stumbled upon by a susceptible visitor who can recognize it–in this case the narrator.
But there are squalor and morbidity, too. In the title story, the narrator, a perfume-maker, makes every perfume on the base of camphor. The smell of the evanescent camphor evokes the memory of a girl called Mah Rukh Sultan, whom the narrator knew when he was a child. They shared a common interest for crafting handmade objects like toy clocks, pottery and clay jewellery. Mah Rukh died young of an illness, smelling of camphor, after gifting him her most prized possession–a chandelier made of perfume vials.
Masud writes: “A feeling of forlornness, then the revealing of something in this forlornness, is now induced by merely inhaling the camphor essence, but whatever is revealed in this forlornness already existed before the extract’s conception; indeed, the preparing of the extract relies on its existence”. Masud builds a complex image world in this story–a strange white bird that the narrator names camphor sparrow flits throughout the narrative like a portent of death.
The "Myna from Peacock Garden" from the eponymous collection is the only straightforward story in his otherwise oneiric oeuvre. It deals explicitly with the city of Lucknow under the rule of Wajid Ali Shah. The fairy-tale like story was written to quell the simplistic perception that Awadh culture was decadent and Wajid Ali Shah a tyrant. A widower, Kale Khan, gets a job in the peacock garden of Wajid Ali, named thus because the shrubs in the garden were pruned in the shape of peacocks. His job is to look after the 40 hill mynas in the enormous cage that looks like a miniature palace in the peacock garden. He steals one for his daughter but is found out and forgiven by Wajid Ali, who also returns the myna. This tale is contextualised within the background of the usurpation of Awadh’s throne by the British and the interruption of Wajid Alis’s reign.
One of the contentions surrounding Masud’s incomplete stories is that they are an elegy for the Awadh culture in which he grew up. Although his narratives are pared of descriptive details, the mental atmosphere of fear and despair surrounding his characters are emblematic of the erosion of a civilisation. His out-of-place, runaway narrators with strange fixations seem to wander in the world, dislocated and steeped in suppressed memories. The obsession with objects, houses, ruins, occult, forgotten crafts and skills, all evoking absent or supernatural presences reflect their loss. But Faruqi does not think that was Masud’s intention.
He says, “Masud was passionately interested in things: small, insignificant, forgotten things: dilapidated, long unused houses, cups and glasses, medicine boxes, so forth. And those things apparently evoke Awadh and the culture of Awadh. But it wasn’t just that, because he didn’t have a design or scheme to write about such things so as to evoke the culture (except maybe in “The Myna from Peacock Garden”). It is just that he was passionately interested in small, insignificant things which have a tendency to disappear precisely because they’re small. Did he love them because for him they had the flavour of Awadh, or because he found them charged with memory and emotion? I would tend toward the latter interpretation. He loved insignificant things and marginal people and mourned their loss.”
Reading Masud’s stories is akin to discovering an unfamiliar room in a familiar house. It is like going back to your childhood house in a dream with its details distorted. They alter, merge seamlessly into other places to produce a montage effect, add strange attachments and appendages with unvisited nooks, and cul-de-sacs. Your suppressed memories spring up. As Muhammad Umar Memon writes in the introduction to the Collected Stories, reading Masud’s stories is “like walking into a well-maintained living room, but no one greets you. Hours pass, but no one appears. And you cannot leave because you vaguely feel a presence that you cannot see or name. After a while, you don’t want to leave.”