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Mehr Afshan Farooqi is assistant professor of Urdu and South Asian literature at the University of Virginia. Her book Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari, has recently been released.

 

Naiyer Masud’s stories are tributes to a fading cultural world of Lucknow. They are woven with metaphors of transience and unfold in a dream-like ambience, calm on the surface but turbulent within. Many stories have a young narrator who grapples with change in subtle but unsettling ways.

As a child I had been a frequent visitor to Adabistan with my father. Masud’s stately, ancestral home fascinated me with its old-world aura, particularly the complex plan of the house; it had so many sections and recesses. Some parts of the house were gloomy and dark with heavy furnishings while other areas were open and had lots of natural light. Much later, when I read his stories, I could not help but notice how much the house and its environment were integrated into the fiction he wrote. I could connect with Masud’s fictional world in a special way because I had related to those surroundings as a child. I found the ambience in his stories astonishingly real, truly fantastic, like a shimmering mirage, very near and yet so far.

I last visited Adabistan in December after a long gap of many years. Masud has not been keeping well for some time now and I felt compelled to go see him because I still feel a special connection to all the friends of my parents who were a part of my childhood and youth. I did not know what to expect but I found the experience to be uncannily similar to the mood in his stories. One of them in particular, “BaadNuma” (Weathervane), which is about the winds of change and the perception of reality, came to my mind. In the story, the narrator’s ailing father, obviously a prominent personality, receives a host of regular visitors in the front room of the house. The house itself is distinguished by a weathervane that is shaped like a fish or a bird, depending on how you see it. The malfunctioning weathervane is inadvertently broken by the narrator when, in an attempt at fixing it, he twists it in the wrong direction. Ultimately, the weathervane is taken down from the roof of the house and becomes a fixture in the front room where the narrator, who has stepped into his father’s shoes, receives the daily visitors; not as many as his father had, but nevertheless in a continuation of the tradition.

My memories of Masud’s father, the eminent scholar Syed Masud Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, are so vague that I don’t have any clear recollection of ever meeting him or even seeing him; yet I have in my mind an image of how he must have looked and the aura of his presence in the house. Thinking about it now, it appears that I have constructed a visual image of his personality from Masud’s stories. (I have also read the sketch he wrote of his father, but I feel my mental image has more to do with the stories which are quasi-autobiographical.) But to get back to my visit; I was mentally prepared to see an ailing Masud, an inevitable transformation in the surroundings of Adabistan, a changed milieu. Certainly the surroundings had changed; the house was now boxed into a much smaller space amid a claustrophobic, disorganised urban clutter, a setting that diminished its imposing façade. In the past, the ladies (my mother, my sister and I) always used a side entrance with a heavy wooden door which brought us into a vast courtyard encircled by the sprawling living quarters. There were trailing vines and chirping birds, a graceful arched verandah of large proportions stood out as an important living area, and winter or summer everyone usually sat around there. This time my father and I, accompanied by my husband and two of my uncles, entered the front yard through a little iron gate, walked across a small, shaded, dusty yard with struggling plants to a sunny verandah where Masud reclined on an iron bed, obviously enjoying the pale winter sunshine.

He seemed very frail, wrapped up in blankets, a wool hat pulled over his head, but he greeted everyone with a welcoming smile and twinkling eyes. I would have preferred to sit in the sunny verandah but Masud insisted on going inside to the visitors’ room. With some help he moved himself to another day bed and got tucked under the blankets. I was tongue-tied; my mouth was full of words that I couldn’t articulate. Fortunately there were so many people, especially my father, who had lots to talk about. We took a bunch of pictures. Masud talked sparingly, in measured sentences, like his elegant prose. He said that I looked like a woman of substance. I wanted to ask what was wrong with him, why couldn’t he sit up; didn’t he want to sit up? I wanted to tell him that his calligraphy has a pride of place in my study in Charlottesville. Instead I mentioned having read his new story “Dhulban” (Dust Garden).

Time flows back and forth in Masud’s stories — past and present, childhood and adulthood. Space assumes a life of its own; rooms, doors, arches, pillars, vines, bushes, forests, lakes and wastelands are as alive as the characters in the stories. Action as it unfolds appears choreographed, forming a part of the whole composition of the story. As I sat there looking at him I was again transposed into the world of his fiction:

“My father used to recline in a long, low, cane armchair in the visitor’s room in the front part of our house. I had been seeing him reclining on this very chair and in this very room for a long time now, but I do remember that earlier he used to reside in the inner part of the house. […] Then he started virtually living in that room.” (“BaadNuma”/ The Weathervane)

I remembered the very first time I saw Masud or rather heard him; he was singing a ghazal from Ganj-i-Sokhta, my father’s first collection of poetry. I noticed that he was tall and thin with sharply etched features and high cheek bones. I would have called him ugly if his expression was not so refined. Both the ghazal and Masud’s profound, deep-throated, low-timbered voice are impressed in my memory:

 

ghar ghar khile hain naaz se suraj

mukhi ke phul

suraj ko phir bhi ma’na-e deedar

kaun hai

pathar utha ke dard ka hira jot tor de

voh kaj kulah banka tarhdar kaun hai

(sunflowers bloom with pride

everywhere

yet the sun craves

a meaningful glance.

cap askew, he breaks the diamond

of pain

with a mere stone

who is this wanton rake?)

 

I always thought there was something magical about Masud. He could divine secrets but not divulge them. A calligrapher with an exquisite handwriting, he could paint, cook, sing, pickle mangoes — a combination of exotic talents. He talked with children as a friend. I couldn’t imagine him ruffled or angry. He seldom visited Allahabad. But I do remember the few visits at our home. Here he seemed less relaxed, a bit out of his element, always anxious to go back to Lucknow. Looking back on those times now I feel Masud straddled two worlds, the past and the present, with a seamless continuity.

The visit ended like his stories, suspended without closure.

Updated Apr 07, 2013 08:14am

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