The absent of the absent: what we see is merest seeming
It is the dream into which we awaken from dreaming.
— GhalibNaiyer Masud is both a scholar of Persian and Urdu and a short story writer. So far he has published four collections of stories (Seemiya, ‘Itr-e Kafur, Ta’us Chaman ki Mayna and Ganjefa) comprising a total of 33 stories, plus a few more in sundry literary magazines since his last collection. Two selections of his stories in English translation have appeared in the US, Essence of Camphor (The New Press, 1999) and Snake Catcher (Interlink, 2006; Penguin 2006). The former was later translated into Finnish, French, and Spanish. Penguin, as The Occult: A Novel in Five Stories, will publish an English translation of his first collection, Seemiya, in 2013. In 2007, Masud received the Saraswati Samman, India’s highest literary award.
My encounter with his fiction dates from the late 1980s. I was seduced, dazed, stunned, disoriented, discombobulated. I had the eerie sensation of walking in a maze with no possibility of ever getting out. A dizzying circularity, a curling back upon oneself over and over again — which is another way of saying that if his stories were meant to have meaning, I plainly did not get it. Twenty-five years later, I still have not found my way out of this maze. What sustains me in my unflinching but eventually frustrating pursuit is the reassuring feeling that I am not the lone traveller of this maze.
When I sent the Essence of Camphor collection to The New Press, there was no acknowledgment of the manuscript for a whole year. Then suddenly, one afternoon, the editor called. He was ecstatic. After he published the book, it received good comments in Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, and numerous other US newspapers and magazines. Sara Suleri was so enthralled by the stories that she wrote a most wonderful review of the book in which she said, “The startling grace of Essence of Camphor emanates both from the writer’s ability to give a form and a voice to rare cultural details and to the elegant originality of his prose […] each of these seven masterful stories is quickened with an irony as compassionate as it is delicate.” She had her students read the book; one was so taken that he wrote a lengthy paper on Masud for her class. Amit Chaudhuri called Masud “a passionate but calm realist of the strange” and went on to say, “His is probably the most extraordinary fictional voice to have emerged in world literature this decade.” Later, he included Masud’s “Sheesha Ghat” in his edited volume The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, which includes only two other Urdu writers besides Masud: Manto and Qurratulain Hyder. And my friend the late Agha Shahid Ali said that “Even shorn of its immense humanity, Masud’s lyricism would dazzle, for he is, without doubt, a poet’s storyteller — Essence of Camphor intoxicates reason.” The second volume of Penguin’s The Fiction Collection begins with Naiyer Masud’s short story “The Epistle”.
My colleagues — Venkat Mani in the German department at the University of Wisconsin and Charles Hallisey, a Buddhologist — were so impressed by Masud that after reading him at my behest, the former wrote an article on him and the latter introduced Masud to his students and even to his other colleagues in different universities. I only later discovered, entirely by chance, that he had formed something resembling a Masud fan club. Two University of Wisconsin students, Robert Phillips and Jane Shum, wrote their MA theses on Masud.
More recently, Rohan Kamicheril, editor of Words Without Borders, a web-based magazine of world literature, liked Masud’s work immensely and published two of his stories, “Destitutes Compound” and “Dustland.” And just this year, R. Sivapriya, an editor at Penguin, wrote, “There is nothing like Seemiya that I have read before, ever. It is haunting, beautiful and puzzling. I can’t recall having encountered this combination of the sensual and the abstract.”
To this may be added those several individuals who have contacted me for the rights to translate Masud’s stories into other Indian languages after reading the English translations of his works. Some were so fascinated that they even wanted to visit him. Although ailing and more or less confined to his home, he did graciously consent to receive some of his unknown admirers, including a couple that came all the way from Nepal. His French translator, on a trip to India, especially went to see him in Lucknow, as did his Spanish translator.
This lengthy inventory of his well-deserved acclaim is not given here to underscore his status as a world-class writer, but only to record the puzzle he has remained to even those who are impressed by his work but are hardly able to put their finger on what it is, precisely, about his fiction that so fascinates them. I’ll try to articulate, if I can, some of my own disjointed thoughts which have occurred to me in the course of my protracted intimacy with his writing.
Masud’s fictional world has remained tenaciously elusive for me. It seems to pull the reader straight into the centre of a vortex — at once seductive and inaccessible. Even while failing to understand his stories, one is unable to be rid of their haunting quality. Somehow they become part of the reader, but a part that needs to be discovered, patiently, more through feeling and introspection than by reason. The moment reason is engaged, what it sees is a formidable scrambling of logical coordinates, always leading back to the same labyrinth, never reconstituting into a discernible picture.
Reading Masud evokes the sensation of being thrown headlong into a self-referential circularity. Entirely underivative and unlike anything that preceded these stories in the history of Urdu fiction, they stand out in a class by themselves. Here one encounters order, neatness and decorum, qualities that dispel any notion of “unreality.” It is like walking into a well-maintained living room, but no one greets you. You wait for hours, but no one appears. And you cannot leave because you vaguely feel a presence that you cannot see or name.
Masud’s fictional world demands respect, an admission of its unique ontological orientation, but gives no clue as to its existentialist identity or purpose. While a mirror image of the real world in its outer form, at a deeper, more emblematic level it seeks to subvert that image. And even though each element in it appears palpably real, oddly, the aggregate does not add up to anything known.
The shimmeringly elusive quality of the stories may derive from a number of factors, not the least of which is the terse and highly-clipped Urdu prose of the writer which shuns even the slightest trace of overblown rhetoric, so stark in its suppression of qualifiers that it unsettles the mind. No or few idioms, no verbal pyrotechnics of any kind. It is Urdu all right, but so utterly simple that it seems determined to go against the prevalent taste and expectation. And yet behind the disarming ease and simplicity of its surface it hides a very conscious and meticulous craft. It is attenuated yet overlain with invisible density and is evocative of absence. This economy, this hermetic avoidance of even an occasional exaggeration or embellishment, lends an element of unfamiliarity, if not of unreality. Words are selected with extreme care, not for their meanings but for their predisposition to evoke a silence and stillness in which the elusive begins to reveal itself, but only in the form of a montage of inter-penetrating images hazily defined. Rarely has Urdu seen a writer more jealously protective of his verbal choices. There is absolutely nothing arbitrary or rushed about them. His translators know of his insistence on keeping the same word, often even the same word order of the different verbal elements as they appear in a sentence, and his objection to the use of the slightest emphasis, even when such emphasis might be creatively exploited in the translation.
Another factor may be Masud’s use of certain elements identified with the architecture of spatial narratives. For instance, key words deployed at varying intervals horizontally across a fictional space. These words seek to carry the meaning — or whatever its equivalent may be in Masud’s stories, perhaps a vague but overwhelming impression of some unnamable feeling — incrementally forward, often even modifying the meaning in unexpected ways, keeping it always in a state of flux, always evolving, always retrieved, piece by piece, across expansive fictional spaces. Often they are woven so seamlessly into the narrative structure that one misses them altogether.
Another device used in his first collection, Seemiya, is the recurrence of certain images that are retrieved, in part, across several stories through a staggered time sequence. “Seemiya,” writes Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman, “is a collection of five intertextured stories. Read individually, each story seems perfectly self-contained and autonomous. They share, however, a certain opaqueness. Read together they convey the impression of an organic whole, as if deep down there were a prolific intermingling of roots. At the same time their latent mystery, instead of moving toward a resolution, merely deepens. […] Its components can be analysed and meanings tagged to them, but seen as a whole they defy any consensus of interpretation.” (“Once Below a Time: A Short Essay on Seemiya,” in The Annual of Urdu Studies, No 12 (1997), p 290.)
The tendency of the human mind is to subdue (fathom, sort out, catalogue, close) and move on. But Masud’s narratives work against this tendency, against completion and closure. The reader experiences things in dynamic motion, not as objects with fixed perimeters in a state of repose or quiescence, so there is no way to be done with them and move on. Circularity has no terminus. Finishing one of his stories does not bring the reader to the expected tying up of threads and closure. What it does bring is a continuing engagement with the unspoken and the ineffable, lodged in the deepest recesses of primitive but historical memory.
The tendency away from closure might itself stem from the denial, at the level of observation and experience, of the division of time into past, present and future. It is as if all time is an eternity that is necessarily present. Experience, which can only be a single indivisible entity, is continuous; indeed it is coeval with consciousness. Ultimately, the two may be the same thing. The matter may be less abstruse from the Sufi metaphysical perspective where Reality = Being reduces temporality to pure nonexistence except in relation to the created/phenomenal world — devoid of reality in and of itself.
But as stories, Masud’s work falls squarely within the limits of the created world. And it is here that the suspension of the defining temporal conventions creates the dizzying sensation of disjuncture. At the same time, it jars the reader into the recognition that behind the apparent multiplicity of his work lies a single concern: the experience of being. Therefore no limits or order producing perimeters are possible. Each story is a variation on a single theme. Just as the present is an imaginary point along a continuum where consciousness may choose to place it, a story is a discrete embodiment only insofar as consciousness chooses to see it as such. In essence, it has no beginning and, therefore, no end.
In the process of working closely with Masud’s fictional universe, I am nowhere closer to its ‘meaning’ today than a quarter of a century ago when I first started. But, increasingly, I feel that to insist on some palpable meaning, or even a shard of meaning, in reflexive fiction such as Masud’s is to put the wrong foot forward. ‘Meaning’ inevitably has to do with the domain of logic, discursive reason, praxis, and, strangely, with ego. It is inherently suggestive of a split, a dichotomy, a state of divorce and rupture, whence its inability to deal with reality except piecemeal. Our generic expectations from the short story proceed from the basic premise that objects have meaning, rather than that they are beings. These expectations are not likely to be met in a perusal of Masud’s short stories. These stories are preoccupied instead with being. To be, and not so much to mean. The maze is entered for its own sake, or to be at one with it, and not to subdue or to get somewhere.
Keeping in mind the prevailing culture where Masud has grown up, his predilection to preface his work with quotations from poetry, often with mystical overtones, predisposes me to think that the subject matter of his stories (if one could be rash enough to use the phrase ‘subject matter’) is less accessible if approached from the domain of reason. His subject matter is not something to simply be understood and perhaps categorised, yet one can begin to get some intimation of it experientially, in something like a visionary flash, in the realm of transcendental reflection. If the stories do not begin at a discrete logical point, if they do not close at the end of the day, if they fail to reach resolution and appear to be open-ended, it is precisely because they do not deal with reality as something divisible or linear. Perhaps their sole purpose is to induce a silence in which the calmed self might begin to experience Being.
Having said this it seems, nevertheless, that one particular aspect of the ‘experience of being’ stands out in the stories of Seemiya and ‘Itr-e Kafur: the effect of Time on that experience. Time brings with it separation, loss, disintegration and decay, at every level of experience — both within the individual and between individuals, within the community and between communities, and so on. Our experience of Time’s effect is unconscious until one day, having grown old, we realise that we and the society around us have become its victims. The young, meanwhile, remain oblivious. Surprisingly, the expression of this separation and loss remains entirely free of any subjectivity or elegiac emotion in Masud’s fiction.
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.