A sublime address

Lead review

A sublime address

Naiyer Masud’s stories in ‘The Occult’ are deceptively simple in narration, yet sublimely wired in knots, plunging from one remove of human mind to another, writes Prasenjit Chowdhury

Naiyer Masud’s collection of five interwoven stories reads like an intricate interweft of a trellis of interlacing streams, deceptively simple in narration, yet subliminally wired in knots, plunging from one remove of the human mind to another. Masud casts a hypnotic spell on his readers, by addling their brains with a sweet poison so much that nary a reader, lost in a maze, wants to come out of it.

Therefore, his stories come off as fragments of consciousness and dreams, with streams and rivulets of them, overlapping, coalescing and sometimes subsuming one another, creating an effect of circularity that is bafflingly abstract — yet mimetic — that might help you in picking a bit of Kafka, Poe, Sartre or Dostoevsky here or a bit of Picasso and Munch there.

Amit Chaudhuri called Masud — a scholar of Persian and Urdu as well, besides being a writer — “a passionate but calm realist of the strange” — and went so far as to describe Masud as “probably the most extraordinary fictional voice to have emerged in world literature this decade”, including Masud in his edited volume, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, alongside two other Urdu writers as great as Manto and Qurratulain Hyder.

Masud’s story ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’ has the uncanny feeling of a homestead as a site of desire and longing where “fear was desire and desire, fear”, which even in a state of abandonment and dereliction, does not cease to be inhabited by human feeling. Somebody always watches over, usually a female, peeking into what could lead to an act of sexual union: “all night long I was assaulted in turn by remorse, the allure of her physical charms and the longing to meet her alone again.” The relationship with the first-person narrator with his slightly older aunt, and the hint of incest lead to many metaphors of our unfulfilled wishes and fantasies that are writ large on a house even if it is in ruins: “I was sure that the speed of Time within these houses was not the same as it was on the outside”.

“Ghar hamare andar hain” (The house is inside me), Masud once said. Be it a site of desire and longing, or of healing and mortality (his story ‘Resting Place’), or of dereliction and decay, a house, to Masud, is a central metaphor of the landscape of the human mind. Scrutinising old structures like the house assessor, Masud allows us to divine that it is inside the four walls of a home where sexual unions take place, civilisations are born and where desires lie buried.

The story ‘The Woman in Black’ (or ‘Nusrat’, written as his first published short story in 1971), based on a girl he knew in his childhood, who died on her way to someone’s wedding, is the outcome of a dream. The end of the story takes us to the narrator shutting himself up in his old house to watch Nusrat sitting under a tree with dried yellow leaves covering her face, and her cleft feet — run over by a vehicle — laid bare: “As the door was about to close, I peered through the slit that remained to see whether Nusrat was still sitting there as before. She was. I shut the door and was never able to open it again.” Petrarch saw his beloved Laura, in a dream, on the day she died, after which he wrote his beautiful poem, ‘The Triumph of Death’. Masud’s prose, in the able hands of his translator Muhammad Umar Memon, reads like sheer poetry. 

Reading Masud’s masterpiece ‘Snake Catcher’, one is reminded of a creation story told by the Desana of the Colombian Amazon, in which humans arrived on earth in a great Snake-Canoe, the anaconda, who also acts as a watchdog for Vaí-mahsë, the Master of all the Animals. Shamanic success, be it in healing the sick, hunting an animal, or renewal of the world, can depend on the ability of shamans to travel the landscape of the primordial era (in Masud’s story a ‘hamlet’ in a jungle infested by snakes) and renew their kinship with the Animal People, dissolving temporal and spatial boundaries.

In Masud’s bewitching tale ‘Seemiya’ (The Occult), actually a collection of five intertextured stories, the psychological landscapes play out at their symbolic best, moving around the strange and the sublime, with a run-down palace that lies at the brink of a swallowing river that enacts how a maiden was drowned in it and was put on the symbolic grave within the precincts.

The haunting tale reaffirms the significance and relationship animals have with humans, set forth during the primordial time of creation, as witnessed in the actions and deeds of such mythic animal beings as coyote, salmon, raven, or spider, and as discovered and celebrated in the retelling of the oral traditions. The black crow, the black dog and the black cat relate how as the colour of night and darkness, as the colour of the bowels of the earth and the underground world, black is also the colour of death.

Thus, if one is going to root for social realism in Masud, the past master of which is Manto, one would be disappointed. His writings, starkly spare and minimalist like the writings of Italo Calvino or Joyce Carol Oates, have none of the ‘florid’ heaviness so typically associated with Persianised Urdu literary traditions. “Someone once told me that one should either write well or write differently. I don’t know about writing well, but I write differently,” Masud once said of himself. We suspect that he is a ‘different’ writer who writes exceptionally well. 

The Occult
Naiyer Masud, translated by Muhammed Umar Memon 
Penguin2013, pp 240
399

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