A surreal read

A surreal read

Collected Stories
Naiyer Masud
Penguin
2015, pp 696, Rs 899

Naiyer Masud’s Collected Stories brings together the mysticism and surrealism latent in simple narration, which has made him acknowledged as among the finest and foremost modern short story writers of South Asia.

The latest anthology of Masud’s five collections of stories is quite a well of mysterious surprises. The translations from Urdu by his interpreter, Muhammed Umar Memon, seem rich, yet they are half-veiled and half-revealed for the curious reader, who struggles to get a handle on the whys and wherefores of every tale. Most of them seem fantasies, but they are woven through tenuous threads.

The translation into English is by another author who avowedly confesses that most of the stories are unfamiliar and baffling even for him. He confesses in his acknowledgement: “I didn’t know just what to make of them — these fragments of consciousness — and neither could I leave them be; or rather, they followed me like a shadow, insubstantial, yes, but suggestive in their fractured imagery of some presence somewhere in the beyond that cast it.”

Thus, the reader faces a bit of a problem. She is exposed to two streams in every story — the Urdu writer, Masud, and the English translator, Memon. While the lack of access to the original seems to be a loss for the reader who is not familiar with Urdu, the translator’s avowed acknowledgement, after having started reading Masud in the 1980s, makes it clear that the stories are twice removed.

The titles of the stories are as mystical as the narration: ‘Seemiya’ (The Occult), ‘Essence of Camphor’, ‘The Myna From Peacock Garden’ and ‘Ganjefa’, ‘Dustland’, ‘Whirlwind’ and ‘The Aster’.

The stories are brief anecdotes that branch into many disconnected sub-plots. In ‘Essence of Camphor’, a parfumier blends memory with desire to recollect an older girl who influenced him. ‘Snake Catcher’ explores the world of a forest in which a person may become a victim of a snake, but it also studies the coming of age of a boy. ‘Obscure domains of Fear and Desire’ traces the occult as well as realistic worlds underlying relationships.

Yet, though the stories have a mesmerising sensibility, they are Kafkaesque and do not remain in the mind for their story, plot or even theme. They do not seem to be a reflection of reality, or social, political or economic enigmas. But what stands out is the ambience, which takes the reader to the world of Kafka, Murakami, or Borges. Finishing the tale may not really lead to any memorable experiences lingering in consciousness. Yet, the work clings like a strong, pungent odour, with deep meanings.

Every story is a metaphor for an inner self that is restless and seeking within. They seem to personify the internal puzzles of humans, living out mundane lives even as they seek something else that they cannot put a finger on. Yet, the reader understands that the stories are dislocated, all about discarded shreds of history and time. There are strange tales that start and end with the eternal ‘why’ — why are we here, and why should we do this, and why the why, anyway.

Collected Stories is thus an anthology of dark dungeons of the mind as well as the soul, teetering on the edge of reality and magic. It seems to be about a world in which there are many parallel universes, each living out its own journey, yet clashing and separating.
The enigmas are strong, and though most of the tales are set in Lucknow, they do not seem to reflect a realistic setting, or even a fictitious one. They are mostly fantasies and imagined realities. The environment that the author creates is fascinating, but the mystery lies in the amazing blend of the real and mystical, sensual and abstract.

The original prose is described as bare and shorn of even the richness of Urdu. Memon says: “It is Urdu all right, but an Urdu so utterly ascetic that it seems determined to go against the prevalent taste and expectation… Rarely has Urdu seen a writer more jealously protective of his verbal choices…”

The translated prose too is straightforward, but the narration is jolting. “I was sleeping a long time, perhaps for several days. During that time, whenever my eyes opened, I felt the discomfort of lying on the bare floor, but I didn’t move from where I was...”

The language obviously does not reflect the elegance or rhythm of Urdu, but on its own, it remains mostly neutral, moving seamlessly from one incident to another in just about two-three paragraphs, without seeming to do so.

You can go through the book with care. Not at one shot, but chapter by slow chapter, and after an interval for every tale. If you are ready for the transport into a fourth dimension of reality, then this book is for you.

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