In Memoriam: Naiyer Masud (1936 - 2017)
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
The Urdu scholar and short story writer Naiyer Masud, passed away today. I found in my archives this piece that I had written in 1998. I remain as moved by his writing today as I was then. Rest in peace, Naiyer Masud. May the world be blessed with more writers like you.
I have been reading off and on, for months now (testing the bounds of friendship by hanging on to a borrowed book for ages, I might add!), an absolute jewel of a book. It is the 1997 issue of the Annual of Urdu Studies, which is dedicated to the short stories of Naiyer Masud, a scholar of Persian and Urdu and professor of Persian at Lucknow University. The stories have been translated into English by various luminaries, including Moazzam Sheikh (who won a Katha award for "Sheesha Ghat"). Many of the stories have been translated by the editor of the series, Prof. Muhammad Umar Memon of the Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison.
I've been completely overwhelmed by the beauty of these stories, and have been moved enough to write to you all to register my deep admiration for a writer who I'm becoming convinced is one of the best kept secrets of world literature.
The careful, eloquent expression/articulation of Naiyer Masud's imagination has created work of the highest caliber--to me this is writing that stands at the pinnacle of achievement. I don't mean to suggest that he is conducting a romance with language; on the contrary, through his considered use of it, it emerges as something sacred.
The stories I've read thus far all involve stories of childhood recounted by adults, preserving the sensuous and other significant details that a child's eye perceives. Yet, these are not simply tales of childhood. They are minute observations of the music of humanity, and not just the still, sad variety, but the vibrant, the beautiful, the unspoken, the indescribable.
There is an aura of mystery, subtle and elusive, in these stories
In "The Essence of Camphor" (translated by Moazzam-bhai with Elizabeth Bell), a perfume-maker muses on his craft and its elusive nature before recounting a story from his boyhood, as delicate as the perfumes he now distils, about a girl he came to befriend.
If the first few paragraphs were shorter, I would have gladly transcribed them, but I fear you will tire of reading miles of text in this post and worse, might be tempted to e-mail me the Starr report in revenge...
It struck me that the decryptions of the perfume maker creating perfumes of which no one can entirely comprehend the essence and which no one can imitate can be used to describe the author himself. These are extraordinary stories about ordinary themes--they are quiet, perceptive and insightful, yet subtle and elusive.
There's a fascinating piece in the same volume, "A Conversation with Naiyer Masud" by Asif Farrukhi (Pakistani short story writer) in which Masud discusses his craft. expresses many thoughts about his craft.I was fascinated to read that Masud actually writes much, more more than makes its way into the final version of the story. He then deliberately shears it down to leave the crux of the story and inevitably, because of this technique, creates an atmosphere of elusiveness, a sense of much more going on that we have actually been told. Marvellous, I thought!
These are stories that are not placed in any specific location, or at any specific time. In fact, stripped of such specifics, they seem to me even more timeless and immortal. However, one story that I found so mysterious and shorn of specific details that I'll have to re-read it to understand it (though it was completely mesmerizing in its descriptions) is "Lamentation" translated (as were several other stories) by Muhammad Umar Memon, professor at Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison where this series is published. If any of you have any insights on allusions that aren't obvious to non-Urdu-scholars, I'd be grateful.
If you are among the souls that find Rushdie hard to read, I wouldn't recommend these stories to you--they aren't light reading. I've had to put the book down after each story because each drew my complete participation, intellectual and emotional, and left me quite overwhelmed at the end. Many times, I've turned to the beginning of the book and looked at the full-page photograph of Naiyer Masud, and have been moved that the lines in his face have deepened over the years that he has spent observing life so minutely, offering us his perceptions couched in expressions so refined and delicate.
Every story I've read so far is simple and unpretentious, yet, priceless and sublime. I sense a rareness in Naiyer Masud's writing, and hope that all his stories eventually get translated. His is a style I've never encountered before, but I do feel that this is writing of the highest caliber.
It has been my privilege to read these stories, and I hope some of you will have the opportunity to read them and will feel as blessed by them as I have.
There are always gremlins on websites. Some stole the comments that some of you had posted, from every page. Luckily, I had copies, and I have pasted those images back here. I love hearing from you. Please use the Comments box to share your thoughts as Disqus is no longer supported. I will try keep the gremlins at bay.