The Occult by Naiyer Masud, tr. Muhammad Umar Memon. Penguin, 2013, Pp 240, Rs 399.
Between fear and fervent desire
Is a crack in the wooden door
The voyeur watches with cold fire
Only to augment dark desire
A little more.
In all the stories in Naiyer Masud’s collection of short stories, The Occult, there is a hunter, a hunted and the voyeur. The voyeur could be the narrator, who could transfer his role to the reader; or the voyeur could be a character, who could become the subject of gaze a little later. In short, the three roles are interlocked, mesmerized, afraid and desirous of each other.
It’s difficult to pin down Masud’s stories, as this vain attempt shall be too. He’s been called the Kafka of Lucknow, it’s been said that he is Borgesian or Marquezian, but each of these descriptions falls short of his art. For Masud is novel and pathbreaking; he knows his traditions – Kafkaesque, Urdu Dastangoi, Arabian Nights – and yet he transcends them all. It’s a pity that Masud got fame only as a septuagenarian, and has been translated widely only in the last ten years. Even now, you can read him in English translated largely by Muhammad UmarMenon, but not in Urdu, and not even in Lucknow, where he has spent a lifetime. The range and accuracy of Masud’s descriptions betray the fact that he has never left Lucknow. The ‘adab’ of Lucknow is lost in Memon’s translation, though he doescapture the soul of each story deftly.
All the five stories in this collection have a nameless first person narrator – who on a couple of times is revisiting his youth – and nameless characters except one: Nusrat. She appears in the story, ‘The Woman in Black.’ All stories in the collection are intriguing, but this one is particularly so. The prejudice may come from the fact that this is the only story with a name to a person. Nusrat wears only white, and has beautiful feet, which have been crushed by a car. The narrator is frantically caught between two stories – one of the outer room where the ‘bad woman’ in black clothes is being tried by the elders, and the courtyard where an old hakim is trying to cure Nusrat. In a flash, in the next scene, all the jury members and all the family members are dead, and the narrator is left to roam the house of nothingness. Nusrat comes back, her feet perfect, without a scar. Here is a sample from this moment that gives an idea of Masud’s esoteric mystical intensity that operates on dense metaphors:
“After a few days,” I began, “you won’t even remember the terrible pain you had to endure. The scars would have been a reminder.”
“But I shall.”
“That’s what everyone imagines in the beginning. Without scars, though, one couldn’t remember – neither the pain, nor even the old surgeon.” (p.54)
Nusrat leaves with a scar, and returns in black clothes, her feet crushed again. The tale leaves the voyeur – the reader – stunned and haunted at the end. The thick metaphors about pain, memory and circularity operate through easy narration, and uneasy feeling in the reader.
The story, “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire” begins almost as a raunchy tale of illicit love between a young man and his distant aunt, but turns dark as soon as one gets complacent with that thought. The aunt leaves, the man leaves to wander as a building inspector, and realizes that every house has a spot of fear, and one of desire. Masud maps the hidden rooms of Lucknow’s lavish dilapidated houses in such detail and with such quivering that it leaves one astounded. The sexual desires of a conservative, contained society spring forth with all passion and consummate darkness in this story. The narrator ends up making out with the voyeur, without being able to see her. That life and memory operate through such metaphors, and that representation flattens it out of fear, is something very visibly seen in the narration of Masud. “The Resting Place” is another intriguing tale about a man who comes and stays in a corner of house – the owner wants him along with his curios – but unfortunately he is alive to be with them. “The Snake Catcher” is just a story about snakes, their victims, the snake catcher and his apprentice, the narrator. It seems to be about nothing more than this and yet when one reads it, one is caught in the predator-prey-voyeur lock. The title story “The Occult” has no real occult in it, but people’s perception that protagonist is an occultist. It’s a long drawn story with such brooding and dark imagery, and complex metaphors that one is left wondering for a long time after reading it.
This barely captures what Naiyer Masud’s artistry with memory and words is. Like his standard narrator, Masud is slowing down in his eighties, and his memories are daring to disturb the universe