Naiyer Masud (1936-2017): The great Urdu short story writer who cultivated artistic obscurity

Masud was a rare writer whose stark and bare Urdu prose was the expression of the trembling and stammering of language, of what was absent and unsaid.

On Monday, I learnt from a Facebook post by Rakshanda Jalil, the prominent Urdu literary critic, that Naiyer Masud (born 1936), one of the greatest Urdu short story writers, had died a few hours earlier in Lucknow. He was the author of short story collections like Itr-e-kafoor (The Essence of Camphor), Seemiya (The Occult) and Ta’oos Chaman ki Maina (The Myna of Peacock Garden) and a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi’s highest honour, the Saraswati Samman – but Masud’s death may remain largely unnoticed in the larger cycle of daily news and social media updates.

As an author who cultivated and encouraged this deliberate personal and artistic obscurity, perhaps it is just as well that outside of the Urdu press, there will be no widespread mourning online and no flattering obituaries in newspapers. For Naiyer Masud was that strange and rare creature, a writer of few words and deliberate silences.

The Kafka connection

When his short story collection Seemiya was first published in 1984, the sense of obscurity and the pregnant absence of the stories confounded the Urdu literary world. Such was the confusion generated by his stories that to get them published in Shab-Khun, a famous Urdu literary journal, Masud had to claim that they were not original creative works but actually translations. Indeed he had made his name by translating Kafka’s short stories into Urdu, published as Kafka ke Afsaney, and it is perhaps possible that the editors of the journal thought Seemiya had sufficiently carried over the Kafkaesque to merit publication.

A palimpsest is defined as a manuscript from which the writing has been scraped or wiped off, so that it could be overwritten by a new text. In some palimpsests legible traces remain of the underwritten text, while in others all that is visible is the evidence of removal and overwriting. The short stories in Seemiya, Masud’s most famous collection (translated as The Occult by Muhammad Umar Memon in 2013) all read like palimpsests, with gaps and vacuums which bear testament to absence and excision.

Masud had once said in an interview that he usually began the process of writing by jotting down a hundred pages of text, after which he would then delete whole passages until he had a finished product that was perhaps 20 pages long. What remains is thus a story where the primary effect is that the deleted and excised portions are continuously evoked by the very fact of their absence within the narrative. Any reader who tries to make sense of the narrative is bound to fail, and is left longing for the missing pieces of the puzzle.

The tale of the missing pieces

In Seemiya, we can see signs of this – stories like Snake Catcher, Resting place, The Colour of Nothingness, Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire all display huge gaps in the narrative; absences and silences that speak louder than the words on the page. This leads to various enigmas, such as, who narrates these stories? Is it the same narrator in every story? What did he want with the boy with no hands in The Occult? Why does the snake catcher die inexplicably? Who is the watching woman in Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire? None of these questions have any answers given to us by the text.

However, what haunts these stories is the pregnant absence that is ever present. Masud’s concern was not solely literary but also in a way, ontological, evoking the mysteriousness not of chaos but of order and symmetry. As Muhammad Umar Memon said, “A mirror-image of the real world in its outer form, at a deeper, more emblematic level it sought to subvert that image. And even though each element in it appeared palpably real, oddly, the aggregate didn’t add up to anything known.” It is this concern with the strangeness of the real that Masud gave words to in his short stories.

In this respect he was an anomaly, not just in the realm of Urdu literature but also in the larger field of Indian writers. His stories did contain references to social and political problems, such as the loss of the traditional livelihood of the tribal people as the jungles around them are encroached upon in Maar-geer (Snake Catcher) and the riots that affected Lucknow in Ganjefa:

“I began to feel bad about my life the night of the riots. On my way home from the cemetery that night, I was stopped several times and interrogated. Well, not quite interrogated, I was asked just three questions: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘What do you do?’ I answered the first two right away but invariably faltered at the third. While I would be thinking of an appropriate answer they would let me go with a stern order to return home immediately. Then they would stop some other passerby and subject him to the same questions. During this exercise a couple of people even got beaten up.”

Yet, unlike writers in Urdu or other languages who sought to attain some level of social or political relevance, whether it be through a Leftist critique of society or the celebration of postcolonial angst, Masud never believed that literature needed to address social issues first and foremost. For him the greatest problem in literature was the shimmering elusiveness of reality, its very order and symmetry contributing to the melancholic concealment of the great mystery of existence.

Secrets of reality

His writing is suffused by this philosophical strain of an intense yet forgetful melancholy, invoking a world where fiction is not a representation of reality but rather its intimate secret, nothingness being the lie around which all of existence is structured. To give words to this silence of nothingness is perhaps the most difficult task of any literature, yet Masud was one of the rare writers whose cultivated stark and bare Urdu prose was simultaneously the expression of the trembling and stammering of language.

It is generally assumed that philosophy is a discipline which teaches one to live one’s life. Perhaps the disciples of Socrates believed this as well, and must have been profoundly shocked when he told them, imprisoned by the Athenian Senate and condemned to death, that to philosophise was to learn how to die. In a similar way, Masud’s work encouraged the inversion of the conventional role of the writer.

For Masud, to write was to learn to remain silent. Is it even possible, in today’s world, where every writer must sell himself even more than his book, to understand Masud’s literary task? It is thus profoundly strange, yet somehow apt, that Masud’s life (and death) will always remain the perfect mirror to his literary devotion to the absent, the obscure, and the unsaid.

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