I learnt about Naiyer Masud several years ago when a friend suggested that without getting acquainted with his fiction, my Urdu readings (I, of course, read only translations) would remain incomplete. His first Urdu story I found online was Ganzifa (A Game of Cards ). Since I could not decipher the script, I went to Maulana Mashqoor Hasan, the father of another friend who worked in a neighbouring electric shop. I handed over a printout of the story to Hasan chacha and asked him to read it out to me. As the old man adjusted his glasses and began reading, little did I know that it would mark the beginning of my glorious bond with Masud, the storyteller. As chacha read out loud, I jotted down what he said. Within a week, Ganzifa was translated into Hindi. I was now eager to read Masud’s other works but could not locate anything online. With some hesitation, I called the writer and he suggested that the place to find his Urdu books in Lucknow. I then asked my writer friend Chandan Pandey to fetch the story collection, Ganzifa, from Lucknow during his next visit.
Meanwhile, Hasan chacha fell off a bicycle and injured his back, making it impossible for him to read to me. I then approached Nazar Abbas, who lived in a neighbouring Iranian colony and taught local kids Urdu. With his help, I translated four other stories. As my tryst with Masud was going on, my nephew began learning the language. I instructed him to read Masud sahab’s stories along with his curriculum. He, with the help of his Ustaad, Nasir Khan, helped to translate four more stories. Thus, the first story collection of Masud in Hindi was accomplished. As the book is now in the press, I have nothing to alleviate my sorrow that it will never be presented to its author.
Death arrives in his work quietly. The readers feel the loss only a little later, after the crashing waves have retreated into the deep seas. Major phases of time pass with a slow magic. In the story Miskeenon Ka Ahata, the protagonist, annoyed with his family, retires to a courtyard and takes up the job of making cardboard boxes. He realises after 16 years that he once had a life beyond the courtyard. The story Allam and Son weaves memory and forgetting in a time span in which moments get frozen in a glass house. Masud’s stories record the details of a decaying culture with dignity.
His home is named, quite aptly, Adabistan (house of literature). A quintessential representative of Awadh culture, he was born in Lucknow, taught in the city and lived there till his death. Before he came to be known for his storytelling, he had already earned repute as a Persian and Arabic scholar. He is perhaps the only writer to have translated Franz Kafka into Urdu.
I realise the audacity of commenting on his works — spread across thousands of reams — on the basis of just around 10 short stories, but I could not but notice the melancholic eye with which one of the greatest story-tellers of our time witnesses and records this gradually crumbling civilisation. Badenuma displays this sentiment with clarity. An instrument, with the composite shape of a bird and a fish, placed on the terrace records the direction of the wind. Eventually, it rusts, stops functioning. The owner of the home, once an eminent personality, has also been sidelined with time. The instrument is later brought down, and kept in a corner, neglected. The owner also dies.
Masud’s stories retain a magical touch, combining dreams, mysteries and sub-plots. Yet, he does not treat magic as a tool, an easy technique for his fiction; he merely lends a few strokes at instances that elevates the narrative to a different plane. His dreams become so entwined with reality that an illusion remains about their separate existence. Was it, or was it not? He takes you to a Maya Lok, a mysterious cosmos, that as you reach the end of his tales, your bond with your surroundings is transformed. Masud has borrowed the epithet Ganzifa from a book Khatut-e-Mushahir that talks about this game of cards. “Was it all a game of cards” is the question we are left behind with now.
(Translated from Hindi by Ashutosh Bhardwaj)