Our car comes to a halt a few metres from a main crossing in Turiaganj, also known as Victoriaganj. At first we cannot locate the house, so we climb up a few flights of stairs to a row of shops. There, a shopkeeper points straight ahead and, opposite us, behind shops packed together like a deck of cards, a haveli rises. From afar, it almost seems like a child’s sandcastle, with none of the frills commonly associated with havelis of North India. Instead, it seems to have been inspired by gothic architecture, two towers on either side of the conical façade rising up. Crescent-shaped swirls like half-drawn flowers are engraved on their arches, and perpendicular pillars are topped with football-shaped concrete blocks. A plaque above the arch of the left tower reads ‘Adabistan’ – the abode of literature. As we enter, the haveli greets us with LIVE AND LET LIVE carved along the roof’s boundary wall.
Naiyer Masud’s childhood was spent in the rooms and passageways of Adabistan. ‘Ghar ke bahar nahin likh pate hain,’ he says (I am not able to write outside the house). But once in Adabistan it does not matter which corner he is in – the stories come to him. As a child Masud would tell his mother he was affected by jinns and she, fearing for her child, would say, ‘Ya to fakir ban jaoege ya pagal ban jaoge’ (Either you will become a fakir or a madman).
Unlike Masud, his mother loved to travel. Once, he recalls, she decided on a whim to go to Kanpur, where she was born, without a train ticket. She also loved to eat while travelling, and would pack a tiffin and begin eating as soon as the train left the station. ‘Ajeeb aurat thee, bahut bholee bhi thee aur hoshiyaar bhi. Aadmi ko pechaan ne mein mahir’ (She was a strange woman, extremely innocent yet fully aware of the goings on. She was an expert in judging a person’s character). She died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969. Masud was 34 years old at the time and in the process of writing ‘Nusrat’, which would become his first published short story. ‘Amma ke marne ke baad thoda ham sab bhi mar gaye’ (After mother’s death, a part of all of us also died), he says. He wanted to write about her after she died, but was unable to do so – she was ‘ideal’, he says, and unless someone has some faults there is nothing to write about.
‘Kisi ne mujhse kahan tha, ya to achcha likho ya alag sa likho. Achhe ka to pataa nahin lekin main alag sa likhta hoon,’ says Masud. (Someone once told me that one should either write well or write differently. I don’t know about writing well, but I write differently.) Well-known in literary circles in India and Pakistan, Masud was awarded the Sahitya Akademi prize for his Urdu short story collection Taoos Chaman ki Maina (The Myna from the Peacock Garden) in 2001. Masud’s writing neither adheres to social realism nor does it employ florid and Persianised Urdu – both styles being the convention in Urdu literature. Rather, he writes in the vernacular and yet the world he creates is ‘opaque’ to borrow Muhammad Umar Memon’s term from his introduction to Snake-catcher, a 2006 collection of Masud’s short stories that the former translated. Memon points out that this world operates by its own logic but nevertheless ‘demand[s] respect’; it is real and yet it does not ‘add up to anything known’.
Searching for inspiration
Travelling notwithstanding, Masud and his mother had much in common, starting with their fascination for houses. She used to say that if you wanted to buy a house, you should first see it in the morning and then at night. At night, it would appear quite different, ‘like a house of horrors’. She believed that her house, the one before Adabistan, was haunted because Masud’s elder sister would get fits; she urged her husband to shift the family elsewhere.
She was also interested in curios that she collected during her travels – miniature camels and horses. Perhaps she was the reason that houses, especially old havelis, and curios held such a charm for young Masud, and find mention in his short stories. ‘Gharon se, makano se, makano ke alag alag portions se bahut dilchaspi hain’ (Houses and their different portions fascinate me), he says. ‘Unme kuch asar hota tha’ (There used to be some otherworldly presence in them), ‘a lifelike quality,’ he adds. For instance, in the short story ‘Ojjhal’ (translated by Memon as ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’), the narrator is a house assessor and, naturally, spends the better part of his time scrutinising old structures. Masud writes, ‘One day, as I was standing in front of a house, something about its closed front door gave me the impression that it had covered its face, either out of fear or to shield itself from something, or perhaps out of a sense of shame.’
At the time that Masud’s father, Syed Masud Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, bought Adabistan, it was a one-storey building. In 1933 his father’s friend Agha Amir Husain (whom Masud describes as a ‘talented’ engineer and painter, although never formally trained in either) designed and added two more storeys and adorned these with ample cutwork. Naiyer Masud was born there on 16 November 1936.
In his early youth, when he was still trying his hand at writing, he reluctantly gave one of his father’s friends a short story to read. It mentioned how one could cook ande ka halwa, and his father’s friend suggested that Masud give the full recipe, rather than an incomplete one: ‘To ye bhi kaam ho jayega.’ (So that the reader would learn how to cook ande ka halwa along with reading his short story.) The feeling of incompleteness pervades all of Masud’s stories and is deliberate. There is neither a resolution nor a definitive end; things go out of focus and people disappear. What is left behind of the world he creates is an imprint, as if one has known it, perhaps in a dream. During an interview with Sagaree Sengupta in 1996, Masud said that when he first started writing short stories he would scrutinise them intensely and ‘they never seemed good enough … I’d throw them away instead. There was a great number of those – they weren’t all completed stories.’ Even now, writing is a slow and difficult process, sometimes it takes him six months to write a single line. The short story ‘Essence of Camphor’, Masud’s favourite, took him a year to write.
‘Inspiration mushkil se milta hain,’ he says. (It is difficult for me to find inspiration.) Some writers that do inspire him are Franz Kafka, Emily Bronte and Edgar Allan Poe, in addition to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jean Paul Sartre. He has translated twenty of Kafka’s short stories; his first publication, in 1978, was a collection titled Kafka ke Afsane, for which he also did the illustrations. ‘Kafka bahut ajeeb se likthte the,’ he says. (Kafka used to write in a strange and unique manner.) Among Urdu writers, he considers Intizar Husain, Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman and Asad Mohammad Khan, all of whom are from Pakistan, his ‘literary brothers’. Ghulam Abbas, another Pakistani short-story writer who himself had a high regard for Russian short story writers such as Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, is among his favourites. In India, there is Mohammad Ashraf and Khalid Javed, but otherwise Masud says that there are not that many writing in Urdu in India: ‘Yahaan Urdu kee taleem hi nahin hotee hain’ (Here [in India], the study of Urdu as a subject is not as widespread).
After completing his master’s degree in Persian, Masud pursued a doctorate in Urdu at Allahabad University. There, he studied the mystical school of thought called Hurufism, established by a Persian named Fazlallah Astarabadi who propounded that ‘cosmic secrets’ of the universe were incorporated in the Arabic and Persian letters and especially in the Quran. Masud studied Persian and earned a doctorate from Lucknow University. He went on to teach it, as well as Urdu, for three decades and retired as the head of the Persian department in 1997.
For almost six years, while pursuing his doctorate, Masud wrote nothing; it was only in 1971 that he wrote ‘Nusrat’. Since then, he has published three collections of short stories: the first was Simiya, published first in Lucknow in 1984 and then in Lahore in 1987; the second, Itr-e-Kafur, was published in Karachi in 1990, followed by Taoos Chaman ki Maina, also published in Karachi in 1997. His latest short story, ‘Dhulban’, appeared in the 2010 edition of the journal The Annual of Urdu Studies while others have appeared in the Karachi-based quarterly Aaj. His short stories have been translated (in two collections) by the Annual’s editor, Muhammad Umar Memon.
Remembering the gulmohar
‘Nusrat was a dream entirely,’ Masud says. It was based on a girl that he knew in his childhood. ‘She used to keep to herself,’ he recalls. Many years later, he heard of her death – she had died on her way to someone’s wedding. He had the dream shortly after. ‘Most of my stories are dreams I have had. ‘Nusrat’ and ‘Sheeshaghat’ (Glass wharf) are more or less based on dreams.’ In Nusrat tells of a boy who lives in an old house and his friend, after whom the story is named, who is a little older to him. Towards the end of the story, the narrator finds Nusrat sitting under a tree, her mutilated feet – run over by a vehicle – stuck together, her face covered with dried yellow leaves. It ends with the narrator shutting himself up in his old house: ‘As the door was about to close I peered through the slit that remained to see whether Nusrat was still sitting there as before. She was. I shut the door and was never able to open it again.’ The recurring motif of the yellow leaves comes from a gulmohar tree that used to grow in the courtyard in Adabistan but has now been cut down.
Beyond the courtyard and Masud’s room is a garden. It was once thriving, back when his father, himself a scholar of Urdu and Persian, was alive; he tended it himself. When the garden started to die, one of Masud’s uncles foretold of his father’s death; he died shortly after at the age of 80. Masud’s friends often ask him in jest how he comes to know of things as a person who rarely steps out of his house – like the narrator in his short story ‘Ojjhal’, who, one gets the sense towards the end, has not left his house at all nor travelled anywhere. Masud responds, ‘Ghar hamare andar hain’ (The house is inside me).
The writer would like to thank Timsal Masud and Muhammad Umar Memon.