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Masud's serpentine tales

india Updated: Dec 04, 2006 18:13 IST
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Snake Catcher
Author: Naiyer Masud
Publisher: Penguin India
Pages: 264
Format: Paperback
Price: Rs 250

The year 1998 saw the release of an exceptional volume of Naiyer Masud’s stories, translated into English by Katha. Amit Chaudhuri, writing with characteristic quiet irony in The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, called the release, “an extraordinary event, less remarked upon, thankfully, than some of the other ‘literary’ events that have taken place in the recent past.” This year sees the welcome release of another collection, Snake Catcher, this time by Penguin.

Hailing from a family of hakeems, Masud lives in Lucknow in a mansion built by his father, a former Professor of Persian at the local university. The house is called ‘Adabistan’ or ‘Abode of Literature.’ Houses play a crucial role in Masud’s fiction. The insides of dilapidated houses and hole-in-the-wall shops are described in painstaking detail. The overall effect is that of claustrophobia: “And the ceiling of my resting place feels as though it’s right on top of my chest.”

Fear and desire haunt these enclosed spaces: “the cities were crowded with houses and the houses were filled with women… every woman seemed to be within easy reach.” From the outside the houses look like ‘cheerless toys’, “foolish children, trying to hide something”. Many of these structures are little more than tin roof and sackcloth but Masud’s grim imagination manages to imbue both the spaces, and the lives of the people who inhabit them, with value and meaning.

His charactrs are more eccentric than twisted; their lives often take a strange turn, usually for the worse. They suffer from sudden amnesia, take vows of silence, disappear into mysterious jungles, vanish into thin air, drop dead like flies, become obsessed with dysfunctional weather vanes.

Very often they lose their mind: “another Nauroz took his place at the shop, losing his own mind in turn, followed by another Nauroz who worked there until he also lost his mind”. The madness of Masud’s characters seems voluntary and deliberate, not entirely lacking in rationality.

Many characters find themselves on the move — running or walking through foreign villages and jungles, not very sure about what they are running away from, nor where they are finally headed. They live in shanties and hamlets; indulge in professions that verge on quackery, like selling Magic Oil and Badshahi Manjan.

Speaking of the writing process, Masud has said that he “had to struggle the most on language, on how to write precisely...” Given Masud’s obsession with accuracy, it is disappointing to find in this volume a lack of attention to detail. In his introduction the translator, Professor Muhammed Umar Memon, mentions that he has reproduced in this collection four out of the ‘five intertextured stories’ from Masud’s first collection Seemiya, retaining their order of appearance in the Urdu original. He forgets to tell the reader which ones.

The translations are uneven. ‘Ganjeefa’ and ‘Weather Vane’ are brilliant stories, classics of the genre, rendered superbly in flawless, fluent English. On the other hand we get sentences that creak and groan like plywood beds: “Time moved at a higher rate of speed”; “...we clung to each other convulsively...”; “a gust of wind lurched towards me”.

The professor clearly lacks an ear for the English language. Despite the functional nature of these translations, the collection succeeds in its larger purpose: to bring these very fine stories to a wider English readership.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra teaches at Doon School, Dehradun

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