Mind Out of Time


Siddhartha Deb in The Baffler:

"MY TRUE OCCUPATION . . . is reading and, occasionally, writing,” the Urdu writer Naiyer Masud once stated with characteristic self effacement. Among his interests, he listed calligraphy, painting, music, and book binding, adding that he was also capable of “minor repair jobs around the house which have to do with plumbing, masonry, electrical work and carpentry.” A translator into Urdu of contemporary Iranian short stories as well as of Kafka’s work (collected under the title, Kafka ke Afsane), Masud lived in the North Indian city of Lucknow in a house called “Adabistan” or the Place of Literature. When it came to his own fiction, however, he confessed that he worked on it rather slowly, producing no more than twenty-two short stories in twenty-five years. In 2015, when Oxford University Press in India published an English translation of his Collected Stories, the number had expanded only slightly, to thirty-five stories.

Masud, who died last month at the age of eighty-one, performed his labors for the most part in obscurity. He wrote in Urdu, a South Asian language with a distinctive literary tradition that attracted writers with both Hindu and Muslim origins. Yet the partition that took place seventy years ago, on August 15, 1947, dividing the subcontinent into the separate nations of India and Pakistan, leading to the death of a million or more, the rapes and abductions of tens of thousands, and the displacement of between twelve million to twenty million people, also dealt out death by a thousand cuts to syncretic culture. Urdu, associated in post-colonial India exclusively with Muslims and Pakistan, became increasingly marginalized.

In the West, in spite of being translated into English with devotion and skill, largely by Muhammad Umar Memon, Masud’s work has appeared in scattershot fashion. With the bulk of his four collections divided into two volumes from two publishers, Essence of Camphor (The New Press) and Snake Catcher (Interlink Books), Masud’s fiction has not received the kind of coherent identity that comes to an author in translation when published by a single publishing house—an advantage enjoyed by, for example, Roberto Bolaño or Elena Ferrante.

More here.