Cryptic suggestiveness dominates 11 stories gathered from three collections by the Indian author (who writes in Urdu) of Essence of Camphor (2000).
As we learn from the translator’s Introduction (itself fairly opaque), Masud is both a scholar of Persian and Urdu and a renowned translator of Kafka. The great Czech writer’s influence is felt throughout, especially in the rigorously compressed tale (“Resting Place”) of a nameless wanderer invited to become one of a welcoming household’s “priceless objects,” and the superb “Custody,” about a village shop whose successive proprietors succumb to madness, the (again unnamed) narrator who undertakes to run it and raise two apparently orphaned baby girls and a complex local history that expresses the truism that “one has to endure everything.” Stoical forbearance also characterizes the aging man whose increasing memory loss is temporarily arrested when he recalls a charmingly sociopathic family friend (“Allam and Son”); the clerical worker whose fortunes vacillate during ownership disputes over “The Big Garbage Dump” located inside a lavish domicile; and the house inspector whose thwarted love for his sister-in-law (and aunt) leads him inexorably toward a paralytic madness (“Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”). Images that recur through several stories (a sheltering, perhaps smothering tree; an inchoate jungle bordering a cleared village; the limited efficacy of healers) intensify an overpowering impression of fatalism that’s perhaps best expressed in the eerie title story, an enigmatic parable of the danger inherent in nature, fear of the unknown and the inevitability of death and change; and the terse, limpid “Lamentation,” whose narrator finds in the “wasteland communities” he explores both a spectrum of indigenous responses to mortality and a summons he cannot ignore.
Masud’s compelling, sometimes obscure stories do not always fully reward the reader’s attention. But they’re usually as hard to forget as they are to comprehend.