(From The Caravan. Link to the complete article is given below.)
Lucknow, of course, does show up in Masud’s fiction. Its artisan culture features in many stories: the glass worker in “Sheeha Ghat,” the chikan embroiderer in “Ganjefa,” the perfume maker in “Essence of Camphor.” In “Interregnum,” a mason carves designs of fish into the facades of buildings. Fish designs just like these were once the emblem of Awadh, and they adorn Lucknow’s Asifi Imambara, as well as the frontages of many buildings in the neighbourhoods of Chowk, Ashrafababad and Aminabad. Whenever I spot a fish on an old Lucknow building, I inevitably think of the mason in “Interregnum.”
I am, however, uncomfortable with tributes that bind Masud to Lucknow. They form part of a larger tendency to read South Asian authors, particularly those who write in Indian languages, as windows into a distinctive local culture. This approach misses the essence of Masud’s fiction. His Spanish translator, Rocío Moriones Alonso, once noted that Masud’s stories show us that the universal can be found in the extreme local. The blind grandmother cracking betel nuts in “Destitutes Compound” might be an undeniably Lucknavi—or at least north Indian—character, but the sensation she evokes is that of motionless time and placelessness.
Moreover, Masud was in many ways a global writer. He was a professor of Persian, a former global language, and a translator of Persian and English into Urdu. His own works in Urdu were translated into many languages. A few years ago, I found a Spanish translation of a collection of Masud’s stories in Mexico City, in a bookstore called Libreria Gandhi. As I sat rereading “Essence of Camphor,” I realised that Masud might have hardly left his native city, but he travelled more widely than most who board a transcontinental flight every year. One of his most commendable accomplishments is that, through his stories, he ultimately expanded Urdu’s reach. And he did so precisely at a time when the language—as well as its speakers, readers and writers—faced harsh political pressure, and many in India actively sought to restrict and confine it.
I had the pleasure of knowing Masud during the last decade of his life. By then he was ailing. Nonetheless, it was not hard to see how his writing reflected his lifestyle. He owned several books about crafts, and his home was decorated with pieces of art he had created. Masud once told me that he often was afflicted by “craft spells” and described how, two decades earlier, he had become obsessed with making wood and clay sijdegah—small tablets used by Shia Muslims to rest their foreheads on during prayers. He made many sijdegah and gave several dozen away to friends and relatives. Some of them, however, are still lying around his house, and his son, Timsal Masud, offers namaz on one of them every day.