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Book Review

Capturing 'Essence' of Life in Timeless India

ESSENCE OF CAMPHOR, by Naiyer Masud, Translated from the Urdu, by Muhammad Umar Memon and others, The New Press, $21, 188 pages


Naiyer Masud, his publisher tells us, has translated Kafka into his native Urdu, but this takes us only so far into Masud's own fiction. The seven stories in "Essence of Camphor" have one thing in common with Kafka's work: the precise and limpid style with which even the strangest events are narrated. But the atmosphere is quite different. No doubt Masud, born in 1930, didn't imitate Kafka so much as he recognized their affinity after his own sensibility had fully evolved.

Like Kafka's, Masud's heroes are lonely even in the midst of crowds, solitary souls in an alien world. What's lacking is the bureaucratic menace we feel in Kafka, the groping through mazes of arbitrary power, the angst of Middle Europe between world wars. Masud's world--the Muslim community of Lucknow, India--is quieter, so steeped in tradition that, except for the odd detail--a mention of a train or an automobile--it could just as well be 500 years ago as today.

In the title story, the narrator makes perfumes from a camphor extract so rarefied it no longer has a scent of its own. It gives off, instead, "a feeling of forlornness, then the revealing of something in this forlornness." The narrator, in fact, is doing exactly what Masud is doing with words. These stories evoke emotion--often long-buried or repressed emotion--by means of a prose that is unemotional in the extreme, as if all the colors of India were mirrored in a basin of distilled water.

The perfume maker, we learn, has chosen his profession as an act of mourning for a neighbor girl who died when he was a boy. They shared a love for small, handmade objects: pottery, toy clocks, imaginary birds crafted of real feathers. It was the only true connection of his life, yet now, as he tells the story, it's a wisp of evanescence, like the scent that has been distilled out of the camphor essence and that only the addition of other ingredients can revive.

Many of Masud's heroes, indeed, are boys, or men looking back on their childhoods. What they remember are moments of feeling, good and bad. In "Ba'i's Mourners," the narrator describes how a folk tale made him terrified of brides. In "Interregnum," the scion of an ancient family discovers his heritage through the work of his father, an impoverished but skilled and kindly stonemason. In "Sheesha Ghat," a boy coping with separation from his father becomes involved with a girl who lives on a houseboat and whose feet have never touched land.

Most interesting is "Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire," because it describes a young man's descent into madness in such a measured way. The narrator is consumed with guilt over his incestuous desire for a sister-in-law. He takes a job as an inspector of houses, which enables him to travel and have casual affairs. But the fear and desire he has buried resurface as "zones" within the houses he inspects--areas that prying eyes at doors and windows can't see into. His ability to sense these zones as if with a psychic Geiger counter and to trace their outlines grows until, following a mysterious woman into an empty house, he can do it in the dark.

"The Myna From Peacock Garden"--about a poor man who steals a ruler's favorite bird to comfort his motherless daughter--is the closest to a fairy tale and, ironically, the only story here with a historical context. It's set just before the Great Mutiny of 1857, when rebels besieged the British Residency at Lucknow. Masud tells us this as an aside, as if to indicate how unimportant such things are compared with the acts of humanity that concern him, as rare and fleeting then as any time since.

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