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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Essence of Camphor

Naiyer Masud

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To purchase Essence of Camphor

Title: Essence of Camphor
Author: Naiyer Masud
Genre: Stories
Written: (1998)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: Essence of Camphor - US
Essence of Camphor - UK
Essence of Camphor - Canada
Camphre - France
  • Compiled and edited by Muhammad Umar Memon
  • Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, Moazzam Sheik and Elizabeth Bell, Javaid Gazi, Sagaree Sengupta, and Aditya Behl
  • This collection first published in India in 1998

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Our Assessment:

B+ : artful, elusive stories

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A- 5/4/2000 Bill Marx
The LA Times . 22/8/2000 Michael Harris
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 Carlo Coppola

  Review Consensus:

  Fascinating, well done. But the reviews are more descriptive than critical.

  Note that Carlo Coppola's review refers to the Indian edition, not The New Press edition. Note also that he describes Mah Rukh Sultan (from the title story) as "the matriarch of a large, friendly, but elusive family (...) Elderly and in poor health, she too was an artist in her own right, a perfume-maker (...). She eventually taught her skills to the boy." This does not describe the Mah Rukh Sultan in the New Press edition.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) skillful mix of otherworldly intimations and psychological pungency. The remoteness of Naiyer Masud's cagey supernaturalism feels authentic, not manufactured for export. (...) Each of the volume's tales dramatizes a meeting of sickly sweet dreams and earthy appetites, a mysterious realm that smothers rather than shocks weakened souls." - Bill Marx, Boston Globe

  • "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." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Masud's highly evocative, sensuous stories, often told as remembrances of a long-ago childhood, are unique in contemporary Urdu short story writing. Exhibiting an open-ended quality and a seeming lack of the resolution found in more conventional fiction, they occupy a singular niche in the rapidly evolving, diverse artistic landscape of modern Urdu letters, which has experienced the development of surrealism, Marxism, experimentalism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism in its annals." - Carlo Coppola, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Essence of Camphor collects seven of Naiyer Masud's stories (previously collected in three volumes published between 1984 and 1997, in the original Urdu). The publication in the US and Europe of any Indian literature not originally written in English is always welcome, and Masud's work certainly deserves to be translated. Translation, of course, brings with it problems of its own and the stories in this volume, worked over by five translators and teams of translators, do not read quite as fluidly and neatly (and consistently) in English as one expects they do in Urdu. Nevertheless, given the paucity of Urdu literature available in English, one must be pleased with whatever one finds.
       These stories by Masud are a find. They are all narrated in the first person, common (yet complex) people with stories to tell. The tales drift and meander, with a dreamy quality to them, but they ultimately coalesce around something solid.
       The title story is told by a perfume-maker. He is not a master of either the old or the new techniques of perfume-making, but his unique method is also successful. The secret to his perfumes is that he uses camphor, and that he manages to keep the essence of the camphor from expiring with the fragrance of the perfume. There is no scent to it, but:

Attempting to smell it one feels a vacant forlornness, but the next time around, breathing deeply, one detects something in this forlornness.
       The forlornness is something that actually "already existed before the extract's conception", and the story itself focusses on his childhood experiences that are responsible for it. When the narrator was young a family moved into a neighboring house. One of the gaggle of sisters in the large family, Mah Rukh Sultan, is very ill, but she befriends the young boy. He likes to build and sculpt small toys and objects, and she is fascinated by them. Camphor comes up repeatedly: he uses it as a balm for all the cuts on his hands, and then there is a "camphor sparrow", a picture of a bird made by a girl from his family who had died shortly after making it. Mah Rukh Sultan also has small bottles of perfume, and the narrator is disappointed that there is none made of camphor. Mah Rukh Sultan tells him: "You can't make perfume of camphor".
       Mah Rukh Sultan finally dies, and it is this loss that the narrator carries with him and that is the foundation of his essence of camphor perfumes. Masud successfully suggests the elusive "essence of camphor" in his well-told melancholy tale.
       Masud's other narrators are also fairly distant, alone, and introspective. In Interregnum the narrator's illiterate father dies, and the young man slowly comes to understand his father's (and his family's) accomplishments
       In Sheesha Ghat a boy with a terrible stutter that renders him practically unable to communicate is sent to live away from home. The father fears that his new wife will "go crazy" if she hears the boy. The boy is sent to an idyllic locale, a ghat where there is a girl, Parya, who has never set foot on land. He comes to believe that "Sheesha Ghat was the only place for me", but this idyll is also disrupted.
       Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire is told by another narrator who ultimately decides that he does not need to speak. The story even begins: "I have given up speaking". The tale is one of a dawning and then consuming madness. The narrator falls in love with his sister-in-law (who "due to a complicated pattern of kinship" also happens to be his aunt) and, in some charged scenes, tries and ultimately succeeds in consummating his relationship with her. She disappears from his life, and he too leaves his protected life at home, becoming an inspector of houses.
       Masud evocatively conveys the narrator's feel for houses, especially that which is not visible or apparent about them -- much like the essence of camphor from the first story. The narrator meets his sister-in-law again, and he begins losing touch with reality, withdrawing into darkness and silence.
       The Myna from Peacock Garden is a tale set just before the Mutiny of 1857. Working in the Royal Peacock Gardens a father tries to please his daughter by "borrowing" one of the royal myna birds, a plan that goes disastrously wrong.
       Masud's stories seem, occasionally, unfocussed, but they are, in fact, carefully and capably crafted. Masud is particularly good at conveying the feel of a place, a person, a moment. It is not simply love that he focusses on, but rather many of the subtler feelings that go with it. There is nostalgia and melancholy in these stories, but it is portrayed from a refreshingly different perspective.
       The translation (and editing ?) don't help the stories, but also do not inflict fatal harm -- but one hopes that the next batch of his work will be handled a bit better.

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Essence of Camphor: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Naiyer Masud was professor of Persian at Lucknow University.

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© 2000-2009 the complete review

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