Book Review: The Essence of Camphor by Naiyer Masud

The Essence of Camphor is a collection of short stories by Naiyer Masud, considered one of the foremost Urdu short-story writers in India. This collection contains English translations of ten of his stories.

This is not the sort of book I would have picked up on my own. It was Pratul who urged me to read it, comparing Masud’s style to that of Haruki Murakami. While Masud and Murakami write about completely different people in completely different cultural contexts, I feel Pratul’s comparison is not entirely inapt. There are many parallels between the works of the two writers, which is not surprising considering both of them are strongly influenced by Kafka.

Masud’s stories are surreal and dreamlike, and as one would expect, they don’t conform to traditional narrative structures. Many of them are told in a stream of consciousness style by narrators who appear to be reminiscing about their early years. Themes of childhood and family life in old India are prominent throughout. Someone on Goodreads called them “mood stories” — stories with the sole purpose of evoking a sense of time and place, or I suppose the lack thereof. In other words, Kafkaesque. Some of them are vaguely terrifying (Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire, The Woman in Black), others are sorrowful (The Essence of Camphor, Nosh Daru), all of them are beautiful. Masud captures the sights, sounds and smells of old Lucknow in such vivid detail that you almost start reminiscing about the good old days yourself.

Beautiful as they are, these stories are also inscrutable. I rarely read the introduction to a book before reading the book itself, but I’m glad I broke my rule this time. Muhammad Umar Memom — who wrote the introduction and translated some of the stories — has this to say about Masud’s work:

[…] reading Masud’s stories evoked the sensation of being thrown headlong into a self-referential circularity.

Which I interpret to mean: don’t think too hard kids, just enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is.

To be honest, I often felt frustrated with this collection. I would not recommend reading it from beginning to end in one sitting. This is a book best consumed slowly, over a span of many weeks. Despite my frustration, some of these stories have left a deep impression on my mind.

If you enjoy Murakami and/or Kafka, I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of The Essence of Camphor. If you’re not into surrealism, keep away.