cover image The Essence of Camphor

The Essence of Camphor

Naiyer Masud, Naiyer. New Press, $21 (187pp) ISBN 978-1-56584-583-1

Masud, Kafka's translator into Urdu, is highly considered for his fantasy-tinged tales in his native India. In the title story the narrator, who makes perfumes using a camphor base, assembles filmy memories of his childhood to show how the odor of camphor became associated with Mah Rukh Sultan, the invalid daughter of his next-door neighbor, and her death. The narrator of ""Sheesha Ghat,"" like a character in a Brothers Grimm tale, is given away by his father because he has a disabling stutter, which his father suspects his new wife will not want to endure. He is sent to live with Jahaz, a street clown living on an island ruled by Bibi, the widow of a gangster. The latter's lovely daughter, Parya, has grown up entirely on Bibi's boat, and has accrued a sort of mythical glamour from having never touched dry land. One day Parya tries to walk on water, and the whole atmosphere of the fantastic suddenly sinks with her into the waves. Another folkloric story, ""Ba'i's Mourners,"" has a marvelous beginning: ""Few people know--perhaps none--that for a long time in my boyhood I used to be mortally afraid of brides."" The narrator's dread derives from a family story about a bride who was bitten by a centipede in the carriage that took her from the parental home, so that the groom opened the carriage door upon a corpse. Masud likes to play his stories off each other; in this tale, the bridal story shifts to an account of another death, that of the narrator's next-door neighbor, Ba'i, once a famous singer. Like all true connoisseurs of the fantastic, Masud's talent is for finding just those symbols that will convey the obscure oppression of claustrophobia. (Apr.)