The Occult By Naiyer Masud, Penguin, Rs 399
The book, The Occult, is not about secret, hidden powers or practices; it is, in fact, a collection of short stories originally written in Urdu by Naiyer Masud. The stories have been translated into English by Muhammad Umar Memon, with the help of Javaid Qazi and Jane Shum, who also looked into preserving the essence of the language and expressions of these tales. The five stories included in the book are “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”, “The Woman in Black”, “The Snake Catcher”, “Seemiya (The Occult)” and “Resting Place”.
The first story has a protagonist who frequents a couple of houses in a small town and meets other characters who carry the narrative forward. As the title suggests, the story is about man’s fear and desire in life which culminate in sex. The subject is nothing new, but there is something uncommon about the tale from the very beginning. For example, apart from the first person narrative, we know little about the unnamed narrator — his identity, where he came from or what he was doing in a house full of women. Similarly, we know nothing about the half a dozen women, most of them advanced in age, or what they were doing in a house that did not belong to them. All of this adds an element of strangeness to the story and enhances the eerie atmosphere little by little. The narrator refers to a small girl as his “little bride”, while she calls him her “bridegroom”, but no relationship develops between them. Instead, the man gets physically involved with an older woman, the sister of his brother’s wife. There is a short interaction between this woman and the narrator, which leads to them getting closer; the incident shows the author’s tremendous understanding of the different shades of human nature. The narrator then encounters another woman in the marketplace who takes him to another house, leading to perplexing events. In both the houses the man encounters women and develops sexual relationships with them that are shrouded in strangeness. Both these physical relationships portray the power of sex and the helplessness of man before his own instincts. Both the houses are described in detail, in such a way that they become an integral part of the lives of the denizens, in a story that seems to be otherworldly. The characters, on the other hand, are sketched with such a brush that they linger in one’s memory.
The second story, “The Woman in Black”, starts with the arrival of a ‘bad woman’ at the residence of the narrator, but the plot veers towards the tale of an old surgeon and his daughter who had been in a mysterious accident. She is the only person who has been given a name in the story. The narrator is asked to help the surgeon operate on his daughter’s damaged foot, after which he returns home to find that the guests he was supposed to entertain have already left. What follows is a bizarre turn of events which show that another kind of world may not be too far from our own.
“The Snake Catcher” is very different from the other stories. It is not about relationships between men and women, but about snakes and how men tackle them. We come across an expert who dedicates his life to treating the people in a particular hamlet who have been bitten by poisonous snakes from a nearby jungle. Interestingly, the narrator is not the snake catcher; he is a man who was once bitten by a snake and now helps the snake catcher. Apart from numerous events that make the tale a unified whole, what readers take away from “The Snake Catcher” is a tragic tale of man’s struggle to tame the forces of nature. The unexpected death of the protagonist occurs when he is bitten by one of the snakes in a moment of vulnerability.
The longest and probably the best of the stories is “Seemiya (The Occult)”. It is an amalgamation of the abstract and the concrete, the real and the unreal. It is a peek into the world of spells and incantations. There are so many bizarre incidents and characters spread throughout the story that sometimes it gets on one’s nerves. But the moment one tries to give up, the narrative picks up a thread that keeps the interest alive. This happens again and again till one genuinely falls under the spell of the narrative. The tale talks about the realm between a dream and reality and about man’s darkest thoughts that remain shrouded in confusion.
“Resting Place” on the other hand takes us to a world closer to dreams, like some of Shakespeare’s plays. A man walks into a house with an overgrown garden. He is shown around by the owner and invited to stay. He treats the sick people of the house. We come to know nothing about the man; we are also in the dark about the owner of the house and its occupants. The latter come and go and exist in the shadows, making one wonder whether they belong to this world or not.
Almost all the stories are lengthy, but once the reader gets involved with the characters and events, the length of the tales do not matter. The narratives draw the reader in slowly rather than gripping them right at the start. When the stories come to an end the reader feels a sense of loss. The unusual titles conjure up a sense of a different world. But it would be wrong to think that the stories deal with the supernatural or are somehow related to ghosts. There is something about the stories’ plots, backgrounds, characters and narrators that is different. For example, most of the characters are not given names; some are sketched in such a way that they could have easily replaced one another in the stories. There is an all-pervasive, dreamy atmosphere that transport them to a strange world, a world closer to dreams than to reality, to phantoms than to men of flesh and blood. And yet they are so close to our world that we remain puzzled. The reader is led to a weird but wonderful realm, which can be called the dark corners of our memories and desires that stay hidden from the world. What one needs to enjoy such stories is a little suspension of disbelief.