Essence of Camphor

Essence of Camphor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565845831
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 04/17/2000
Pages: 187
Product dimensions: 5.72(w) x 8.45(h) x 0.75(d)

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Chapter One


ESSENCE OF CAMPHOR


For on its wing was dark alloy,
And as it flutter'd—fell
An Essence—powerful to destroy A soul that knew it well.

—Edgar Allan Poe


Gar nau-bahar ayad-o-pursad ze dostan
Gu ay saba keh an hame gulha gayah shudand
(If Spring comes asking after friends, sweet Breeze,
Say that the blossoms—ah, the blossoms turned to straw.)

—Amir Khusrau


I never learned the intricate, tenuous art of perfume making practiced in ancient times, now nearly lost or perhaps already extinct; nor am I acquainted with the new methods of concocting artificial fragrances. This is why no one understands the essences I prepare, nor succeeds in imitating them. People assume that I am privy to some rare formula, locked in my breast and bound to die with me and insist I preserve them, somehow, for posterity.

    In response, I remain silent. There is nothing unique in my perfumes except that I prepare common fragrances on a base of camphor extract. In fact, every perfume I make is an extract of camphor, concealed behind a familiar scent. I have experimented with fragrances aplenty. At one point, I had gathered so many aromatic items that it was dizzying simply to be near them. The fragrance of each would spread and evaporate by itself. Finally, a moment would come when the matter remained but its fragrance had dissipated into the air, and I had to see or touch it in order to identify it. But camphor is very different,because it evaporates along with its odor: it is not possible for its substance to remain after its scent has vanished; though it is possible for the camphor to evaporate and the smell to remain.

    In my extract, however, one does not smell camphor, or any other fragrance. It is a colorless solution inside a white, square-bottomed china jar. No fragrance of any kind wafts through the jar's narrow opening when the round lid is removed. Attempting to smell it one feels a vacant forlornness, but the next time around, breathing deeply, one detects something in this forlornness. At least, that's what I feel. I cannot say what others feel since no one has ever smelled the extract in its purest form, apart from me. It is true that when I prepare an essence with this foundation, those who inhale it think there is something else underneath the expected fragrance. But obviously, they cannot recognize it, for there is no fragrance at all in my extract of camphor.

    Like camphor, the extract of camphor also evaporates and dies out with its scent, or even sooner. My achievement—if one can call it that—is simply that I manage to keep the camphor from expiring with its fragrance. When I transform camphor to the solution stage, its odor becomes pronounced. Then I retain the solution, but cause its scent to vanish. Sometimes the essence perishes altogether, leaving the solution indistinguishable from plain water, and I have to toss the whole thing out. This happens only when I am distracted and my hands fumble. Normally, my concentration is hard to break. Once absorbed in preparing the extract, I do not hear loud noises, or even nearby voices, yet the call of a distant bird or some equally faint background sound can throw me off. Then my hand stops, and as I try to turn back to my work, I detect the lowest point of the fragrance curling upward like the end of a string, rising from the solution toward the ceiling, and it cannot be brought back. I don't mourn the loss of my labor and get back to work, resolved not to be distracted again. Soon I see the essence of the new solution as it struggles to ascend. Slowly, slowly, I swirl the solution until a whirlpool begins to form. The fragrance revolves in the whirlpool, then rises up like a nascent tornado. I let it drift upward, its upper end spiraling to the ceiling, but at the instant its lower end is about to lift out, I quickly swirl the solution in reverse, forcing the whirlpool to reverse as well, and the wispy tornado of scent begins to descend. I can never keep an eye on the time, but I believe this takes a long while. Still, I never let my hand pause, swirling the solution in one direction, then the other, over and over. At last the rising and falling fragrance begins to grow foggy. Nothing must distract me at this moment. The fragrance rises lazily and falls, and then, sometimes in a trice, disappears. After pouring the colorless solution into the square-bottomed jar, I shut the lid while deliberately diverting my attention elsewhere. In that moment of distraction my hand seems to move toward the jar of its own volition.

    A feeling of forlornness, then the revealing of something in this forlornness, is now induced merely by inhaling the camphor essence, but whatever is revealed in this forlornness already existed before the extract's conception. Indeed, the preparing of the extract relies on its existence.


My ability to identify different kinds of birds is quite poor. During my childhood, I only knew the names of a handful of domestic birds. I would inquire from the family elders the names of the birds that chirped on the fence around our house or on a tree in the garden only to forget them the same day. Yet I assigned each of the birds in my home a human name, and whenever I addressed a bird by its assigned name, it would turn toward me. In due course these birds would die, I would remember each one for only a few days after its death; later forgetting even the name I had given it. Now I have forgotten all the names I bestowed except one, and the one I remember happens to be neither a human name nor that of a bird. It was a name I had given to the picture of a bird.

    This picture had been made by a girl from our family, and since she had died only a few days later it had been set on the mantel above the fireplace in the living room, so that anyone entering the house would notice it at once. New visitors to our place would look at it a good while, then examine it from up close. It was worth a good look.

    Its creator had glued a piece of bark, resembling a long, thin branch, onto a dark-colored wooden board, on which she had fashioned the bird from tufts of spotless cotton. For its outstretched wings, she had added real feathers to the cotton; a piece of red glass was used as an eye; the pointed claws were made of thorns from a bush. The bird's claws were raised in the air instead of resting on the branch, making it difficult to determine whether it was landing or flying away. Perhaps that's why it was disturbing to look at for too long. My family, however, saw it simply as the picture of a bird rising from its perch.

    I had named it "the camphor sparrow." I used to feel a cool, almost frosty sensation when I looked at the clean washed cotton and the whiteness of its spotless wings. I had a similar frosty feeling whenever I saw camphor, which was always present in my house because my family prepared a camphor balm. This emollient was distributed free and was referred to as "the cool balm."

    One day I sat near a woman-servant of the house as she was grinding camphor for the ointment on a stone slab. When the servant went off to run an errand, I heaped the powder on the slab into a mound and, smacking it with my palm, scattered it all over. Then the servant returned.

    "Look," she complained to no one in particular, "he's spoiling the whole lot!"

    I stood up, dusting my hands. When my eyes lighted on the white powder strewn on the slab, I remembered the outspread wings of the bird in the living room and the frosty feeling I had experienced when looking at it. That day I named it "the camphor sparrow" and, from then on, this was the name it went by in my house—mostly because no one seemed to know its real name.

    Perhaps no such bird really existed and the artist had created it from her own imagination. However, it resembled several other birds, including some birds of prey. I didn't know this until one day I came upon some guests who had just returned from a bird hunt and were chatting in the big room as they stood before the picture. Pointing to various parts of the sparrow's body, they were debating the name of the bird among themselves. I didn't understand most of their conversation, but all at once the camphor sparrow seemed too complex a thing, and long after the guests had left I stood peering at the bird, puzzled. To all appearances, it had not been too difficult to make. I studied every aspect of it. At last, I was convinced that its maker had completed it quite simply and easily, in a relatively short time, and that I too could make one without much effort. I wondered why I hadn't tried it before, and immediately started gathering the materials necessary for my attempt.

    I tried for many days to make an imitation of the camphor sparrow. I stood in front of it holding the wooden board in my hand, but nothing seemed to come out right. Each of my efforts left me only with pieces of pinched cotton, and twisted, broken feathers strewn all over the living room which, since guests were brought here, was to be kept neat and tidy. At last, when milder reprimands failed, I was forbidden to bring my things into the living room at all. Now I had to work within the confines of my tiny room. Every now and then, however, I would go back for a look at the picture—not a long trip, since one door of my bedroom opened onto the large room where it was kept. I would examine the camphor sparrow in detail, then rush back to my room to add more cotton to the wooden board. Sometimes I would think I had made a portion of the bird quite accurately, but as I started on the next part, the earlier one seemed wrong, making the addition also appear unsatisfactory.

    Despite these setbacks, I still believed that I would be able to copy it quite easily. Therefore, time and again, I found myself standing in front of the picture, wondering why I couldn't duplicate it.

    One afternoon, I was staring at the bird when a playmate of mine entered the room looking for me. He, too, looked at the bird for a while, and then said, "There's one just like that across the way."

    "Where?" I asked.

    "In the tree by the well," he said, pointing outside.

    "You've been over by the well?" I asked.

    He nodded. "I go there every day."

    "Who lives in the house there?"

    "No one. It's empty."

    Pointing to the camphor sparrow, I asked, "Is she exactly like this one?"

    "It was hard to see through the leaves," he said, "but it looks like this one. Come see."

    "She must have flown away by now."

    "No. It's been sitting there since this morning."

    My curiosity was piqued.

    "Let's have a look," I said.

    As we walked toward the western edge of the compound, I asked again, "You're sure no one's living there?"

    "I told you, it's empty."

    The house, the only one besides ours in that large field, usually stood empty. Its main door opened onto the road, but the small door of its large walled backyard was directly across from our main door. The panels of this small door had come loose and were nearly sunk into the earth. A boy of my size could squeeze through the panels, and if my friends and I found the house empty while playing in the field, we would often slip into the yard through this loose double-door.

    One by one, my friend and I slipped through the panels and entered the enclosure. Despite my hurry to reach the tree, I stopped at the door and scanned the yard. Heaped with rubbish and overgrown with weeds, it had the appearance of a forest. The people who had lived there left mementos of their occupancy everywhere, in the form of piles of rubbish. Glancing around, I asked my companion, "Where is it?"

    He silenced me with a finger to his lips, and we both tiptoed around to one side of the well. It was nearly filled with soil, trash, and broken tree branches; only the top two or three circular layers of the six-cornered bricks were free of debris.

    The tree stood between the left-hand wall and the well. Since the wall obstructed its growth in one direction, the tree had leaned over the well. We had never climbed this tree. Though its heavy branches appeared strong at first sight, they were the sort that often wouldn't bear the slightest weight. Its large round leaves had a light fuzz of permanent dust on them, which made one's body itch if one accidentally brushed against them. There was no wind now, and the tree looked still and lifeless. When the wind blew, the entire tree swayed, seeming, in motion, to be somehow even more devoid of life. A strong wind could easily make the tree sway, causing a branch to snap and fall to the ground.

    Craning his neck, my friend stood under the tree and stared into the branches in deep concentration. I tiptoed near him, leaned against the trunk and looked up at the tree. Its leaves had withered and were about to fall. In certain areas, the whiteness of the sky showed through the web of leaves. I kept thinking I could see a bird in the patches of light. Finally, my companion nudged me with his elbow and pointed upward. I had thought the little body, half-visible, half-hidden by three or four large leaves, was just another patch of sky. Then I saw that one edge of the whiteness had the ridged contour of a wing. The bird was not very high up, its face hidden by leaves. I gestured to my friend that I was going to climb the tree. He signaled back for me not to, but my foot was already on the trunk.

    I had started up that tree once before, on a bet with my playmates, but had come down right away when they ran off on seeing I was going to win. Nonetheless, I had been able to assess that the tree could be climbed as long as too much weight were not exerted on it. This in mind, I began moving up, keeping to the thickest branches. At last I was high enough to grab the bird with my right hand. I grasped a branch with my left hand, planted my feet firmly on a lower one, and leaned my torso toward the bird. From my vantage point, only one wing was visible, and I wanted to seize both wings in a single swoop so it would have no chance of fluttering away. To do so, I moved one foot slightly forward. The branch creaked ominously. My friend called urgently to me from below. I clamped one arm around the branch above and abruptly lifted both feet. My hand was inches from the bird. The lower branch squeaked again, and the whole tree seemed to rock. My playmate called again, plaintively, but now the bird was in my hand.

    I glanced down at the groaning branch and tested all the others one by one, but their weakness was apparent at the slightest touch of my foot. I held the bird in my outstretched hand, which all of a sudden was itching furiously. Hanging on with only one hand, I slipped down with difficulty, barely keeping my balance. As my friend hastened around the well to meet me, a large branch crashed down to the well's edge with a great cracking sound, trapping my friend lightly. I grabbed his hand and helped him out from under the branch, and we stood together a few steps away from the well.

    "Did you get it?" asked my friend, dusting off his clothes. I looked at my fist. There were tiny red ants crawling all over my hand. The bird had been dead for days; it was hollow inside. A web of tangled leaves was caught in its pointed claws, its head rested on its chest, and its eyes were completely eaten away. I quietly lamented my lost labor as I threw the bird in my friend's direction and started to blow the crawling ants off my hand. Then I heard a strangled scream from my playmate. The bird was lying under one of his feet, which was paralyzed on top of it. Then I remembered that he was frightened of dead things and that he would go rigid when he'd had a fright. I pulled him gently toward me. He remained stunned for a moment, then jerked away, staring blankly at me. He looked down at his feet and backed away a few more steps. I started toward him but he spun around and ran out through the back door.

    I made to follow him, but when I reached the door it occurred to me that I hadn't taken a good look at the bird, so I turned back. I approached the bird and bent over it. It had been flattened by my friend's foot. Had there been a wooden board beneath it instead of the soft earth I would have thought I'd created a slapdash copy of the camphor sparrow.


After that, I lost interest in the camphor sparrow and once again set to making other things.

    Even when I was very small I would put together ill-assorted pieces of things picked up here and there, and then ask people to guess what it was. My family would name something or other, and I would really believe I had made what they said I had, even convincing myself that it was, indeed, what I had set out to make all along. I would display the new sample of my craftsmanship on the mantel and consider my work the equal of the camphor sparrow. I never admitted that the things I made were toys, and once when I had tied two or three blocks of wood together and was told that I had made a remarkable car, I insisted for days that my family use it to go out for a drive. But soon I would forget my latest creation and someone would discreetly remove it from the mantel. Gradually, I collected quite a few tools and other implements with which I fashioned many different objects. Their resemblance to their real life counterparts was slim, but recognizable. Underneath the bed in my small room I stowed all kinds of tools, pieces of wood, snippets of gaily colored cloth, scraps of tin, metal wire, even fruit pits. I could put my hand on any of these objects I wished, even in the dark.

    In my fervor to duplicate the camphor sparrow, I had quite forgotten all these items, but now they reclaimed my attention more intensely than before. Though the noise of things being hammered and banged about began to erupt from my room at all hours of the day and night, disturbing the rest of the household, no restrictions were imposed on me, as I was the darling son of the house. When I accidently injured my hands, however, my work would come to a halt for a day or two. After I injured myself often enough, a big bottle of camphor balm was kept in my room permanently, although such salves were usually used for serious injuries and old wounds. My cuts were ordinary and temporary, and any remedy from the market would have healed them, but I was, as I said, the darling of the house. The objects I made were displayed on the mantelpiece without any prompting from me and were made much of to guests. Sometimes, when I couldn't think of anything to make, I would go up to the roof, from where one could clearly see the top of the other house and the wall of its backyard across the field. There I would sometimes sense, in the soft pulse of the breeze, the embrace of some familiar or unfamiliar fragrance, and a picture would form in my mind, only to disappear at once. As I experienced these forming and dissolving images, I would suddenly be seized with the desire to make something and hurry down and lock myself in my room.

    One day, after the long season of scorching heat and white-hot winds, I stood on the roof of my house watching the clouds that had been gathering in the sky since the morning. Near me stood the same friend who had earlier been frightened by the dead bird. We both enjoyed getting wet in the first rain of the season, and seeing the signs of an imminent shower he had come up to the roof to look for me. We pointed out shapes made by large and small clumps of drifting clouds. Here and there the blue of the sky peered between them, but as we stood there, the patchy clouds congealed into a smooth sheet of dark gray. I forgot my playmate in my anticipation of the strong wind and falling rain. Shortly, little puffs of wind began to blow. One of them seemed to bear a fragrance as cold as ice, but this scent somehow met my eyes instead of my nostrils, appearing as the end of a white string before me, then pulling upward and vanishing. Just then I heard my friend:

    "That looks just like the other one."

    He was looking up. I did the same. A bird was hovering above our heads, and circling with it was a white string.

    "What is that string?" I asked myself aloud.

    "She must have picked it up," said my friend, "to make her nest."

    The bird descended slightly, then rose up again.

    "No," I said, "the string is tied to her claws."

    "Then she must have broken free from somewhere," my friend observed. "I wonder whose bird it is."

    We continued to stare at it in silence. The pattern of its flight belied great weariness. Flapping its wings slowly, it hovered near the roof as though searching for a resting place. Finally, it landed on the turret that rose from the roof to the left of where we were standing. It seemed to be staring at something straight ahead, oblivious to our presence. I motioned to my companion to be silent and began edging slowly toward the turret. I stopped very near it. I could not see the bird, but the string was dangling before me, within reach of my hand.

    I turned toward my friend and gestured for him to be silent once again, but just then I heard the rustling of feathers, and when I spun back to the turret, the end of the string had risen beyond my reach. I returned to my friend's side. The bird was now flying swiftly toward the other house, veering left and right like someone staggering across the ground, the white string wavering behind it like a snake.

    "Isn't she just like the ...," my companion began.

    But my eyes were fixed on the bird and I didn't answer. It passed the wall of the enclosure and was circling one spot, descending slightly with each spiral. At last, it disappeared behind the wall of the house. The next moment, the bird rose again at the same point, fluttering its wings rapidly, then sank from view again. It reemerged. It fluttered its wings for some time, riveted to one spot. Again it descended slowly out of sight. We waited for it to rise again, but it didn't.

    "What is it doing there?" my friend asked, staring fixedly at the wall.

    There was a faint rumbling of thunder, and lightning bolts flashed and vanished at several points in the dark gray sky. The thought struck me at the same moment that my friend said aloud, "That's where the tree by the well is."

    We looked at each other and fell silent. Above, the sound of thunder shifted, descended, ricocheted across the earth, and then vanished into the sky. I grabbed my friend's hand. "Let's go and free her," I said.

    "No," he said, tugging against my grip.

    "Come on," I insisted.

    "No," he repeated. "I'm not going over there."

    "This one's not dead," I said, "however, if it rains ..."

    But his hand had begun to grow cold in mine and he was staring blankly at me.

    "Okay, as you like," I said and climbed down from the roof, leaving him there.


The heat still hung in the air and the tree's large leaves drooped, but their greenness struggled through the dust that had settled on their fuzzy surface. I walked halfway around the well and stood under the tree. There was no movement or noise in the branches above, but I believed the bird was hiding somewhere in the leaves, and I continued to peer into the treetop. At last I began to think it might have flown off before I had arrived. Just then I heard a faint noise which I could not identify but decided must be feathers rustling against the leaves. I looked up. The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere in the tree. I realized then that it had begun, quietly, to rain. I hesitated, then walked out into the open. After a short distance I turned back to look at the tree.

    It was metamorphosing before my eyes. The raindrops were tracing green lines on the fuzzy leaves as they washed away the dust, and the wilted leaves were slowly regaining their freshness. Suddenly the rain began to fall more heavily and I turned toward the door in the wall. The faint smell of earth rose to my nostrils, then the sound of a rapid fluttering met my ears. I turned again to look back at the tree. The bird was fluttering about in a fixed spot just above it. As its swiftly flapping wings scattered fat drops of water, the bird appeared as if enveloped in a white fog. On all sides of this trembling tuft of fog the incessant rain drew white strings from sky to earth.

    The whole yard was awash now. The familiar smell that rose from the mud at the first rain had abated, and now the fragrances buried in the deeper layers of the earth were beginning to emerge. These fragrances at my feet would rise from the ground and hover at a certain point for a while, before the rain dashed them back down, but I paid little heed to them: I was looking up at the tree, where the trembling fog and sound of feathers were no longer evident. Bathed in rain, the tree's leaves had turned dark green, its trunk, black. The entire tree blurred as the rain thickened. I realized that my clothes were soaked. I had hardly started for the door in the wall when the wind too began to blow harder. I shivered all over; the door seemed a great distance off. I turned and ran in the opposite direction until I stood under the veranda—a long, narrow, tin-roofed shelter that was attached to the back of the house. The water spilling from the roof of the shelter formed a curtain before me through which the driving rain looked like giant sheets of smoke, billowing and contracting in the gusts of wind.

    The wind swept under the veranda roof, making the tin shudder. I felt the cold descend into my bones and my eyes cast about for some better protection from the downpour. Behind me were three doors whose top panels were set with round panes of blue glass. I had seen the house many times and knew that a living room with three fireplaces lay behind the three doors. As a child, whenever I went past these doors in the company of my family, I would insist that someone lift me up until I could look through the glass of the middle door, for the expanse of blue gave me a feeling of contentment.

    Now I recalled the last family that had lived in this house. They were six or seven people who had sat for the most part in silence with their heads bowed. The women of the house would get up to do some work, then return to their place and sit with their heads down. The men would return from work, go quietly to their rooms, reemerge after changing their clothes and sit with their heads down. A girl would ask another something, be answered, and then both would fall silent and lower their heads. All of them seemed to be engulfed in a fog. In those days, I had to go to their house frequently on some errand or the other. Each time I would return irritated and angry, parody their way of sitting and ask not to be sent to the house again. My people would laugh at this, and two or three days later blithely send me back. Then, one day, the family left the house without informing anyone. The house had remained empty ever since, and the room with the fireplaces had never been opened again. Now I was standing outside it getting soaked in the downpour. The cold was unbearable, and I started pushing at each of the doors in turn. I soon realized that if the doors had not been bolted from the inside, the wind, which was steadily growing fiercer, would have flung them open a long time ago. The wind intensified and the water falling from the veranda roof sloshed me. The filth that had collected on the tin roof slid off along with the water. I noticed several dark black stains on my clothes. Leaving the veranda, I dashed back under the tree. I thought again of the bird, and though I knew it was hopeless, tried to spot it among the branches, but water filled my eyes. At that very moment the tree creaked and I, taking it to be an ominous warning, leapt out from under it and dashed onto the veranda once again.

    That's all I remember of that day.


* * *


That year it rained and rained, and the entire compound turned into a marsh. The ground inside the walls disappeared under a soggy carpet of weeds and grass. The front door of my house was closed off and everyone came and went through the back door, which opened onto the street. During this period I spent most of my free time inside my room. In view of my fondness for constructing things, I had been given new tools of high quality, and with their aid, the processes of chiseling wood, cutting everything from hard tin to thick glass, snipping and shaping heavy iron wire, and joining materials together had become much easier for me. I built tiny houses, and models of different kinds of transport. Most of what I made in my earlier endeavors would seem pale and ordinary to me after a few days; and I would toss them away or leave them lying about. However, a few of the things that I made during these rains I liked even better later. Indeed, when they were finally set up on the mantelpiece I would wonder how I had made them.

    At one point, the main door of the house was opened so that the compound could be weeded of the plants that had sprung up during the rains. I noticed that the water had carved away a quarter of a small hillock to the left of the door, and a whitish, sticky mud had flowed off, spreading into a large puddle. When I went to have a closer look at the diminished mound, the mud clung to my feet. As I tried gingerly to tread on it, my foot slipped so swiftly that, had the other one not been firmly stuck in the clay, I would have had a nasty fall. An elderly laborer who was helping to clear the field happened to be watching. He advised me to walk carefully, adding that this was a rare kind of soil from which delicate objects could be fashioned. He said that the soil had been brought from some other part of the country and that an old man who used to live nearby in this very compound, a long time ago, had used it to make models of small birds. As he mentioned the artisan, the old laborer pointed to the back door of the other house, beside which a crumbling wall was visible.

    Immediately I became fascinated with the idea of working with clay, and at my request the laborer dug some dry soil from inside the mound and deposited a little pile of it inside my yard. He explained the method of wetting and preparing the clay. I set to work at once, and he turned back to his labors. I took a bit of mud, pressed it between my palms, and observed the result. There were no stones or sand in the clay, and the finest lines of my palm were visible on its surface. Suddenly, I felt the faintest whiff of camphor leap up like a flame and vanish. I breathed deeply, bringing my palm up to my nostrils, but there was nothing but the cool smell of ordinary earth. I took another deep breath, then became aware of the silence extending in every direction, which the sound of a grinding stone inside the house enhanced rather than subdued. I scooped up a little mud in my hands and returned to my room.

    Now I branched out into making things of clay. This did not require any tools. There was always a reserve of well-kneaded sticky clay in my room. I could not make animals and birds, but I could easily fashion little beads for jewelry and oddly-shaped pots. By the time the dry season arrived, I had made numerous small objects, and when the sun grew stronger I began drying, baking and painting them. I burnt my hands many times in the process, but worked on undeterred because the pain from the burns would vanish with the application of camphor balm. However, as the fires I lit sometimes damaged various household items as well, I was finally prohibited from using fire inside the house, and I arranged to bake my wares outside, in a corner of the compound. The main door, which by now had been permanently closed, was reopened exclusively for me. The fierce rain had carved deep channels in the tender earth, making access to the main door difficult for vehicles, and for people in the dark. For this reason, and because the back door opened onto the street, the latter had come to be used as the principal entrance. Thus the field remained largely silent and empty and I could go about my work undisturbed.

    One day, as I was dusting the ash off my baked pots I thought I heard a sound and turned to look. Two men I had never seen before were coming across the field, picking their way through the gullies. They reached the main door and hesitated. They did not knock. They appeared to be unable to decide whether to go up to the house or not. After observing them for a while, I began to clink my pots together—which was my way of determining whether they were properly baked. When they heard the sound, they noticed me and slowly drew near. They looked at my pots, I at them. Though their height, complexion, and facial features differed, there was a strange resemblance between them that convinced me they were brothers. One of them pointed at the main door and asked, "Is this the house that's empty?"

    "No, sir. That one is," I said, pointing at the other house. "It has a door that opens onto the street. The one you see is the door to my backyard."

    I noticed that new door panels had been put in to replace the old loose ones, and the door appeared to be firmly bolted from the inside.

    "This house ..." He gestured again at my door. "Is this where you live?"

    I nodded.

    "Did you make these?" he asked, looking at my pots.

    I nodded again.

    "Very pretty toys."

    "They're not toys."

    "No?" he smiled. "What are they?"

    "Pots."

    "They're very beautiful pots. What else do you make?" I reeled off a list.

    "But none of them are toys?"

    "No, sir."

    "You seem to be a true craftsman. What do you do with the things you make?"

    "They're for decoration," I said. "And I give them away."

    "Are you going to give us something?"

    "You're welcome to have any you like," I replied. "But I haven't painted them yet."

    "Well then, later," said the man, and took another look around the field.

    "Are you going to move into that house?" I asked.

    "The two of us are always traveling," he replied, "but our families will be moving in."

    "Are there any boys my age?"

    He laughed: "No, sir. Just two or three women and the rest girls, all girls." He laughed again: "And all older than you. But," he added, pointing to the pots, "Mah Rukh Sultan is also very fond of this sort of thing."

    He glanced around the area once more, then said:

    "All right, we'll have a look at our new house now."

    As they turned away, I raised my hand in salaam, ashamed that I had not thought of showing them this respect when they had first entered.

    When they had left and I had returned to my work, I realized that only one of the men had conversed with me. At that moment I heard another sound and turned around. The fellow who had not spoken earlier was standing near me. Without meeting my eyes, he asked:

    "Who is your local doctor?"

    I gave him the name of our doctor.

    "Does he live far from here?"

    "No, he's nearby," I told him, and asked, "Is someone in your family ill?"

    "No." He said something else, but I didn't understand it. Then he walked away silently.

    When I told my family that some new people were moving into the house next door, I found that they already knew about it. I also learned that the repair of the house had been in progress for several days and that it was nearly finished. However, I was plied with questions about the men who had spoken to me. Of course, I could tell them no more than what had been said during the conversation. My family knew very little, only that the two were indeed brothers and that they came from another country, having left their home when still children. I remarked that they didn't look like foreigners, and retired to my room.

    I arranged the things placed on the mantel with great care, changing their placement and order several times. Finally satisfied, I stepped back for a look. The most outstanding piece was still the camphor sparrow. Days later, I found myself staring at it for a long time. It looked alive. Each time I looked at it I felt as though it were flying off the branch or swooping down. I still thought it must have been made fairly easily and wondered anew why I was unable to reproduce it. I also wondered why I hadn't thought of a good human name for it yet. My musings transformed into a light regret.

    If it weren't for the fact that everyone called it the camphor sparrow now, I thought sadly, I would have named it Mah Rukh Sultan.


I saw Mah Rukh Sultan that very week. I had been tidying my room since morning, putting all the objects I had left lying about in order. The articles I had made were all stacked on my bed and on the table that stood against the opposite wall. My tools were all over the floor and I was yanking more stuff out from under the bed when I realized that a crowd of guests had come into the living room. Leaning back from the bed a little, I peeped through the thin film of the curtain hanging over the half-open door. The living room was filled with masses of girls, all of them older than I was. I looked at their colorful dresses with interest, then set back to work, but their voices filtered in from the larger room. An older woman with a strident voice was holding forth at a great clip, as though afraid of forgetting her next sentence, recounting the difficulties of traveling with huge quantities of luggage, describing the floor plan of the house she had left behind, ticking off the advantages and disadvantages of her present abode. The women of my house showed sympathy, but now and then one of her own girls would point out some exaggeration in the old lady's account and start to giggle. Then the old lady introduced the girls by name: Mah Rukh Sultan, Seem Tan Sultan, Dil Afza Sultan, Zar Taj Sultan, Pari Paikar Sultan and so on. My relatives remarked on the lovely names and the girls giggled and giggled. Then their laughter changed into sounds of wonderment and shrieks of joy. I guessed from their voices that they were standing by the camphor sparrow. Its creator was mentioned and the voices grew momentarily subdued, then the cries of wonder and excitement rose once more. Now the objects displayed on the mantel were named one by one. At first, this made me feel good, but the thought that I might be called in and introduced to the crowd unsettled me. I rose slowly to close the half-opened door leading to the larger room, but realized I would surely be seen from behind the curtain as I did so. I hesitated, uncertain what to do, then noticed a twisted piece of sturdy wire on the floor and reached down for it. At that moment a voice came from the area of the fireplace:

    "Mah Rukh Sultan! Do you see that? It looks like it's alive."

    I pressed the crooked wire across my knees to straighten it, and had just lifted it to prod the door shut when a sudden silence descended on the living room. It was as though the room were empty. Listening attentively, I began to hear the rustling of dresses and the sound of whispering, but I couldn't make out what was being said. Barely had I extended the wire toward the door when the double doors were flung wide open and a female relative of mine walked into the room. She took in the mess in a glance, then pointed to all the things piled on my bed and said, "Get this stuff off here, and hurry—then out you go!"

    I had barely opened my mouth to protest when she silenced me with a wave of her hand. "Mah Rukh Sultan isn't feeling well," she said. "She needs to lie down."

    My relative began moving the things off the bed herself and piling them up on the table. I was obliged to lend a hand. She launched into a lecture on the benefits of good housekeeping as she removed the objects. One leg of the bed was shorter than the others, and kept hitting the floor with a clunking sound. I was searching for a piece of wood to put under it when I heard the voice of another female relative at the door. "Right here," she was saying, holding the curtain aside. "Bring her in."

    I saw a cluster of women and girls at the door, but only one girl and an older woman came in. I couldn't tell who was supporting whom. The girl, however, kept her eyes lowered while the older woman craned her neck to examine everything in the room. With her help, the girl sat down on the bed, and the short leg hit the floor. The girl's head tilted back a little, but her eyes remained downcast. The old woman peered around the room again, her eyes lighting briefly on me. I was standing with my hand resting on the table. My relative tapped me lightly on the shoulder and asked me to leave, and I went out through the room's other door, the one which opened into a small yard enclosed by a low wall, beyond which lay the field. It was easy enough to get into the field from here, and I wandered around it for a while.

    I hadn't been able to get a good look at Mah Rukh Sultan. I recalled only that she had one end of her white dupatta draped over her head while the other hung down to her feet, one of its corners wrapped around her hand. There was something else I couldn't quite place, but as I walked by the mound of oily earth it came back to me that I had felt a very light caress of camphor when she had walked past me.

    After a while I got bored wandering in the field and returned to the yard. I stood near the door of my room and strained my ears. There was no sound from inside. The door was not fully closed, and I pushed it open an inch farther. I saw at once that the bed was empty, then heard the sound of conversation in the living room, so I opened the door the whole way and walked into the bedroom.

(Continues...)

Table of Contents

Essence of Camphor1
Interregnum38
Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire57
Sheesha Ghat86
Ba'i's Mourners106
The Myna from Peacock Garden123
Remains of the Ray Family171

What People are Saying About This

Amit Chaudhuri

Masud writes about a Lucknow and an India that we did not know existed before it came into being in his work. He was a passionate but calm realist of the strange; his precise, meticulous prose describes the imprecise quests and states of mind our lives are based, and founded, on. His is probably the most extraordinary fictional voice to have emerged in world literature this decade.
—(Amit Chaudhuri, author of Freedom Song: Three Novels)

Sara Suleri Goodyear

The startling grace of Essence of Camphoremanates both from the writers ability to give a form and a voice to rare cultural details and to the elegant originality to his prose…each of these seven masterful stories is quickened with an irony as compassionate as it is delicate.
—(Sara Suleri Goodyear, author ofNeatless Daysand Professor of Literature at Yale University)

Agha Shahid Ali

Even shorn of its immense humanity, Masud's lyricism would dazzle, for he is, without doubt, a poet's storyteller—Essence of Camphorintoxicates reason.
—(Agha Shahid Ali, Professor of English, The University of Utah)

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