The night of November 20th, 1993 was in many ways Kafkaesque for Rashid Karim, one of the major novelists of Bangladesh. The single, pregnant word that succinctly captures his metamorphosis is horror. With the swift debilitating stroke or apoplexy, he plunged into the life of a caged bird and became trapped into a nightmarish destiny of partial mobility. Initially it was a life of tremendous physical and psychological loss comprising of terror, pain and disgust, cries out loud for death before proceeding to surrender, acceptance and gratitude. In the face of it all he was able to be retain his resilience. He was able to conclude his life with courage, which enabled him to become the legitimate hero of his own dignified life.
The cerebro-vascular arrest cut without mercy many of the important aspects of Karim's life. It significantly squashed his power to hold with words and with touch; his love of languages. He had to bear the excruciating pain of not being able to reach or express what was near, dear and within him. He became a one-armed man, partially blind, with one functional leg. It was hard to see his creative hand become still and hang like a dead limb of a tree. His fingers curled, they could not grasp, and they could not hold a pen. In his head, his thoughts became fragmented, disjointed. His eyes ached when they tried to read. They saw only half lines. Despite such disadvantages he wrote his autobiography, some poems, and reviews and gave a few interviews. Even though he had not lost the artist's nagging urge to create, he refused to write the three conceptualized novels through an amanuensis. There is something very special about holding a pen and writing with one's own hand, his wife reflected.
After the devastation, his family started anticipating the arrival of Godot, Samuel Beckett's fictional character who is supposed to usher the final fulfillment. They maintained the delusional hope of Karim returning to his accustomed life. They goaded, insisted and compelled him to do physical therapy so that he could immerse himself in his writings, go to his literary haunts, go back to collecting music and visiting family and friends. He would affectionately, irritatingly and desolately offer his family this consolation, “I have tried. Nothing happens.” He would sometimes ask with an unflinching gaze “Do you want me to live?” And then thankfully respond at the end of the scrutiny, “Okay. Let me try.”
With anticipation and determination Karim reconstructed his irreversible damaged life with a tightly knit routine comprising of waking up late, going to sleep early, having regulated meals, waiting for the insulin man thrice a day, waiting for his daughter's call once a day and waiting for his wife to retire for the day. When his daughter called he would have a set of questions for her, adding occasional humor. “What are you having for breakfast? Send some over!” He would speak pleasurably about showering and shaving as the big events of his day.
Gradually age and progression of ailments led him to slink out of a fuller life. He confined himself to two rooms of his rented flat. He spent most of his waking hours in his bed-room, at his desk, looking at a pile of books and newspaper clippings and a family picture. Occasionally he would call a friend in the morning. They would listen to the sound of the kokil over the phone while he would relish a daalpuri with piping hot tea. After lunch, he would walk over to the living room counting the thirty steps and either take a nap sitting upright on the sofa or ask his wife to find him a good Rabindra Sangeet on TV. From the afternoon onwards he would start losing energy. In the evening he would return to his desk to have dinner. After that he would go for his hour-long bedtime rituals, return to the living room to say good night before retiring for the night as a cocoon by drawing the quilt all over his body.
Beneath this regimented surface played the inner monologue of loneliness, existential concerns and the astonishing light of gratitude. In his poem “Elebele Chinta” (Stray Thoughts), Karim describes the yearning for company and how in the absence of fellow human beings, the sounds of a fading conversation on the street and the imagined cursory look of the passer-by become good enough to fill the lonely heart with gratitude. He then goes on to mention that even when the desired visitor does visit, “The mind and body of this lonely man etherized./ Then the barking of the dog/ In the dead of night,/ Becomes very dear/ For some unknown reason.” But the coarse sounds of the honking cars remained bothersome and in the absence of testimonials the curiosity to discover what lays yonder surfaced.
James Joyce, one of the best Irish writers, could have sketched Karim's life insightfully in Ulysses as he could depict the “grandeur of ordinary life” and could celebrate “all things rude and true.” Had Joyce delivered the eulogy at Karim's funeral on November 26, 2011, he would have no doubt said, “Cheer up man! You have gone through the highs and lows of life on your own terms. You have experienced the odd thing called stroke with valor. You have loved and disliked passionately, you have appreciated and forgiven, you have dreamt, you have lost, you have worried, you have feared, you have yelled, you have cried, you have laughed, you have withdrawn. You have created. You have protected. You have immigrated. You have traveled. You have learnt languages. You have eaten steaks and biriyani, sipped tea, whiskey, gin and beer, defecated, sang songs, conversed, felt sorry for yourself and others, you have looked at people, waited for people, shopped, paid careful attention to style …...these aren't little things, they are 'beautiful, serious, deep and fascinating' and brave. You can respect and appreciate your fragile and eventful life. You can see yourself as a heroic man who struggled with adversity with dignity without losing the zest for life.”
Nabila Murshed is an occasional contributor to this page.