Contemporary Literary Review India print ISSN 2250-3366

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Locked-in Syndrome by Dr. Rashid Askari

Locked-in Syndrome by Dr. Rashid Askari

When I came to my senses, I discovered myself as a mummified corpse in a supine posture. It was a queer state of body and mind. A state which was neither life nor death or was both! I heard it say that I took on this abnormal condition after I survived a persistent vegetative state. At first sight I looked like a vampire with a pair of deathly pale eyes wide open. No children, not even my own infant son, would dare cast a look on my face. My whole body—from head to toe—was completely paralyzed and devoid of the slightest tactile sensation. A soft and feathery touch or a knockout punch would make no difference on it. Heaving with all my might, I could not move any parts of my body even an inch.

As a matter of fact, I felt like a man without any physical existence. But strangely enough, I had full cognitive function. I had a very good brain, but no brawn. I was sort of a disembodied cerebral creature! That was completely a bizarre situation, and I did not know if anybody else on earth had ever had this weird experience. The body that contained my whole being seemed to be someone else's. A totally unconnected entity! Had it been my own body, it would have followed the command of my brain. But it was not doing that. Contrary to the cerebral laws, all parts of it waged non-cooperation with the central organ, and took an eternal work-abstention. As a result, it lay defunct like a million year-old fossil. I was made to lie on my back, on my sides, and in prostration by turns. I could not see around, though I had very good sight. My eyes were firmly focused on the frontal point, and could only spot things appearing face to face with me.

I forgot the last time when I snapped my fingers and scratched my back, or chewed on the bone, and sucked its marrow. How nice it was to have the body parts fully functional! Picking teeth, threading needles, sorting out fish-bones, walking down the narrow cobbled streets, giving kiddies a piggyback; everything seemed a mind-blowing experience. That I could do all these was now utterly inconceivable. Believe me, for pity's sake, I used to do all these, with considerable ease and effortless grace. All were now daydreams.

A mortal blow was responsible for this terrible predicament. It was a dull, grey morning. I was waiting for the bus at Mirpur–10 Goalchakkar. Although a rush hour, there was not much traffic. The Opposition Party was out on a dawn to dusk hartal. It meant a total paralysis in the city. People were forced willy-nilly to refrain from going to work. But I had to go. Hardly a month passed since I had joined a national newspaper. Besides, I was not in the editor's good books. In fact I was in his bad books from the very first day I met him at the interview board.

"Why have you left Banglabazar?" The editor asked me very oddly.

"I want to work independently". I replied firmly.

"Oh, I see! Angry young man!" He seemed to have greeted my answer with scorn.

I bit back a sharp retort. The literary editor, who had known me for about a couple of years now, quickly intervened.

"I think he would be OK for us." The editor put in a good word for me, nodding approval with some reluctance.

A bus was running towards me. I gave it a signal to stop by raising my hand. It slowed to a halt, and I hurried to catch it. But, before I completely placed one of my feet in the doorway, a sudden loud uproar descended on us, and the bus quickly picked up speed. I was thrown onto the street, and much before reaching the safety of the roadside, I collided head-on with another speeding car which was being chased by the furious picketers. My head hit some rock-like object with a dull thud. I saw the sun bursting into a million pieces. I could recall nothing else.

When I woke up , I found myself physically finished off. But I grew bright and brainy inasmuch as my whole body was crippled. I was reduced to a mere thinking pot. I could understand everything happening around me but I could not express myself. The only way I sometimes reciprocated my passion were the silent tears streaming down my face. But that also dried up with the passage of time. Now, I was left with a transfixing stare in my stiff grey eyes for evermore. The wanton flies would buzz lazily in and around them. I could not drive them away. I was weaker than the insects!

I was being fed and watered through a tube, and my bowels were opened through another. A servant was hired to do these jobs for me. My wife would walk around inspecting his work but could not stay much longer in my room—she had an allergy to stench. I could very well understand that this sort of parasitical life should not be carried much longer. I wished I could put an end to it. My wife, however, was not willing to give up hope. A half-dead husband was better for her than no husband.

I desperately wanted to die. But I could not. I would have committed suicide at the first chance if I had any. Earlier I didn’t understand why some people committed suicide. I thought it was stupid of them to kill themselves deliberately. I took pity on them. But I now realized why people fall back on suicides. Why they are in favour of voluntary euthanasia. My plea for suicide was far stronger than others'. Anybody in my shoes would support my claim. I thought of killing myself every moment, but to no effect. I envied them who succeeded in self-killing. But I was incapacitated, to  kill myself with my own hands. I was very firm in my decision to execute it, but I did not have the necessary strength. I could not make the noose, nor did I have the ability to drink a cup of poison with my own hands, let alone jump under the express train.

I saw a flood of sympathies for me. People would come to see me everyday. My mother was crying her eyes out. My siblings were getting frantic with worries about my life. The future of my wife and son became a serious matter of concern to my sorrowful relatives. My colleagues were taking the trouble to raise charity funds for my overseas treatment. They gave my wife a job in their newspaper office. Among all these, what struck me most was the abrupt U-turn by our editor. He had a deep aversion to me which seemed to have turned into deep sympathies. He started visiting me time and again. I could very well cotton on to what was with him and his philanthropic work. In addition, I could read the whole situation—why my family and I had become an object of pity, why the number of well-wishers was increasing, and for how long this tempo would continue. I could smell that some hungry vultures were trying to crouch on a carcass.

The imam of our local mosque came to make me recite my confession of faith. The deathly shape of my body made him horror-stricken. Looking at my stony eyes he murmured some arcane quotes from scripture.

"All is the Almighty's wish." The imam tried to control his bewilderment.

"Have patience. Have faith in Allah. He is the most beneficent, most merciful. He puts people to trouble to test their reliance on Him. You see, how terribly Prophet Ayyub (PBUH) suffered from an ugly disease. Worms were eating away at his whole body, but he put up with it without any complaint. Yet he did not lose his faith in Allah, and finally he won His grace. Your disease is nothing compared to his. You keep praying to Allah. He can do everything. He can make a mountain out of a molehill. He'll sure forgive you." The imam delivered a brief sermon.

Noticing no sign of response from me, he got a little embarrassed. He, however, mumbled some prayers, and blew on my whole body thrice from head to foot.

The span of sorrow is miserably short-lived. The surge of sadness over my nagging disability started dying down. I was, as it were, overstaying everybody's welcome. I ought to have died by now. But I was outliving my usefulness like the old, omniscient jackdaw of Hindu mythology. The angel of death might have developed distaste for me. The flow of visitors was on the wane with an exception to my boss. He was untiring in his efforts to frequent our house. He took great care of my health. He bought my son costly toys. I knew neither my son nor me were his object of interest. But my infant son did not know. He would call him 'boss uncle'. He preferred his alive and kicking uncle to a virtually dead father. The dad who could not buy his boy nice playthings was a rotten one. Really, I was not a good father, nor was I a good husband. My boss took full advantage of this. He came forward to fill up the gap with tangible love and reassurance. He was a good charmer, and knew the art of seducing women. My wife, too, loved to have him dance on her. So they soon became a good match for each other. I was well aware of the inevitable outcome of this sort of relationship that developed in such critical situations.

I noticed a change in my wife's behaviour towards me. She was never good at taking care of me. But now she was trying to be unnecessarily more attentive. The other day she sat beside me, placed her hand on my forehead, and fixed a tender look at my eyes. I caught a whiff of some expensive perfume as she leaned towards me. I had never bought her one like that. She was looking very gorgeous in a new dress. Maybe she had been right back from outdoors.

"How're you now, honey?" She began talking in a soft, soothing voice.

"I don't know if you'd at all be OK. But I don't mind that. I want you to remain like this if you're not cured. I don't want you to die. I can't bear the thought of losing you, Babu. I love you, and always will do. Please don't get me wrong." She took a series of deep sobbing breaths.

This was for the first time that the sweet sobriquet 'Babu' sounded plastic. I became pretty sure that there must have occurred something wrong. She had a guilty look on her face. But I was not hurting much. I never expected her to be a wife like Rahima Bibi, and wait on me hand and foot. I would not mind at all if she married after my death or even before. She could jolly divorce me, and get hitched soon. She had reasonable grounds for that within our personal law. But, I was goddamn sure that my boss would not be that gentlemanly. Had he taken these sorts of affairs to the level of marriage with due sincerity and solemnization, his wives would have sure outnumbered King Solomon's.

Owing to lying thick on the bed day and night, bedsores developed on my back. Taking the advantage of the attendant's inefficiency and carelessness they formed cavities full of pus, and were gradually expanding and rotting away. I could not feel anything, but could smell the foul putrid stench of the rotting flesh. The whole room was stiflingly stinky. The attendant refused to dress the sores. My wife proposed to redouble his wage. That worked. Now he would make perfunctory efforts, and dress the wounds with clumsy fingers. The wounds, however, did not heal at all.

I was fortunate enough that before my death I had been able to know of the disease I was diagnosed with. My doctor said it was a very rare disease called 'Locked-in syndrome'. The patient is aware and awake, but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of the voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes. But my disease was, as the doctor identified, the worst kind of locked-in syndrome, which is called 'Total Locked-in Syndrome' where the eyes are also paralyzed. For me, it was caused by the traumatic brain injury done in the Mirpur–10 accident. The doctor disappointed us by declaring that there was no standard treatment for it except for the symptomatic ones. So there was no question of cure. He, however, assured that patients might be able to communicate with others through coded messages by blinking or moving their eyes. But I could not even do that. Mine was the worst case of locked-in syndrome.

I could feel that I was clearly sinking fast. It was impossible for me to regain motor control. But I suffered no heartbreak for going to lose my life. I was not looking forward to a comeback. But I had a dying wish. I wanted to write a poem. The last poem of my life! Just a few lines! The verses were coming into my mind in bits and pieces but I was failing to capture them. This never happened before in my life. I had searched high and low for fresh images, but I seldom got them perfect. Now a tide of imagination was surging through me. I needed to find an outlet for them. But that was closed sine die.

Another thing for which I was burning with was the publication of my book. I was not much of a poet, but I had a penchant for writing poetry. Some of my poems were published in the literary supplements of the national dailies. They earned some critical acclaim too. But I could not get any books published in almost a decade. A manuscript was ready at hand, but I found no publisher for it. All asked me money for publishing it. I had declined. I resolved on waiting another two decades to publish it without giving any sweetener. But now the declining days of my life sapped me of my confidence. I felt tempted to see my book published before my death. But how was it possible?

My wife had no interest in my poetry. I could clearly recall the incident. It was a few days after our marriage that a poem of mine was published in a highly esteemed national daily. I rushed home to show it to my wife. She was making herself up for a post-wedding family photo-session. I covered her eyes from behind with my hands in sport.

"Don't be naughty, honey. What's up?" My wife kept combing her long wavy hair.

"I have a surprise for you!" I was flushed with excitement at the chance of proving myself to my wife.

"Really? What's that? Let me see." She jumped in joy.

I unfolded the paper before her eyes, and pointed to my name in bold type under the title of the poem.

"You see, it's your husband's name in print. A promising poet of this soil!" I tried to impress on her.

All her interest vanished off her face. She rolled her eyes upward.

"Oh, your poem! I thought it something else. I guessed you'd won the national lottery. Anyway, how much would they pay for it?

"Nothing." I turned pale and drew with a deep feeling of unease.

"Then, what's the point of writing poetry? You have bigger fish to fry," said my new wife with proud eye brows as if to underline the real truth of life.

"But, I'll read your poem. After all, it's my good man's stuff." She took the newspaper from my hand.

I was grateful that she spared my blushes, although she could not spare the sheet of paper containing my poem. The following day, she wrapped up some new saris in it, and asked me to get it ironed from the laundry shop. I held the bundle in my hands, and saw my poem was peeping through the crumpled papers.

How could I believe that such a wife would feel the urge, and use her initiative to publish my poetry? But she did it. One evening, she came to me with the manuscript of my book. There was a sparkle of excitement in her eyes.

"Babu, haven't you heard that Javed Bhai has agreed to publish your poetry book. I've made him agree. He'd already talked to a publisher. He gave me a big amount in advance from the royalties on your book."

I breathed a sigh of contentment. My eyes were glued to the pages of the manuscript as my wife was turning them. Neat, legible, and calligraphic handwriting! My poetry! My creation! At long last going to see the light of day! What else did I need? I had no more repentance. I seemed to be left with a light heart. Maybe my life had been miserably short, but my poetry was going to be permanent. This is called the power of printed page! I wish I could give my wife grateful thanks.

There came the coveted day. My book was out. It was put before my eyes. I was bursting with joy. I tried to get an eyeful of it. What a deluxe edition! How spectacular the dust jacket is! The title fell on my hungry eyes. It was OK. Verses from the Alluvium! But whose name was this in my book? It was not my name! It was Javed Karim! How come?

I felt an explosion inside me. But I could not give vent to it.

Author's Bio: Dr. Rashid Askari, an MA in English from Dhaka University, and a PhD in Indian English literature from the University of Pune, is a professor of English at Kushtia Islamic University. Rashid Askari has emerged as a writer in the mid-nineties of the last century, and has, by now, written half a dozen books, and quite a large number of research articles, essays, and newspaper columns in Bengali and English published at home and abroad. His two Bengali books: Indo-English Literature and Others (Dhaka-1996) and Postmodern Literary and Critical Theory (Dhaka-2002) and one English book: The Wounded Land deserve special mention. He also writes short fictions in Bengali and English. Currently, he is working on an English fiction.

2 comments:

  1. “Locked-in Syndrome” by Dr. Rashid Askari is a great story, which Dr. Askari later renamed and substantially edited. It came out finally as “The Poet.” It has lots of twists and it shows that Dr. Askari has an incredibly big hoard of topics. All his stories are as distantly located as galaxies. Topics stand miles apart from each other. He is a genius like late S. Roy.

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  2. The story reminded me one of the best short story writers of all time, William Sydney Porter who was famous for surprise endings of his stories. The development of the character assures us the inevitable fate of the poor creature. We don’t expect him to be on his feet once again. The writer even excels Porter in building blocks of sequential incidents and the final turn. The writer showed how the protagonist lived through his locked-in syndrome relying on the hope of getting his poetry published. When his poems are stolen, his death, though unpronounced, is confirmed. The first person narration of the story makes us feel the pangs of the narrator: it is as if the reader himself were paralyzed completely and recalling his “Picking teeth, threading needles, sorting out fish-bones, walking down the narrow cobbled streets, giving kiddies a piggyback”. The cruelty of life, his outliving sympathizers’ compassion, editor’s intrusion into his family, wife’s role: everything makes it so real life with an unexpected end that, it is a noteworthy short story written in English by a Bangladeshi writer.

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