A few years before he died, Nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was diagnosed with senile dementia. It got to the point where he could no longer recognise his sons and called his wife an impostor.

“Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it,” Márquez anxiously told his son, Rodrigo Garcia, when he began to experience minor episodes of forgetfulness.

“And then he would repeat it in one form or another multiple times an hour for half an afternoon. It was gruelling. That eventually passed. He regained some tranquillity and would sometimes say, ‘I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it’,” Rodrigo Garcia writes in his memoir A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes.

British novelist Dame Iris Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, at the age of 76, shortly after the publication of her last novel. A vocabulary analysis of this novel, published in the science journal, Nature, shows that her work betrayed the subtle signs of her condition even before she was diagnosed.

Another report published by the science magazine Nautilus stated that her last novel “is rife with sentences that forge blindly ahead, lacking delicate shifts in structure, the language repetitious and deadened by indefinite nouns.”

Bashir Badr in happier times. (HT Photo)
Bashir Badr in happier times. (HT Photo)

Closer home, the telltale signs of dementia were noticed almost a decade ago in Bashir Badr, the undisputed king of Urdu poetry and the soul of every mushaira.

The pattern of progression was similar to Garcia and Murdoch’s — beginning with mild memory loss, which then slowly began to involve parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language.

And here we have Badr today, 86 years old, giving daad (appreciating) to his own couplets with a string of wah-wahs without realising that they are his; or that he is a poet, a man who began writing as a teen and had the honour of studying his own ghazals when he enrolled for a Masters degree in Urdu literature; or that he is the great Bashir Badr, the recipient of many awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award.

Who would have imagined that Badr, who loved to hold forth at mushairas, lavishing fellow poets with heartfelt praise, would go blank on his own poetry? And then, one day, forget his entire body of work spanning over six decades?

Bashir Badr was chairman of the Urdu Academy in Bhopal, when he started experiencing memory loss, with the past, the present, and the future becoming jumbled. When the lapses became a source of nervousness and embarrassment he started shying away from public life. He withdrew from the world of mushairas. Occasionally, his family would take him to be a part of the audience or to an odd radio or TV recording.

“Not once did he have to write his couplets on a piece of paper,” says his wife Rahat Badr. “He would forget people but would remember his ghazals.” But his dementia progressed to a stage where he would hear the misra, the first line of a couplet he had written, and would then struggle to complete it.

The genius of Badr, who made his mark with ghazals, lay in effortlessly conveying complex thoughts using unique metaphors and imagery:

Saat sandooqon mein bhar kar dafn kar do nafratein,Aaj insaan ko mohabbat ki zaroorat hai bahut

or

Yeh phool mujhe koi virasat mein nahin mile hain,Tu ne mera kaanton bhara bistar nahin dekha

or

Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein,Tum taras nahi khaate bastiyan jalane mein!

Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a young Benazir Bhutto after the signing of the Simla Agreement. (HT Archive)
Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a young Benazir Bhutto after the signing of the Simla Agreement. (HT Archive)

One of his couplets was quoted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then President of Pakistan, when he signed the Simla Agreement of 1972.

Badr’s daughter Saba recites the shair:

Dushmani jam kar karoLekin ye gunjaish rahe,Jab kabhi hum dost ho jayeinTo sharminda na hon

As his dementia peaked, Badr, who was once fluent in Urdu, English, Hindi, and Persian, stopped writing. The mehfils at home became less frequent and he struggled to recognise friends and family.

After a while, the mehfils stopped. And the months turned into years.

Manzar Bhopali, Badr’s colleague and friend, remarks that, had the poet not been consumed by dementia, he would have overtaken the greatest of Urdu poets in the subcontinent.

He recounts an incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University where Badr forgot a couplet midway, and started repeating his shairs.

“Badr’s loss of memory is not just his personal illness. Urdu literature has also become bedridden after his withdrawal,” says Bhopali. “He continued to write and recite poetry till he was in no state to step out of his house. He would read his shairs to his close friends and family. If he composed a new shair his wife would write it down for him.”

With Badr’s untimely exit, the tradition of holding mushairas too has almost passed. “Urdu Academy has been taken over by the state’s culture department and the days of holding grand mushairas are long gone. Some unknown poets who recite to small groups of 40 to 50 people are invited to grace the programmes,” Bhopali says.

Badr, who composed poetry at night, is often heard mumbling in bed. His wife believes he still writes poetry.

“I cannot decipher what he is saying, but it seems like he is trying to compose a ghazal. He used to stay up at night writing poetry or taking part in mushairas. He finds it difficult to sleep at night. He has been unable to break that habit. His body clock is yet to adjust to this new routine,” Rahat says.

Badr enjoys hearing poetry. Especially when his son, Tayyab, a spitting image of his father, reads it out to him in tarannum (in a musical tone), as he himself would at a mushaira. More often than not the couplets are Badr’s and he seems pleased to hear them.

I can’t help but wonder if, like Murdoch, Badr’s failing memory impacted the shayri written towards the fag end of his 60-year career. Was there a repetition of ideas? Lapses in grammar? Were his couplets lacking in depth or his characteristic style? There are no clear answers.

Badr’s wife says that his descent into dementia has been so gradual that it almost went unnoticed – by him and by his family. She believes it did not initially affect his writing. Bhopali too says Badr wrote till he could, and his couplets had the same quality and impact.

Rahat, Bashir Badr and Tayyab (Courtesy the Badr family)
Rahat, Bashir Badr and Tayyab (Courtesy the Badr family)

Lynn Casteel Harper, who works with those who suffer from dementia, says the disease is traumatic for both patients and caregivers. She has documented her experiences in her book On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What it Means to Disappear. Harper often encounters anxious caregivers who bare their own deepest fears about dementia, disappearance, and death. Would they too get dementia even though they did the daily crosswords, she is often asked.

A caregiver once told Harper that their family dog, which used to be affectionate with her father, seemed scared to go near him as his condition progressed. She worried that this might indicate that her father’s soul had left, dementia’s final theft.

In that sense, Badr’s wife Rahat is a confident caregiver. She is patient and ensures that he leads a life of dignity, indulging him in every way she can. She even took it upon herself to compile and publish his 18,000 ghazals. She treats him like a child, taking care of his littlest needs: “Even when I buy clothes for Badr sahab, I keep his taste in mind. He expresses happiness when he sees clothes tailored to suit his style.”

“I follow the doctor’s advice. I make sure there are no visitors so that he doesn’t get anxious. We do not want him to strain himself in any manner,” she says.

In his memoir, Rodrigo writes that Garcia’s secretary once found him standing alone in the middle of the garden, looking off into the distance, lost in thought.

“What are you doing out here, Don Gabriel?”

“Crying.”

“Crying? You’re not crying.”

“Yes, I am. But without tears. Don’t you realize that my head is now sh*t?”

I can’t help but wonder if Badr too cries without tears when he is struggling to write a shair in his head, in the middle of the night, when his wife hears his incoherent utterances.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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