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Aphasia

September 16, 2019

Sitting at his writing table by the window overlooking New York’s East River, Irfan Malik watches the water rush past. He too is in a rush. There are so many poems to complete before the words escape him forever.

The 61-year-old Punjabi poet, who was once fluent in four languages, has aphasia — a variant form of Alzheimer’s disease. He is losing his words one language at a time.

On good days he rolls with the water and is able to write — although it can take hours to finish a line. On the off days — and they are advancing rapidly — he can’t access the words. On these days he just watches the river rush by.

Malik was diagnosed with logopenic aphasia in 2015. “‘Aphasia’ means impairment of language, ‘logo’ means shortage. So he is losing his language,” explains Amna Buttar, a geriatric doctor at New York University Langone hospitals, who is also Malik’s romantic partner.

Initially he only had language issues but this summer it was confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s disease with memory impairment as well as executive function impairment, Buttar says. “His dementia is still considered mild, but will progress.”

When it began, Malik compared what happened to his brain to a stroke. The damage was done and he would have to learn to adjust, he thought. He stammered and would get slightly annoyed when people finished his sentences before he could. But he had accepted this was the hand he was dealt.

He moved to New York City from Boston in 2016 to be with Buttar, a fellow Punjabi expatriate, who fell in love with his poetry before she fell for him.

They met in 2014. Since then, Buttar has happily translated Malik’s Punjabi verses for English speakers. She is a passionate fan of his work and is eager to share it with a larger audience.

These days she also translates his conversations. While Malik can still understand English, he has trouble finding the words to express himself. He will slowly lose his comprehension too.

“It is so sad that a person whose life is about words is losing his words,” says Buttar.

“It makes me happy to know he is continuing to write poetry,” she says.

Malik became a poet out of necessity.

While a student in Lahore, Pakistan, in the 1970s, he was set on becoming a fiction writer and was writing in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Once his first story was published, he started showing up at the Pak Tea House, a hangout for famous and up-and-coming writers and progressives.

“I was very young so nobody paid attention to me,” he says. So he and another young Punjabi writer, Zubair Ahmad, founded a youth group called Nae Uffaq (New Horizons). They held meetings and readings at another tea house and soon attracted a young following.

“We became their voice,” he says.

It was not a political organization, says Malik. “Not yet.”

But by 1977, after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq came to power in a military coup d’état deposing Pakistan president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, that all changed.

“I decided now was not the time to write stories or fiction but now was the time to get involved in politics and I joined an underground Communist Party,” he says in Punjabi with Buttar translating.

He stopped writing prose and became a scribe for an underground political circular called Red Flag. Life was tough for young activists. Malik said they were routinely rounded up, imprisoned and tortured. Malik knew of three young leaders who had died while being tortured. With that in mind and when he was no longer impressed by the party leadership, he quit the party and fled Lahore for Sweden with his Swedish wife, who was 8 months pregnant with their daughter.

He wrote his first poem in a new language — Swedish — in a new city — Stockholm.

He was studying Swedish and working on improving his English, when a journalist asked him to write a piece about Bhutto for a Swedish magazine. This paved the way to a job teaching immigrant Pakistani children in Stockholm both Punjabi and Urdu.

He published an Urdu translation of nine Swedish short stories titled Ghongay (Seashell) in 1993.

“I left home at 5 a.m. and was home at midnight,” says Malik. “I didn’t have much time so I decided to do poetry rather than prose. It doesn’t take as much time or research as prose fiction does.”

He did most of his writing commuting between schools on the city bus.

He met the late Swedish poet Gosta Friberg. In 2002, Malik published Ghaira (An Ever Expanding Circle) a Punjabi translation of Friberg’s poems.

“That started my journey into poetry.” Malik says. He soon decided to write only in his mother tongue, Punjabi. When South Asia was divided into India and Pakistan after the British pulled out in 1947, Urdu and English became the national languages of Pakistan. Written Punjabi was given an Urdu script and as a result the language lost a lot of its power.

Malik wanted to give it back.

His first book of poetry Vich Jagratey Sutti Taang (Desire Is Sleeping Within Sleeplessness, 1992) is about love and sex and politics.

His next book Akath (Untold, 1998), is a collection of poems about a language that is dying. It is a philosophical metaphor. One poem gets shorter until there are no words left and the book ends with several blank pages.

Malik relies on pauses to punctuate the words that paint his poems. Those silent spaces have always held as much importance as his carefully chosen words. Now as he writes about facing his illness, pauses take up even more space.

His third book Nun Guna (The letter N, 2000) plays with the structure of language.

Malik can no longer read that first poem he wrote in Swedish or speak to his first child in her mother tongue. That language disappeared first.

His English words are evaporating, too — gone before they reach the tip of his tongue. These days, it’s a struggle, but he can have conversations in Urdu and while he can still find words in Punjabi, he has trouble expressing himself in deep intellectual ways, says Buttar.

Malik can trace the onset of the disease back years before the official diagnosis. He was living in Boston with his second wife, an American he met in Stockholm, and their two children. He was working in the IT department at Harvard University when he first noticed a stammer as he searched for words. It was about 10 years ago.

By the time he was diagnosed in 2015, his marriage had unravelled and he had met Buttar. He was on disability from his job at Harvard and the prognosis depressed him.Get some good advice in your inboxGet expert advice on life and relationships with the Star’s Advice newsletter.Sign Up Now

After months of wallowing in despair, Buttar said to him. “You have a choice — stay depressed or do something about it.”

He chose to continue sharing his poetry. He contacted friends in Pakistan, across the United States, in Canada and Europe telling them he would be travelling and asking if they would arrange readings.

“Poetry is such an intimate thing,” Malik says of his preference for small gatherings.

Malik had five readings booked in Pakistan before he arrived which lead to further readings over the two weeks he was there. The same thing happened in San Francisco and Vancouver where there are large Punjabi communities.

Each year since including this year, he has continued these poetry tours. In 2018, he gave readings in Toronto, Stockholm and London.

“Some of the people who came to my readings knew my poetry. Some others didn’t but when they heard, they became my fans,” he says.

Malik writes about romance, spirituality and politics from the point of view of a man in exile. Different themes are seeping into his latest work which reflects his changing outlook on life. He wrote Call of Mystics at the table by the East River.

Tongues have gotten stuck to palate/ When you close your eye/ You see white light/ Flowing in water/ Rushing water/ Black water/ My heart desires/ This water to show me pictures / Drakes, catfish, frogs/ And Shah dolay de chohey (Microcephalic children considered mystic) / Then all of us join in Bhangra dance (Punjabi folk dance)/ Dam a dum mast qalandar/ Dam a dum mast qalandar (Sufi mystic chant)

Longtime friend and established Lahore-based literary writer Zubair Ahmad says Malik has a formidable presence among the post modern Punjabi poets who make up the Western Punjabi literary movement that started after the partition in 1947.

“Every poet has his inner river wherein he fulfils the water of his creation,” says Ahmad. “To me (the basis of Irfan’s poetry) is life abroad,” says Ahmad. “His source is not old classical Punjabi poetry or folk literature. He is a different kind of poet. His diction is not traditional and his poetry stands apart,” Ahmad says. “Anti-traditional, avant-garde and new poetic diction — he has made his place.”

Malik moved away from poetry during his years at Harvard, preoccupied with everyday life — work, family and taking advantage of the free Harvard education available to employees. He took courses in writing, theatre and acting and started the South Asian American Theatre there.

Eight years went by. When the memory lapses started, directing and acting became too challenging. One day he came across his poems and “I dropped my books in the sea. I needed to get back to it.”

Since then he has compiled and published two books of poetry Dooji Aura (The Other Woman, 2015) and his latest collection of selected works and some new poems he wrote about his disease titled Chhanday Agay Kayser, (Poetry for Saffron Flowers, 2018).

“Experimental, postmodern, non-linear, pithy, and self-reflexive are all apt descriptors for his poetic compositions,” wrote Saeed Ur Rahman, in a review of Malik’s last collection in Pakistani news magazine TNS. “Punjabi is a lucky language if Malik keeps on producing such refreshing work.”

At his readings, Malik often is accompanied by an English translator. Several of his poems have been translated into English, Swedish and Urdu and appeared in literary journals such as Salamander, a Boston-based magazine.

He has the title for his next collection Awan Waley Din Chutti Mangdey Nein (Coming Days Are Asking For Time Off.)

“In it there is only one romantic poem,” says Buttar. “It is about me. The rest are about Alzheimer’s and his disease and his feelings about his disease.”

As Malik continues to write, he is also focusing on getting more of his poems translated into English so his children will have access to his life’s work when he is gone.

“They don’t know my language and they don’t know my poetry,” he says.

It’s not easy. Nothing is easy for Malik anymore.

“It is tough for both of us,” says Buttar.

“Being a geriatric doctor, I know what is to come, so half the time I live in denial and half the time I know too much and it is very stressful trying to deal with it,” she says.

“But the hardest part is knowing he is going to forget about me. ”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 16, 2019 3:42 pm

    There are different causes of Aphasia, and the various types of dementia are only one of the various causes which can include brain injury and stroke.
    The type of Aphasia being discussed here is Primary Progressive Aphasia.
    You could have a look at my PubMed Aphasia research paper collections which are listed on my Wikipedia user page which are included i the Invisible disabilities sub section at
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dolfrog#Invisible_Disabilities

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