One afternoon about thirteen years ago I walked into the Borders Bookstore in Chicago I visited regularly and, per usual, found my way to the fiction shelves. After browsing my standard fare of authors, I turned my attention to the island shelf behind me, which held the store’s offerings of drama, poetry, and various fiction and other assorted anthologies. My eyes fell on an anthology of South Asian fiction. I drew it out and went down the table of contents, despair mocking my self-worth at not being one of the authors included in it and at the same time excited at discovering new voices from an incredibly under-represented part of the world in writing, and landed on the final offering—a short story called “Chokra” by Numair A. Choudhury.
I flipped the pages for the author bio section. Listed in order from oldest to youngest, Numair Choudhury was the baby of the lot. I was already certain it was the same Numair Choudhury as I’d suspected upon seeing the name, and when I read that he was born in the mid 1970s in Dhaka, Bangladesh, all speculations were put to rest. It had to be my childhood friend.
I read “Chokra” multiple times, standing right there in the store, my insecurity at not being a published writer, let alone being anthologized in a prominent journal, shot to a critical pitch, brought there on that unexpected afternoon of re-connecting with a friend I hadn’t seen for about a decade and a half.
I went home and looked up Numair online. One of the first links that I followed took me to a Geocities page with a number of his other short stories. I went through all of them, fascinated, intrigued, engaged, and energized. The only writers I had known personally until then were my former college classmates, none of them, to my knowledge, published.
At what point exactly our communication began again fails me, but it was not immediately following my discovery of Numair’s career as a writer. What I remember is some years later, 2012 to be exact, I found Numair on Facebook, sent him a message sharing my excitement at learning he was a writer, and telling him that I’d found his stories online. Numair’s response was along the lines of “What? Really? I had no idea they were out there?” It was a self-deprecating wit that, I would learn, was an inherent part of him—never forced, not one shred of it insincere or soliciting compliments, especially when it had to do with his writing. As a writer Numair was as rigorous and self-demanding as anyone I’ve known. My first encounter with just how hard he drove himself on the page happened when he shared a little over a hundred pages of the novel he had been working on for nearly half his time on earth, Babu Bangladesh.
Our correspondence continued more or less steadily for the next two years, leading up to Numair completing his PhD at the University of Texas at Dallas. He was set to return to Bangladesh shortly thereafter, and so he did, and began his contribution to his country as a university professor, scholar, and intellectual.
On September 9, 2018 that life in its prime was cut short.
It was Monday morning in the US, September 10, and I woke up to messages from friends in Dhaka asking me if I’d heard from Numair, and there was speculation that he might be dead. I had heard from him about ten days earlier. He sent me messages on Facebook, saying hi and talking about how feverishly he was working away on the final revisions of Babu Bangladesh. He also told me he was on his way to Japan. Over the course of that day, I learned that Numair was in Kyoto, a city he had always wanted to visit, and lost his life on the way back to his hotel when he accidentally fell into the Kyoto River.
Last year I returned to Bangladesh after two and a half decades. During my yearlong stay Numair was my one constant companion, friend, confidant, and support. He lived a short walk away from where I stayed and many were the evenings and late nights that we spent sitting at his apartment chewing on every topic that crossed our minds, from writing and literature and teaching, to world events, to the toxicity of Dhaka’s so-called elite circles. We shared our disillusionment over the self-declared gatekeepers and standard bearers of the city’s, and the country’s, literary, academic, and cultural arenas. Too many egos with little else to show for them. On this front Numair wanted to be an agent of change. He was skeptical, given the stronghold of the status quo and its close bands of enablers, but cynical Numair was not. He believed. And he was willing to fight the intellectual battles in Bangladesh to turn that belief into an active, transformative force.
I will mourn my friend for a long time. Bangladesh lost an urgent literary voice that was on the edge ready to soar.
Nadeem Zaman is a fiction writer. His debut novel, In the Time of the Others, was published by Picador-Pan Macmillan.