Ken Basarke (1948-2003)
By Douglas Smith
Ken Basarke, member of SF Canada since 2000, passed away on April 1, 2003, at the age of 54 after an eighteen-month struggle with esophageal cancer. Ken had published a number of short stories since the mid-nineties in print markets such as Pulp Eternity, Parsec and Blue Food, and in e-zines including Writer Online, Jackhammer, Electric Wine, Storisende Verlag, Planet Relish, and Fantasy, Folklore & Fairytales. He had also two unsold novels in at publishers.
Ken was born Kenwarjit Singh Basarke on October 16, 1948 in Delhi, India, the youngest child of six. His family emigrated to Montreal in 1954. Adjusting to their new country presented many challenges. Their neighbourhood had only three other families from India, and the strong communities of Indian culture that thrive now in Toronto and Montreal did not yet exist. Since there were no Sikh temples at that time, in order for the family to practise their faith, Ken's father rented halls and led the ceremonies himself.
In 1958, the family moved to Toronto near Lawrence and Avenue Road, where Ken attended Sir Sanford Fleming High School. As a young man, Ken loved reading, listening to music--Indian, classical, and rock--and working with his hands, especially on cars and motorcycles.
By the time the family moved to Don Mills in 1968 near York Mills and Don Mills Road, Ken was busy studying Computer Engineering at York University. While at York, he met Gisela Westermann, his future wife. Undaunted by the fact that Gisela lived in Kingston, Ken spent a lot of time driving the 401 on his motorcycle. While in University, Ken also had a short stint in the Canadian Military Reserve along with his brothers, Surjit and Inderjit.
In 1970, Ken graduated from York, and in July of the same year, he and Gisela were married. They settled in Toronto, where Gisela taught public school, and Ken joined Canadian General Electric. Ken left CGE in the mid-seventies, working at Imperial Oil in Don Mills and then Inglis before joining Ontario Hydro, where he found what became his favourite Indian restaurants nearby their University and College location.
Ken left Hydro in the mid-eighties to do some independent consulting and to focus on his dream of becoming a writer.
Ken was always an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, with a collection of over 2,000 books at the time of his death. His family remembers his interest in writing beginning in University, and that he began writing poetry shortly after graduating. Ken always had strong opinions and enjoyed debating current issues in high school and with family. He was a defender of the underdog, a recurring theme in much of his fiction.
Gisela retired from teaching in 1985, giving her and Ken more time together. They loved their house in Mississauga. When not writing, Ken would work on his Corvette and motorcycle, while Gisela practised crafts or busied herself decorating. The house also provided them plenty of opportunity for their shared passion of gardening.
I met Ken in 1996 after joining a Toronto writers group to which Ken belonged. Ken was prolific back then, writing short stories and novels in a range of genres. His writing packed a visceral punch delivered with a black sense of humour. We shared the same love of Zelazny and many other writers. I always valued his critiques as he'd find things that no one else had.
In late 1999, Gisela was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Ken took the news hard, but put Gisela first and kept his sense of humour. In January, after she had completed chemotherapy, he wrote that they were coping one day at a time and joked that he was "trying to plump her up but have succeeded in plumping myself up as well." He abandoned his writing almost entirely to care for Gisela. Yet he enthusiastically congratulated his friends on any sale they made and always encouraged me in my writing.
Through it all, he never lost sight of his dream. In the spring of 2000, he wrote that "I actually sat down and spent an hour writing yesterday, and it was wonderful, like scratching an itch I didn't know I had." He was always excited and surprised by any of his sales, never arrogant or condescending, communicating his success with email messages with subject lines like "Aiiieee-Carumba! A Sale!"
I remember a dinner with Ken and Gisela at WorldCon in Chicago in 2000, the last trip they would take together–Gisela gracious as ever despite her health, and Ken beside her like a guardian knight. He wrote me in January 2001 that "Her strength and courage are an inspiration to me. Man, did I luck out with marrying her."
But on September 7, 2001, Gisela was admitted again to hospital, and Ken wrote "I don't think that she will beat it this time...I am dealing more with keeping her happy than anything else," then apologized for not being able to provide some promised help on a writing project.
Gisela passed away on September 28, 2001. A week later, Ken wrote "I should have let you know sooner but I just couldn't face writing about it."
But life wasn't finished tossing him curves. Two months later, Ken was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy followed, but still he kept his dream. He wrote in December, "I hope to be able to write next month unless the chemo proves it is tougher than me, which is quite possible since Gisela's loss is still much in my mind."
Still he kept his sense of humour, despite the effects of chemo. In January 2002, when a publisher said they would consider his novel with some changes, he wrote "[due to chemo] my mind is totally empty of plot and style, which should make for an interesting rewrite. I do hope to see you [soon], but only if I can be decent company and not a whiner."
He rejoined our writing group in mid-2002, and it was fun to be reading new stuff from him again after the long break. He spent the year getting back into his writing and trying to put some weight back on. But in February 2003, as a result of a depressed immune system, he contracted shingles and a high fever. He wrote "I'm sorry to do this to you, but I've gone and gotten ill...I can't write (no, not making any claims I ever could) and can't attend any meetings for the next while." He closed by saying "With luck we'll get this under control quickly, but it could take some time."
Fate gave him neither luck nor time. Ken died less than a month later on April 1.
Looking back over times together, I remember three things most clearly about Ken. The first was his constant enthusiasm and love for writing. He never let rejections get him down for long, but just kept focusing on his dream of being a writer and that first novel sale. Just talking about writing with Ken was like getting a battery recharge for my own writing. I also recall his kindness, for his wife and his friends. When my parents became seriously ill recently, despite his own illness, Ken was quick to welcome me to drop by for a chat and support when I was in that area. I regret now that I didn't get to visit him as often as I would've liked.
Finally, I remember his self-effacing sense of humour. He passed away on April 1. April Fool's Day. Somehow, I just know he would have got a chuckle out of that.
He'll be missed.
Ken is survived by his three older brothers--Inderjit (Jack), Surjit, and Bir--and an older sister--Sheila--as well as several nieces, nephews, and their grandchildren. Sadly, another sister, Kulwant (Kay) passed away in early May after a long battle with ALS. Our condolences go out to the Basarke clan during this difficult period.
Contact Douglas Smith at doug(at)smithwriter.com
Click here for Doug's homepage.