It is refreshing to read a book by an Indian author that does not talk about India, or dwell compulsively on what it means to be an Indian or scrape any one of the many wounds that scar the Indian psyche. In fact Kunal Basu’s new book, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is far removed from many of the usual ills that plague the present crop of Indian writers. Located as it is in turn-of-the-century (the previous one, that is) China with the Chinese people torn between the Boxers and the foreigners, the Empress Dowager hedging her bets and the country poised on the cusp of a violent revolution, it is quite unlike anything that Indian Writing in English – the much-feted IWE – has recently produced.
Having said so, it takes considerably more than picturesque details and a meticulous eye for local colour – not to say immaculate research – to transform an idea into a story. A novelist’s job is, I would like to believe, essentially to tell a story; that he should tell it well and with aplomb is of course a natural expectation. But what happens when a story fails to germinate from an idea? When an idea, no matter how ingenious, peters out somewhere along the way and runs aground? What happens when a series of incidents strung together, intelligently and coherently, fail to make up a story? The Germans called it a bildungsroman (a ‘formation novel’), a sort of coming of age tale involving adventure and romance. And that is what The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, is. Sadly, it could have been much more; it could well have been a novel of ideas, a novel that poses questions and tries to answer them.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide, we have the young and dashing Dr Antonio Maria. Patrician and wealthy, intelligent and attractive, he works hard all day at the Faculdade Medicina in Lisbon and carouses equally hard at the festas and bull-rings . In a word, he has the world at his feet till he hears the devastating news: his beloved father, a doctor like him, is dying of the dreaded disease: syphilis, a disease that has Europe in its thrall, a disease for which there is no known cure. He decides (on slender evidence) that of all the known civilizations, China alone possesses the secret cure in the canon of the yellow emperor, the mysterious Nei Ching, and sets sail for Peking.
Basu seizes upon a brilliant idea: the search for an incurable disease and one man’s fight to discover and vanquish an unknown enemy. In locating it in China, he also tells us, quite successfully, that Western medicine has it all wrong: qi, the life force, governs both health and sickness. But somewhere along the way, he also wants to tell us about the Boxer rebels who are bitterly opposed to the cutting of the Chinese pie between the foreign merchants, priests and mercenaries. In doing so, Basu clutters his narrative with an avalanche of minutiae: American missionaries, British bankers, Belgian railway men, Chinese spies, Portuguese padres, German technocrats, Chinese femme fatale, et al. Had he kept it stark and simple, like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s masterly ‘biography’ of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, we would have had an engrossing tale of the advance of malady and its eventual conquest. For, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Diseases desperate grown/By desperate appliances are relieved/Or not at all.’ We would have loved a tale, no matter how desperate or desolate, that had stuck to the story of syphilis.