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Book Review : Kunal Basu

The Yellow  Emperor’s Cure

Picador India

Kunal Basu

Rs 499

So easy to critique a book, so difficult to write one!  Eighty to a hundred thousand words to hold an idea together, to sew it up, even perhaps to dazzle… a feat indeed. True many a talented writer can spin a sparkling yarn, but only a few leave you with the aftertaste  of  some universal truth arrived at. In his latest offering author Kunal Basu attempts just that.  As with “The Japanese Wife”(2008) , “ The Miniaturist”(2003)  and  “ The Opium Clerk” (2001) et al,   Basu shows he’s an erudite, well—travelled author who weaves a historical narrative with aplomb. He’s global, yet local; very much in the skin of his protagonist, yet  generously allowing  you to admire the scenery. He brings you worlds you would not otherwise reckon with —a deserted island off the coast of Africa, the son of the chief Mughal court painter who develops a grand and forbidden liaison, the opium clerk.

In this tale, Basu narrates the story of  the brilliant yet licentious Dr Antonio Henrique Maria (Tino) of erstwhile Lisbon. Maria’s journey  in search for a cure for syphilis forms the spine of the book. In 1898, this was a dreaded disease, and one that his well-loved  doctor-father  was suffering from. To find the cure  he journeys to far-off  China;  to Macau and thence  to Peking, to learn the legendary Nie Ching, or the Yellow Emperor’s medical canon from the venerable expert Dr Xu.  (Oriental views of diseases and their cures versus western ideas based on differing medical philosophies  were debated upon even then.)

Maria  hopes the canon will contain the secret of the cure. His arrival  comes right in the midst  of the prelude of  the notorious  Boxer Rebellion. Remember the cure for syphilis was discovered in 1928 only. Maria is a guest of Dr Xu whose patroness is none else but the Dowager Empress of the beleaguered Manchu dynasty. The dramatic tension of the tale comes from the query–will he learn enough in time to save  his father?

Caught up as Basu  is in the unfolding tumultuous scenario,  his personal search too is played out courtesy  Dr. Xu’s  brilliant bewitching assistant,  Fumi,  who banishes from his mind all thoughts of his own aristocratic betrothed—Arees– left behind.  It is said Syphillis or Morbus Gallicus was carried to the Old World by Spanish and  Portuguese adventurers  who came to the New World. The connotation the author spins is of   “ divine revenge”  of the native on the plunderer.

Maria’s  search becomes a metaphor for belief, faith, or trust. His entanglement with Fumi  teaches him the art of love. It goes without saying that his is not just a  journey to save his father, but one  that will unravel the meaning of his own life.  But, as one reader wryly put it,  Maria took a  long time to return– for a man who was in a tearing hurry to find a cure!

Basu is a tenacious writer.  He extrapolates on the system of acupuncture with its central fulcrum being the balancing of the yin and yang of the human body.  He describes the life of foreign legations stationed in the time of Imperial Peking with as much veracity as he does Lisbon. His pages sparkle with the gossip, ribaldry, machinations of  the Chinese Imperial court culture with remarkable insight, style and imagery.  The book is as much a debate on the efficacy of eastern and western views of medicine, as it is a love story and an engaging adventure.

But as for unveiling  some universal truth—Basu  leaves you with mixed feelings.

Manju  Kak

A shorter version of this book review appeared on India Today, here.