Monday, 16 January 2012



Lisbon 1898. Surgeon Antonio Maria, or Tino as he is fondly called by some, discovers that his beloved father, Dr Alexander Henriques Maria, is suffering from the dreaded disease of syphilis.And the disease has no known cure. Determined to find a solution, Antonio travels to Peking inChina to study under renowned Dr Xu who is believed to be a master in Nei Ching or the Yellow Emperor’s Canon — a compilation of Chinese medicine. This is the basic premise of Kunal Basu’s latest novel, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure.

Talking about the beginning, Basu says, “Like the cast of a phantasmagoria, the characters and the disease appeared all at once, as I strolled down the museum of traditional Chinese medicine on a summer day some years ago in Beijing. I caught a glimpse of a young European doctor learning the principles of Chinese medicine from his teacher inside a pavilion of the Summer Palace. Why would he have come this far? I asked myself. Unless, of course, he was in search of a cure that had eluded the West for centuries. And then, syphilis sprang to mind.”

Basu, who teaches at the Oxford University, had to do quite a bit of research for this novel. “The three big chunks of research focussed on history of syphilis up until the 19th century, the system of Chinese medicine, and the Boxer Rebellion,” he informs. “There were other foreground details to research such as sea voyages to China, festivals, cuisine, palace rituals, the lives of eunuchs, bullfighting, and many more, to bring to life the characters and settings.” And all of that get together to bring about a seamless novel that is quite a page-turner. “It wasn’t a particularly difficult process, as I was engrossed with the story,” Basu says. “I had started, as always, with the story, which propelled me to look for historical and medical details through research, whose sole purpose was to create a plausible world for the readers.”

China and the West
As a writer from the East, based in the West, how does he look at the past when West and the East met in China? “China has always been a contentious ground as far as East-West exchanges are concerned. Trade went hand-in-hand with territorial aspirations resulting first, in the Opium Wars and then the infamous Boxer Rebellion. Deep curiosity about the ‘other’ coexisted with mistrust and prejudice,” Basu says. “This duality has changed form but carries on even today. Being neither Chinese nor European, I felt wonderfully liberated while writing this tale, bringing out both sides of the conflict and the varying world views.” Basu says that while he “wanted to embed distinct cultural traits” in the characters, he “didn’t want to cast them as stereotypes.” As a novelist, it was important for him to draw Antonio, Fumi, Dr Xu and the rest of the cast as “fully rounded people, each with their own idiosyncrasies.”

The novel is visual, with vivid descriptions of places like Lisbon, the festivals, the European settlement in Macau, the settings in China and the like. “I am an instinctive artist. In order to write, I must ‘see’ a scene enact itself in my mind’s eye,” says Basu. “A character becomes real when I can visualise him/her in minute detail — almost like a miniaturist painting a portrait. It was a careful balancing act: to write a Chinese character as distinctly Chinese, but as a real individual who was free to depart from his or her own cultural lineage,” he adds when asked about how he balances between the descriptions and the characters.

An important strand in the novel is the love story between Antonio and Fumi — the mysterious lady with a haunted past. Did Basu ever feel tempted to turn the novel primarily into a love story, rather than a story of medicine, disease and Europeans in China? He believes that a novel with as “large a scope as The Yellow Emperor’s Cure must have several interwoven themes.” The love story, he says, is “as important and central as the human quest for solving a great medical problem of the times and the troubled encounter between the Chinese and Europeans.”

As I read the novel, it struck me that barring few exceptions, Indian literature doesn’t focus much on China and Chinese culture. Basu agrees. “Indian literature, indeed Indian thinking, tends to be largely Eurocentric when it leaves our national boundary. Of course, this is the debris of colonialism,” he says. “But our exchanges with China and the East are also equally significant. In a literary sense, it also provides great excitement to explore territories that haven’t been traversed,” he adds. “As in politics and trade, our literary heads need also to tilt eastward,” Basu asserts before we wrap up.