By Madhusree Chatterjee
The clash of civilisations through the canons of Eastern and Western medicines and historical ties between the Occident and China play out in a powerful narrative in noted Oxford-based writer Kunal Basu's new fiction, "The Yellow Emperor's Cure".
"Westerners took opium to China in the 19th century. The British grew opium in India and carried it to China. But in my book, the West goes to learn something and bring back from China. The West has been intrigued by China and tried to dominate it...China had been a transactional goldmine to the West," Basu said in an interview.
The remedy for the 19th century scourge of syphilis, ancient Chinese therapies and a West-meets-East love story in which a young Portuguese doctor comes to China to learn its medicine and philosophy in the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion is the thematic backbone of the novel published by PanMacmillan.
It begins in 1898 in Lisbon where young surgeon Antonio Marias is pulled away from his life of hard work and play to save his father, doctor Alexander Henriques Maria, who is dying of syphilis.
Antonio leaves for the then Peking to study under Dr Xu hoping that Chinese medicine will offer a cure but fails to get an instant recipe from the Chinese master. A wee frustrated, Antonio meets Fumi, a nurse and healer - fiercely independent - and discovers true love that helps him wrestle with disbelief over irrational Chinese views about medicine.
The infamous Boxer Rebellion - an uprising by the Chinese against foreign influence -tears the lovers away from each other during a siege of the Summer Palace in the Chinese capital and Antonio is forced to choose his fate.
"This novel is a significant milestone connected to health and sickness - on how we lead our lives. If we engage in creative pursuits, it deepens the pigment in us. The book looks at the notion of finding oneself in this world - as Antonio, who was in a hurry to get his stuff and go," Basu explained.
"But a deeper kind of cure happens within him...not just to acquire but to truly reflect on our human conditions. It is as much a personal cure as it is a search for the cure of syphilis," said Basu, who has earlier penned "The Japanese Wife" and "The Miniaturist".
The book is a figment of the writer's imagination, a reaction to an exposition of the history of Chinese medicine.
"Several years ago, I was visiting Beijing and went to the museum of traditional Chinese medicine. I was walking along and looking at the bizarre exhibits like intestines of deer and wild mushrooms, I suddenly imagined what a 19th century European felt if he saw it - and what if he was trying to look for a cure to a disease that had no cure," Basu said.
The young European doctor was born as Basu walked through the museum, he said. "I am a visual person. I saw the young doctor standing naked at the summer palace and his Chinese muse Fumi drawing the (healing) channels in his body with her fingertips," the writer recounted.
He took a taxi back to the hotel and "started writing madly".
"Syphilis was a killer disease until Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928. The famous poet Kazi Nazrul Islam died of syphilis, Beethoven had syphilis - the last stage of syphilis is madness," Basu said.
His first task was to educate himself about syphilis. "I went through books on quacks and 'syphology' - the study of syphilis. "The quacks use lead and arsenic to treat the disease," the writer said.
Comparing notions about health in Western and Chinese healing traditions, Basu said in the Western view of health, "human beings are born pure and disease is the awful attack on us by Satan".
"Doctors in the western medical view of health are warriors of God. In the Chinese notion, we are born with health and sickness - how we lead our lives keeps us healthy," he said.
And what next for Basu? The writer is working on a novel set in contemporary Kolkata. "I was born in Kolkata. My father was a famous publisher, (writer) Sunil Kumar Basu, and my mother was Chabi Basu (a writer and an actor). I grew up reading classics which work on the premise that in normal times we are normal people and in abnormal we are abnormal people. I did not cast Antonio or Fumi in normal times because I wanted to capture the insider-outsider notion," he said.