There aren’t many Indian authors who step out of India, figuratively speaking, to write about people in other countries, let alone other time zones. Kunal Basu, whose most famous work is a collection of short stories titled ‘The Japanese Wife’, transcends space and time to tell us the story of a Portuguese doctor who travels to China to search a cure for syphilis in 1898.
Dr Antonio Maria, or Tino as he is fondly called by those close to him, is the typical alpha male with a roving eye. On the night of St Anthony’s feast, as he is looking forward to enjoying smoked sardines with his best friend Ricardo, and hunt for some pretty female company, he learns that his father is deadly ill.
Rushing to his side, Antonio discovers that his father is suffering from syphilis. The graphic descriptions are enough to turn one’s stomach over, but also makes the reader feel sympathy for both the victims, the one suffering from syphilis and the other from heartache.
Desperate to do something, anything, to save his father, or maybe to save himself from the misery of seeing his father die, he sets off to China to look for the cure, in the hope that traditional Chinese medicine has the answer that had eluded the West so far. His godmother Don Elvira, arranges his stay in the Summer Palace, where the Empress of China resides. He is kept company by two eunuch servants, who soon become his friends.
The renowned Dr Xu and his mysterious assistant Fumi take it upon themselves to teach Antonio ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Canon’, or Nei Ching, the skill of diagnosing a disease by reading the pulse. Thus begin his lessons, where different rates of the pulse denote illnesses in different parts of the body, and the free flow of twelve channels is essential for the body to be healthy.
Even as he falls in love with the beautiful Fumi who has a dark past, Antonio starts getting impatient to know the cure for syphilis. “Man is born with health and sickness. To help him, we must know the reasons for both,” Dr Xu tells him, while asking him to be patient.
His plans, however, go awry when the Boxer rebellion threatens to cause havoc in China. According to Wikipedia,
The Boxer Rebellion, also known as Boxer Uprising or Yihetuan Movement, was a proto-nationalist movement by the “Righteous Harmony Society” in China between 1898 and 1901, opposing foreign imperialism and Christianity. The uprising took place in response to foreign “spheres of influence” in China, with grievances ranging from opium traders, political invasion, economic manipulation, to missionary evangelism.
Will Tino’s cure for syphilis and love for Fumi remain unattainable? With 325 pages and a hard cover, this is not a small book you can pick up at the airport and finish on a flight. To read this book is a journey in itself, much as Dr Maria sets out to find the cure for syphilis in the Yellow Emperor’s cure, and learns about Chinese customs and values they live by.
Polished language makes this book a pleasure to read, and those who love historical fiction will enjoy the facts interspersed with fiction. It doesn’t follow a traditional pattern of building up to a climax, but has its periods of high activity, followed by linkers. In this book, the destination is unimportant, it’s the journey that matters.
Colourful characters like the eunuchs servants, beautiful Fumi, motherly Don Elvira and boisterous best friend Ricardo give colour to Antonio’s life. His transition from a philandering, proud surgeon who hates to treat “dumb” people, to a deeply romantic, compassionate person willing to carry out even a nurse’s work in the dark dingy camps formed due to the Boxer’s rebellion also give a subtext to the ‘Cure’.
Immensely readable, the book shows the author’s research about Portugal, China, Chinese medicine and the state of health at the time. His descriptions, though not exhaustive, succeed in giving a feel of the times. A must read for history and adventure lovers.
Check this link to read my interaction with the author.