Eastern remedies

Lead review

In this engaging historical novel, Kunal Basu takes us into China over a century ago, teetering on the cusp of the Boxer Rebellion. Exotic sights, sounds and tastes, the political equations and clash of cultures of the past play out in the backdrop as Dr Antonio traverses the world seeking a cure for a deadly disease.

DH Graphics: Ramu M

Basu brings to life with finely crafted language the western hills hanging low “over the tiled roofs of pagodas, over palaces of lacquer and gold…children caught dragonflies on the banks of canals, and lakes brimmed with incandescent lilies.” The well-researched and vivid details strike the right balance, without miring the story in verbosity or slowing the pace.

The dashing and highly accomplished Portuguese surgeon Dr Antonio Maria is blessed with “the most precious pair of hands in Lisbon”. His friends consider him to be “rock steady with the scalpel, but a prize idiot when it comes to women,” for, while he is adept at flirting, he evades
settling down with a suitable lady. As this most eligible bachelor of Lisbon prepares to enjoy the bacchanalian feast of St Anthony, he is jolted out of his world of wine, women and gaiety. His dear father is losing his mind and body to syphilis, which in those days was an incurable scourge.

The author adds some touches of his imagination to make syphilis appear as a widespread and horribly lethal malady. As he watches his father plummeting towards a certain terrible death, Antonio’s world morphs into legions of rotting genitals. An encounter with surprisingly syphilis-free Chinese seamen leads Antonio to China, where he hopes to learn the remedies from the Yellow Emperor’s canon of Chinese medicine.

Antonio stands in a class apart from most westerners venturing into China. He isn’t another curiosity or profit seeker, and wishes to gain knowledge, not only for the sake of his ailing father, but for the wider benefit of humanity. As his missionary friend Joaquim Saldanha says, “It’d be good for Europeans to know the real China rather than simply buy her tea and silk. Just like we learnt from them about astronomy.”

Deeply dedicated to his profession, Antonio continues his quest for the elusive cure even after receiving news of his father’s death, striving to rescue other human beings from a similar fate. When the Boxer Rebellion erupts, violence engulfs China. Antonio runs around the camps and tends to patients at the field hospital. “It seemed odd to have such a brilliant doctor do the job of a junior, but he seemed happy to be both a specialist and an apprentice,” performing the duties of a surgery nurse and an ambulance driver as well.

As the novel comes a full circle, Antonio says, “They’ve taught me to look inside the doctor to know what makes him suffer for his patients, what gives him hope and how to go on living even when he fails.” In the end, we love and admire him for his sincerity, for weeping “for all those he’d loved but failed to save.” As he emerges through the many upheavals of his life, Antonio evolves as a man and as a doctor. “Whereas in the past he’d worry over curing a patient, it troubled him now to think of those who must somehow go on living with the burden of their loss.”

A large and varied cast of characters animates the novel, from Portuguese aristocrats, western diplomats, merchants, spies and intrepid Christian missionaries to decadent Chinese rulers and nobility, concubines, Chinese doctors and a pair of palace eunuchs. Many however, come across as uni-dimensional rather than fully rounded personalities throbbing with a unique inner life.

Polly, Dona Elvira and the other ladies of the Western diplomatic missions in China stay true to stereotypes and organise parties and enjoy gossip. Cedric Hart, the British diplomat, “knows as little about the Nagasaki massacre as he does about most things. He pretends to be a wise Manchu noble, but has brains the size of a bird’s.”

Polly’s best friend Ferguson is a greedy merchant who pretends to be the cleverest man in Peking, but could very well be just a plain gossip. Antonio’s best friend Ricardo loves to stun the ladies at the dance halls, while his sister Arees is the typical “rebel, hard to ignore, given her exquisite form.” We do not get to know her as a unique individual, and can understand why Antonio goes to China and forgets her.

We also wonder what apart from her physical beauty attracts Antonio to Fumi, the Chinese doctor’s ‘assistant’, who lends the mandatory love interest. She uses her exotic body to chart the channels of energy coursing through the Chinese system of medicine and is adept in ‘the butterfly’, ‘the pigeon’ and other Chinese approaches to lovemaking. We are informed that she was shattered by the violent death of her Dutch second husband, but we don’t get to know what she is really like deep inside. Xu, the great Chinese doctor, also remains a shadowy enigma till the end.

As for the historical backdrop, the Boxers and their cause remain sketchy till the end. A more detailed and involved portrayal of the individuals and events related to this upheaval would have added to the overall immediacy of the novel. Despite these factors, the book succeeds as a striking and memorable read.

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