Romancing history

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure
by Kunal Basu. Picador India.
Pages 325. Rs 499. 

Reviewed by Manisha Gangahar

Learning to die before death, that’s the art of living the Sufi way. For most of us, perhaps, a dead parent is better than a dying one. It is as simple as that. And so is for Dr Antonio Henriques Maria, the best surgeon with the "most precious pair of hands in Lisbon", who sets off to China to find a cure for syphilis and save his father, not from death but from dying everyday. And, thus, begins his encounters with the Orient, the ‘foreigners’, invisible royalty and eunuchs.

With The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, Kunal Basu once again – his Opium Clerk was a masterpiece, while The Miniaturist was not bad either – brings contrasting cultures, two civilisations and distinct worldviews against each other; it evokes a century-old world, a strange world, but a world in itself. Perhaps, to know oneself better, treading unfamiliar ground helps and the "other" brings out the "self". This dichotomy is brought out in different words as Basu’s character underscores the thought: "You can be yourself with the natives but never with foreigners". A tenacious writer, Basu weaves this historic narrative with much ease. The evocative description with minute – never insignificant though – details and his exhaustive research, from customs and food habits to festivals and flowers, at no point weigh you down. Even while trying to get under the skin of his characters, he doesn’t allow the backdrop from losing its charm.

His characters, including a Jesuit priest, diplomats and their wives at the Foreign Legation, a flamboyant manuscript collector, and mysterious Dr Xu, bring history to life. The people in the novel are believable because they are not perfect, with some suspense, a little selfishness and a pinch of nobleness.

Antonio is introduced to us in the operation theatre, a meticulous doctor, a lady-killer and adventurer, who would enjoy life to the fullest. But once he takes on the journey, and is at the Dowager Empress’s summer palace, he is no longer the same, doesn’t feel the same. As a student of the Empress’s personal physician, Dr Xu, and his unfathomable assistant Fumi, he must unlearn all that he had accomplished, as a medical professional and as an individual. Along with intelligence, patience is a pre-requisite to unravel the secrets of the Nei Ching, the ancient medical canon according to which just by listening to the pulse, the ailment can be diagnosed.  

It is believed that the Spanish and Portugese adventurers carried syphilis, or Morbus Gallicus, from the Dark World to that of the Enlightened ones, of whom one now returns to find a cure. The story seems to concoct a "divine revenge" of the native on the plunderer. Also, Antonio arrives when Boxer Rebellion, a nationalist uprising against the imperial influence. The Boxers, one of the characters asserts, are "…spirit soldiers, a ragtag bunch of bumpkins passing themselves off as god-sent saviours of China". Nevertheless, it has defining consequences for Antonio and his fellow beings.

Antonio’s quest, in fact, becomes a metaphor for belief in another value system and for trust in the native and, hence, another subversion of the colonial enterprise: "In China one loses one’s past which is worse than losing one’s mind." Fumi teaches him the art of love, to understand the need for love: "I came because I was afraid of losing you," she tells him… with Fumi he no longer felt like a prisoner. Soon, one realises that the journey of Dr Antonio is not just about finding the cure and saving his father. Rather, it is about finding the meaning of his own life: "He felt he had, at last found his peace with the dead and the living."

A trivial objection would be to the occasional slip in editing or proof reading, but it is hard not to succumb to the story, the writing per se. Well, if you are looking for some universal facts to be unveiled, you are left with a mixed feeling, but definitely a strong savour.