Interesting Times

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The Yellow Emperor's Cure by Kunal Basu, book reviewThe exploration of the unknown has fascinated writers since time immemorial, wanderings, encounters with a new culture and the induction into it. This has been seen in popular fiction as well as literary – the latter starting perhaps with Marco Polo, who was accused of manufacturing much of his information. What is also curious is that people have been fascinated by encounters between the west and the orient – one could number books like Lord Jim, Shogun, River of Smoke and most recently The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, the last two written by Indian authors. Amitabh Ghosh and Kunal Basu. In fact, the last two have hit the public gaze within a year of each other. Ghosh’s is specifically about the opium trade with China during Britain’s reign while Basu’s pinpoints the encounter of a Portuguese doctor with Chinese medicine. Specifically a son’s quest to find a remedy for syphilis, the plague that was for 400 years or more the world’s forerunner to AIDs and that was similarly regarded by society and the Church, and save his father, ironically a respected physician who is helpless in the face of the scourge.

Women and possibly many men may find the subject slightly unsavoury, especially when compounded with descriptions of rosy pustules and sores dripping pus. Liberal or otherwise, most prefer not to have their faces rubbed in the unsavoury results of sexual excess.

Basu’s novel is set in the 19th century when medicine has progressed to some extent – Pasteur is working on a cure for rabies and ether sprays are in use for operations – but syphilis still remains a mystery. The young doctor Antonio Maria is gifted like his father and something of a playboy. He and his father have been close ever since Antonio’s mother died when he was small. Antonio is called to his father’s bedside just when he is about to set off on a night of frolic after an arduous operation and discovers to his horror that his father, whom he thought a role model of rectitude, has syphilis in its tertiary stage.

He immediately decides that he has to find a cure to save his father and for no apparent reason except that Chinese medicine is relatively unknown and that the Portuguese have a colony in Macau, he sets off across the seven seas to study Nei Ching medicine.

Basu, as in all his books, has done his research meticulously. He describes life and customs, the way Nei Ching medicine is taught and the subtleties of life in China for an outsider. Gradually the focus of the book shifts to the relationship between Antonio and the mysterious Fumi, a female exponent of Nei Ching who happens to also speak English since she lived with a man who printed Bibles for the Chinese and to the sensuous backdrop of life in the Orient. Basu describes the beauties of the Summer Palace under the reign of Tsu Hsi, the infamous Dragon Empress. There are court intrigues, eunuchs and all the fascinating details that one might expect. This is set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion where the foreign legations in China were systematically being attacked without warning.

And of course, there are all the problems that being involved with a different culture entails, primarily the mysterious Fumi who drifts all too easily into an affair with Antonio under the guise of healing him and who is apparently used by the Dragon Empress ‘only to kill’. Antonio’s life comes under threat as a result of his quixotic quest to find a cure for syphilis, complicated by his love affair.

At one level, comparisons with River of Smoke, fairly or unfairly, are inevitable. And Basu’s detailing seems to pale in the face of Ghosh’s sheer weight of information and sense of place. Basu leaves a great deal of his effect to nuance and while in a shorter text like the Japanese Wife that was conveyed impeccably, here it occasionally seems to lose its effect in too many veils of gauze. However, there is enough for readers wary of syphilitic studies to lose themselves in – eccentric curious characters, a wealth of location and a many layered narrative.

“May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese curse, but Basu’s Antonio Maria certainly thrives in them.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure by Kunal Basu
Published by Pan Macmillan India, December 2011
Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co in UK, October 2011

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Yellow Emperor’s Cure, The
by Kunal Basu

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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