The Yellow Emperor’s Cure by Kunal Basu
The Yellow Emperor’s Cure book takes you through the journey of a brilliant Portuguese doctor. As he leaves Lisbon for China to find a cure that does not yet exists in the western world. Set in 1898, it also takes you back to the world, as it existed then. The global trade, the attitude of westerns and Easterners towards each other. It takes you through the European Ghettos that existed in the orient then, Christian missionaries spreading Christianity, briefly on the ships that carry not only the merchandise but also the diseases with them while weaving a love story in the middle of all this.
At one level it is the history, as it existed at the turn of 20th century. There was the trade happening between Europe, India, and China. There were people who were living in continents different than their own. Sometimes even for generations and sometimes mixing up with the local through marriage and procreation. Cultures were related through trade, the interdependency that had been created by this time or that has probably existed forever. Slaves were probably the biggest item traded. Trade took the natives to far off lands. And they tried to create their own little countries within the new land. Something that all immigrants do in their adopted lands.
These small communities stay together, create their own world and share a love hate relationship with the natives. They fight amongst themselves but are united against the natives. Sometimes they try and influence them by influencing them to convert to their religion. Sometimes they fall in love with them and start a new mixed breed.
At another level, there is the world invisible Empress of China with her summer palace being the place where the protagonist of the story lives. There are eunuchs who work tirelessly through the palace. But always resent the fact that they were forced to be eunuchs. There is this beautiful description the palace where the doctor is forbidden to go in most places. He is a neighbor of the empress but can never meet her or see her. There are some Chinese festivals mentioned though not described in detail. Then there are Chinese people who sometimes behave contrary to what the Europeans would expect. Sometimes their ways are strange, their rituals elaborate and meaningless for outsiders.
There is this small group of Chinese called Boxers who are against the foreigners. And Europeans just keep guessing in case of an attack would the Empress be with them or with the boxers. There are attacks finally, and there is a gory description of the events.
Another level deals with the medical practices of the two worlds. The different approaches that they take to treat the disease. The western scientific world looking at symptoms and then deciding the treatment. And treating each patient with similar symptoms exactly the same way. While the Oriental world diagnosing the disease by merely listening to the pulse and treating each patient differently depending on various factors like gender, season, time of the day. During the initial days of the protagonist’s learning of Chinese Nei Ching, the reader picks up the basic differences between the two approaches. This to me was the most interesting part of the book.
Then there is a love story between the mysterious assistant of the Chinese doctor and the Portuguese doctor, who is given the charge to teach him, Nei Ching. Both the teacher and his assistant keep disappearing at regular intervals. Or rather appear as and when they want. The doctor keeps hearing tidbits about them whenever he visits the European ghettos. Leading to a mystery that he tries to solve, but is only able to get clues but no definitive answers. He tries to find out about his teachers but the answers are elusive. In the process, he gets so obsessed by his lover and her mystery that sometimes his sole purpose of visiting China takes a backseat.
Through the book, you keep looking for the Chinese treatment of the disease that the doctor is seeking. And something that he doubts if such a thing exists or not as there are no patients of the disease that he meets in China. Finally, the solution that comes is definitely an anti-climax and disappoints a bit. Towards the later half, the plot gets dragging, leading nowhere and revolving around the same people and same facts.
What I liked most about the book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, is its language, that had me referring to the dictionary many times, and when was the last time I did that – I do not remember. There are words used from other languages but never explained. So sometimes you can guess the meaning and other times rush to Google. The literary quality of the language creates the environment for you, you feel the protagonist suffocating in the summer palace, the tension when the Boxer’s attack and that dilemma that the protagonist feels every time he is with his lover or every time people at European parties try to give him hints about his teachers.
I would not be surprised if this book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, bags a few literary prizes this year.