Novelistic ambition is a tricky thing; it can be too slight, too grandiose or, worst of all, failed. Dr Kunal Basu has none of these problems in his riveting new novel.
The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is the story of Dr Antonio Henriques Maria – Portuguese doctor, brilliant surgeon, lady killer, adventurer – who sets off on an ocean voyage to China to find a cure for syphilis; a disease that afflicts his father and is effectively a death sentence in 1898. (As Antonio’s teacher says, “No one even believes in a cure for syphilis anymore.[…] In Naples they’ve built walls inside hospitals to separate the patients from the poxies, just as in Glasgow where the police have replaced doctors on the wards. In the lands of Calvin they’ve been left to die as punishment for their sins. The civilised world has simply given up.”)
Over the next year, Antonio inhabits a strange world of invisible royalty, eunuchs, new food and new customs. He must overcome his impatience and his previous training to learn the secrets of the Nei-Ching, the ancient medical canon that teaches a doctor to diagnose a patient simply by listening to the pulse. He must replace sphygmograph and ophthalmoscope with a reading of the four seasons and the five elements, the twelve channels of the body and its eleven organs. In the process he learns Mandarin, falls in love, and finds himself as a doctor and as a human being.
Basu creates a whole and absorbing world rich with detail, and peopled with characters who, despite a fair level of suspense, refuse to deliver the perfect ending, and are therefore that much more believable.
INDIAreads had the opportunity to speak with Dr Basu at the launch of ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Cure’ in New Delhi recently. Here are some extracts from the interview;
INDIAreads: Tell us a little bit about your first book ‘The Opium Clerk’. How difficult was it getting it published?
KB: When I moved from Montreal to take up teaching at Oxford, I carried ‘The Opium Clerk’ as a voluminous manuscript tucked under my arm, and did not quite know what to do with it.
I’m an academic – I understood a lot about academic publishing, not so much about literary publishing. So I sent the first 100 pages of the manuscript to seven different literary agents – randomly picked from a handbook called the ‘Handbook of Writers’ – and prepared for rejection.
Luckily, 5 of them wanted to represent me. The one I picked to be my agent, and who still remains my agent, managed to place the manuscript in 3 weeks.
So in that sense, my story has been a rather ordinary, boring one.
INDIAreads: What first attracted you to writing?
KB: I always wanted to be an author.
My father was a very famous publisher, and my mother was a fiction writer. So while I was always fascinated by culture, and writing in particular, growing up in the 70’s like I did, one’s options were always limited.
So I made more than a few wrong decisions, studied the wrong subjects, and ended up with the career that I am in now (Dr. Basu is a University Reader in Management at Saïd Business School, Oxford). However, being a ‘Sunday writer’, or writing as purely a hobby, was never an option for me.
So when I did start writing ‘The Opium Clerk’ back in 1998, I wanted to devote full attention to my writing, and that is what I did.
IndiaREADS: You are a full-time writer now, having written 5 books in 10 years. How do you balance being a writer with your career as an academic?
KB: I’ve been writing for 10 years, and am a full-time writer now. But having been an academic for 25 years, I know how to work the academic part around my writing – rather than the other way round. So I’ve never really had to take time off my work for my writing.
For instance, let’s say Wednesday morning I have a class at 11am. So I’ll write from 9 – 10:30am, go out and teach my class at 11, come back, get back to my desk and start writing again.
INDIAreads: How easy or difficult is it for you to flip the literary switch on/off at will?
KB: Well fortunately up until now that has not been a problem largely because I don’t resent my working life. I’ll make it that much harder for myself if I resent it. Look, we all need day jobs – I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that 95 per cent of writers in the English language today have a day job. I could have been a postman, a journalist; I just happen to be an academic. Which is no bad thing either. So I go out, teach my class and do my job, get back home and back to my writing again.
INDIAreads: What in your opinion makes for ‘a good story’?
KB: (smiles) Ah. It’s what the author makes of it. Having been raised on classics, for me a good story or the scope of a good novel is – intricately woven tales of human relationships in the backdrop of great social turmoil. Think of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, or Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. What sets these works apart?
During times of normalcy, we’re all (more or less) normal. But the extreme in us comes out during extreme times; extremely good, or extremely bad. So if I’m able to think of a story with such elements in it, then that is the kind of story I like to tell.
INDIAreads: How do you begin your writing? Where does the genesis of your story usually lie?
KB: The most difficult question to answer would be ‘how’ or ‘why’ I thought of a particular story; it’s a confluence of various things. I can talk very cogently about ‘how I wrote it’, but the actual ‘birth’ of a story is inherently nebulous.
So I could be stuck in traffic; observing things around me, thinking – and suddenly a thought might pop into my head out of nowhere; it could be about an individual I see, or a setting I witness – it could be anything. Now if I ferment that thought some more, maybe I can create a good story.
INDIAreads: What has been the toughest criticism you’ve faced as an author?
KB: Every author is criticised; such is the nature of the game. But I feel I’ve been largely lucky in this regard.
(Upon being gently probed further) Maybe one, after ‘The Japanese Wife’ came out. But that wasn’t really a review of the book; it was more of a ‘character assassination of Kunal Basu’, so to speak. ‘He’s a management prof, what business does he have writing fiction – he should go back to management’ – the like.
But one immediately sees something like that as being driven by ‘extra-literary’ considerations, and is consequently not affected by it.
Having said that a large literary novel, after I’ve written it does not belong to me anymore; it belongs to the readers. Different people choose to see different aspects of it. And it’s not mathematics – I can’t argue with how people choose to interpret my work.
INDIAreads: What would you advise aspiring writers?
KB: To read and write a lot, and to always believe in themselves. I dare say, a little bit of arrogance is not a bad thing. Look. If you were to just look at my CV, would you say this guy writes or would end up writing fiction?
Write if you’re really passionate about writing; don’t write if it’s a ‘side thing’. So if you find yourself saying,” I have an exciting job, a beautiful partner etc., and by the way I also want to write a bit”, don’t pursue it. Usually, those experiences are not happy writing experiences. Write when you’re ready; when writing seems to be the reason you’re alive.
I wake up in the morning, and I literally have withdrawal symptoms if I haven’t written for a couple of days. So, write when you can’t live without it.
INDIAreads: Truman Capote was a self-declared “completely horizontal author” and said he had to write lying down, while Hemingway used to write standing up – a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other. Edgar Allen Poe wrote with a cat on his shoulder, while T.S. Eliot preferred writing when he had a head cold.
Tell us a little bit about your writing ‘quirks’, if any.
KB: I’m a compulsive editor; 3 full drafts at least, edit after edit after edit.
My wife has to drag me away from my desk so I may go out for a walk or some exercise, for I am forever at my desk.
INDIAreads: When may your readers expect a work of non-fiction by Kunal Basu?
KB: I write non-fiction all the time. Strictly speaking, all of my academic publishing has been non-fiction. Additionally, I’ve written the text for an exceptionally different collection of 8,000 beautiful photographs by Kushal Ray called ‘Intimacies’ (releasing on 15th February 2012), and almost wrote it fictionally. But in principle it’s neither a short story nor a novel; one could classify it as non-fiction.
(Pauses and thinks) However, if I were ever to move to non-fiction per se, I would probably write my memoirs. But hopefully that won’t happen in the next 10 years; I’ve got stories lined up in a queue in my head, each jumping and yelling ‘Me Next!’
INDIAreads: Any particular reason why you choose to mainly write historical fiction?
KB: History was my favourite subject in school. So deep inside me there has always been a strange love for other worlds, other places, and other times.
Also, I’m a Bengali and most of my early writings through school and college, from poetry to short stories, have been in Bangla. And Bengal has always had this great tradition of historical fiction – Bankim Chandra, Romesh Chunder Dutt, and others. So I believe that has seeped into me as I was growing up. Incidentally, I do also want to write a Bangla novel at some point.
But I do not see myself purely as a practitioner of historical fiction – my next novel is set in the here and now, right here in India.
INDIAreads: How much of a part does research play in your writing?
KB: For a historical novel, a significant amount of research always needs to be done. But the trick for me is not to over-research, for an over-researched piece of work will cease to sound and read like fiction.
I am driven only by my story. So I will only research an aspect of my story if I feel it will add to it as a whole. But even so, researching and writing a historical novel easily takes me a couple of years.
INDIAreads: Do you keep shuttling back and forth between Oxford and India?
KB: Quite a bit, and largely for reasons of my writing. I do all my writing at home in Oxford, and I keep visiting India periodically to sort of, do what I have to do to fertilize my imagination.
INDIAreads: What else interests you, apart from writing?
KB: Nothing about me is casual; for me it has to be ‘full on’, or I won’t do it.
I was a painter as a child, I’ve even acted in two films – but a sustained interest in my life would have to be traditional crafts. I really think that this is a part of human heritage that is increasingly getting lost. For instance, most people don’t realize that the terracotta Bankura Horse (a regular feature in most Bengali living rooms, and the official emblem of All India Handicrafts) is not even being made anymore.
So I’ve travelled around the world – Africa, South-east Asia, Latin America, visited villages and spoken to artisans, weavers, craftsmen of all types, photographed them and written about them. In the process, I’ve acquired quite a few pieces that currently occupy pride of place in my study.
INDIAreads: So may we expect to see you try your hand at sculpture sometime..?
KB: Writing is the path I’ve reached after most meanderings in my career, and it continues to be an abiding passion in my life. But (and smiles) never say never, is what I’ve come to understand about life.