Peking Ghost

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The rationalist Kunal Basu
The rationalist Kunal Basu, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

A GLOWING endorsement on its back cover calls The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, Kunal Basu’s fourth novel, “as completely realised as anything by Robert Graves, Amitav Ghosh and Barry Unsworth”. Unfortunately, this is not true. The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is a ‘historical novel’, sure, but where the intelligence and imagination of Graves, for example, distills the very essence of human ambition, venality and courage, Basu’s manages only to create a ghost world — factually accurate, perhaps, but emotionally void.

Our hero is Antonio Maria, a celebrated surgeon in the Lisbon of 1898, whose easy, philandering life is overturned by the discovery that his father is dying of syphilis. Suspecting that the Chinese have a cure, Antonio arrives in Peking, where he begins to learn the art of Chinese medicine, or Nei Ching, from the royal physician, Dr Xu.

Dr Xu is suitably inscrutable, and Antonio makes little headway until the good doctor departs, leaving him in the care of his assistant. Fumi, though hardly very scrutable herself, is beautiful and has more compelling methods — such as tracing the ‘channels’ of the human body across Antonio’s naked form. This improves Antonio’s lessons, but brings him no closer to curing syphilis.

The Yellow  Emperor’s Cure Kunal Basu  Pan Macmillan India  342 pp; Rs 499
The Yellow Emperor’s Cure Kunal Basu Pan Macmillan India 342 pp; Rs 499

Meanwhile, the Boxer Rebellion has begun to gather anti-imperialist, anti-Christian steam across the Chinese countryside. Antonio learns of its spread from a Portuguese missionary, and from his friends in the Legation — an enclave of representatives from a handful of colonising nations. They seem oddly familiar, these tea-drinking ladies and gentlemen, much like any community of expats in any developing country today — with the same, slightly unconscious exclusion of the local populace (“Where are the Chine se? [Antonio] looked around the garden, failing to spot any except the domestics…”); and the same feeble, liberal politics (“Couldn’t we still be friendly with the Chinese, if we try?”) Indeed, so harmless do they appear, both missionaries and missions, that one can only wonder at the inscrutability of such violent rebellion against them.

Back in class, Antonio is getting now here — neither with the lovely Fumi nor with the fathomless Nei Ching— wh ile Basu’s heavy-handed style keeps his readers well ahead of his plot. Here, for example, as Antonio asks Fumi to leave with him: “The last of the snow cranes flew over their heads, crying out for its lost flock. Fumi followed the bird with a desperate look.” Oh dear, we think, and, half-a-page later, Antonio catches up with us. “He had lost Fumi, Antonio was certain. He had seen it in her eyes, the eyes of the wild crane that had broken free and flown past their pavilion.” The reader may be tempted to follow the bird — if not into a distant horizon, then certainly into another book.

Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love

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