The world of medical science is not without its share of heroes. Two Indian doctors are the new opinion makers in the West
Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist
IT IS A SCENE out of a Hollywood teen movie. Every few minutes, I shoot another forlorn glance at the phone. Why won’t he call? I’m waiting to hear from Siddhartha Mukherjee and beginning to believe he might not call at all. His media dance card is far too full. Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies, released in the US some months ago, has appeared on year-end top-10 lists in the likes of Time magazine and The New York Times. The latter, in a recent profile, gushed that Mukherjee, “known as Sid by his friends,” looks “like the leading man in a Bollywood musical”.
When I first get in touch with him he is, like all successful writers, away on tour, reading in Albuquerque that day having just arrived from Seattle (or was it Houston, or is it Houston next week?). He promises to try and call me “between flights” and when he finally does, he apologises through stifled yawns, for time lost in airports, in cabs to airports, in another reading in another town. He’s leaving again in a day or two for Jaipur, to attend the ever larger, ever more glittering literary festival. What makes Mukherjee’s success more remarkable is that his book — so runaway a bestseller that it is, he tells me, already “in its eighth printing” — is a “doorstop-sized” history, a self-styled “biography” on cancer.
Mukherjee, born and raised in Delhi “in the house where my parents still live in Safdarjung Enclave”, happens to be one of those bestselling writers who is also an oncologist and professor at Columbia University’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center; one of those bestselling writers who followed up their undergraduate degree at Stanford University with a PHD at Oxford and a medical degree at Harvard. His has been a vertiginous career. Yet, he remains self-effacing enough to confess that his book’s success, “it’s gone a little bit out of control frankly,” and leaves him “a little awestruck”.
Cancer research, though, as The Emperor of All Maladies shows, is a humbling field. Mukherjee wrote the book in response to a patient, eager to know the enemy she was fighting but unsure where to turn. Hundreds of thousands of academic papers are published on cancer each year but Mukherjee knew of no book synthesising that knowledge for the layman, no book grappling with the disease’s millennia-old history. A history of our various failed attempts to understand, never mind cure, cancer, a history, Mukherjee tells me “that takes two steps forward only to take one back and then two steps sideways”. The book, Mukherjee hopes, is a “space where people from 2500 BC have a conversation with people today about cancer.” It is about accrued experience and knowledge, about a shared, ongoing human struggle.
With The Emperor of All Maladies, Mukherjee joins the ranks of doctor-writers like Atul Gawande and Abraham Verghese (in Jaipur he will be in conversation with the surgeon- novelist Kavery Nambisan), but he also feels part of a renaissance in “serious narrative non-fiction writing in India”, namechecking the likes of Sunil Khilnani and Suketu Mehta. Mukherjee is now a feted public intellectual in the US, talking about the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona, for instance, with the novelist Jennifer Egan on a New York Times podcast. His appearance in Jaipur will lead, no doubt, to a similar status in the country of his birth.
VS Ramachandran, neurologist
AT FIRST GLANCE, VS Ramachandran comes across as a bit of a maverick — the Feynman of neuroscience, if you will: he uses mirrors to amputate phantom limbs, he interacts with hip-hop artists. His inspirations, he says, are Thomas Huxley, a flamboyant man of letters, and Michael Faraday, who used simple experiments to address fundamental questions. Another influence is Richard Gregory at Cambridge who Ramachandran describes as being akin to a great magician with a romantic view of science that he himself has imbibed.
Now close to 60, Ramachandran is active both scientifically and publicly. When he speaks, he is animated and opinionated with a lot to say, whether talking about his research or about the Indian middle-class (he is disapproving of “the caricatures of American malls” and “chain-smoking café intellectuals”). For all the media glare, he is sure of what he says and is not willing to be swayed by others’ ideas. He is more senior academic — if passionate — than rockstar.
Ramachandran became an instantly recognisable name with his book Phantoms In The Brain. It had fascinating tales from the world of neurology: stories of phantom arms, religious epileptics and blindsighted patients. His latest book The Tell-Tale Brain asks questions about the neurological basis of identity and paints a compelling, if still speculative, picture of how our minds interpret the world and indeed ourselves.
This is just as true of his unashamed belief in the scientific method even when investigating the mind. He gives short shrift to philosophical discussions and rarely brings up Freud. Philosophy, he argues, is often stuck on definitions, crediting it only for preserving “semantic hygiene”. He’d rather generate hypotheses that could be tested using the array of modern-day equipment or simple old-school techniques. His research has won him praise and taken him from an MD at Stanley Medical College in Chennai to the directorship of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California in San Diego. This journey has never felt particularly difficult, but he compares it to romantic love rather than an arranged marriage; it has had its share of twists and turns adding to his passion and excitement.
In conversation, some people have found fault with his discussion of art — he clinically analyses which brain areas might be responsible for our aesthetic sense — claiming it undermines the “human response”. He insists these are “different levels of description that complement rather than contradict each other”.
Ramachandran, like Pinker and Dawkins, is one of the more prominent public faces of science. His books, the 2003 BBC Reith Lecture series and his talks on the popular TED talk series have reached out to people the world over. Even the most sceptical are caught up in the sheer enthusiasm with which Ramachandran approaches problems. One leaves him and his writing buzzing with questions and ideas of one’s own, some too wild to consider, but on the other hand, those might be the ones worth pursuing.