At the Gurgaon launch of his new book The Yellow Emperor's Cure, Kunal Basu talks about balancing research and storytelling
Into the second page of Kunal Basu’s new book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, you begin marvelling at the effort the author has expended in understanding an alien culture, the depth of his research into its customs, his deft characterisation, his insight into human motivations and his grasp of early surgery. That admiration of Basu’s dexterity increased during his reading at the Quill and Canvas Gallery in Gurgaon on Saturday, 14 January 2012, especially when he launched into a masterful description of a scabrous syphilitic patient, his protagonist’s father:
“A field of roses blinded him as he ripped open his father’s tunic, the red rash that covered the body from head to knee, sparing no part except the eyes. In places the buds had dried out into ugly scabs, like leopards spots, chaffed and shrivelled. Hideous lumps flattened the balls of his feet and his palms, joined his neck to his chin and sent a ripple across the chest. Pus oozed from fiery cysts. His back resembled a field of millet. A deep lesion on his forehead gaped like a crater. Eyebrows had disappeared, along with hair from his head and limbs, the nose turned into a one holed flute. Saliva drooled though his gumless mouth, a tooth falling out when he parted his jaws to let out a howl. Antonio removed the covers fully and saw an abscess on the genitals resembling a flowering cactus, and testes that were far too swollen to hold in both hands. The stench of rotting flesh made him cover his nose.”
It’s the sort of paragraph that makes scalps prickle and turns stomachs. It’s also the sort of paragraph that makes you read on, for by now you have come to empathise with Antonio Maria, the young Portuguese doctor at the centre of this historical novel set in the late 19th century when syphilis was an incurable disease, the pox as divine retribution wreaked on mortal sinners. And eventually, it’s the sort of paragraph that makes readers wonder how the writer managed to balance all this heavy research with firm characterisation and how he steered his novel away from becoming a plodding beast burdened by the weight of research.
“I’m not a historian; I don’t have a favourite historical period,” Basu said in response to a question about his research methods from his publisher Saugatha Mukherjee, head of Picador and Pan India.
Saugatha Mukherjee and Kunal Basu
“I had already written about China (for The Opium Clerk) but I was ignorant about the history of medicine and syphilis; about Chinese medicine and the difference between Chinese and western medicine; about the Boxer Rebellion… But I was propelled by the story, and I only read enough to propel my story,” he said adding that in his “other life as an academic” he insists that his PhD students read everything they can on their subject. It’s an approach he avoids when writing historical fiction as then he would only be “reproducing that history”. So he reads sparingly, choosing his matter according to how much it helps his narrative. “You have to be very transactional, utilitarian… ‘This is what I need to tell my story’,” he said adding that he had to keep returning to research at different points during the two years that he spent working on the book.
“I hadn’t read Chinese pornography before so I had to go back and research,” he said. But he didn’t let his research, even if it was something as intriguing as antique Chinese pornography, overwhelm the writing.
“I’m a storyteller and I would go with research only as far as the story dictates,” he says revealing that the idea for the book came to him while he was wandering a few years ago through a “typically sarkari museum” of Chinese medicine in Beijing after a “boring lunch” with a former student.
The museum’s exhibits included “intestines of animals, paw of deer, large mushroom and cacti…” and it occurred to Basu that “if I, a 21st century citizen, am so amazed me, imagine what a 19th century European would have thought.” As he allowed his thoughts to wander further, he found himself wondering about the reaction of a young doctor, one who epitomises the brash arrogance of the 19th century European, to the same sights.
“I was thinking about all this as I walked through the museum and then I saw the image of a handsome young man standing naked in the summer palace and a young Chinese woman drawing channels on his body and I knew I had the kernel of the story,” said Basu, a professor of Marketing at Oxford University, whose haphazardly buttoned jacket gives him the air of the absent minded scholar. It’s somehow at odds with his articulate delivery and his almost effortless ability to hold the attention of the audience. There is no awkwardness, no blank moment as he steers them through the world of his young Portuguese doctor Antonio Maria who travels to China to look for a cure for the syphilis that is killing his father.
“What drew me to this plot is how human beings have tried to solve the unsolvable… and Antonio Maria was one such man. That’s an element of the human condition that I find enduring,” said Basu, who came to writing after meandering through a post graduate degree in mechanical engineering, stints as a literary journalist and a performer. He now seems to have found that elusive balance of which writers who juggle jobs are always in search.
“Academics is my day job,” he said. “I’m conscientious to the extent possible. I’ve learnt to weave my academics and my writing. I write 12 hours a day. It’s a tightrope walk and I might fall. If I fall I’ll fall on the side of fiction,” he added revealing that he opted for his current job because it doesn’t consume him like a corporate one would have done.
“Otherwise I would be reduced to the status of weekend writer, a hobbyist, I never wanted to do that,” he said revealing that his next work, which will also be published by Pan Macmillan – they have a two-book deal – will be a contemporary novel. This leads to the inevitable question from the audience about how much the author’s own life impinges on his writing.
“There is very little surface autobiography in my books. I didn’t fashion characters after my mother in law,” he said. “But I am sure there is deep autobiography.”
Certainly, there is no surface autobiography in the story of the doctor in search a cure for a devastating disease and, as the paragraph Basu chose to read showed, he has the rare power to transmit to the reader minute details without making it tough work.
Like a good performer he is conscious too that an audience shouldn’t be left with the horrific image of Antonio’s father’s suppurating sores. “After I spoilt your appetite for this small meal with syphilis let me try to revive it with love,” he said reading aloud from a section where Maria is left dry mouthed after a demonstration of the channels of his body according to the Chinese system of medicine.
The extract is erotic and dazzling and makes you wonder if Maria does eventually find a cure for syphilis. “Ah, but for that you’ll have to read the book. I’m not going to give away the end,” Basu said.
Afterwards, as you stand munching croissants and nibbling miniscule quiches, and engaging in what you hope is suitably literary chit-chat, you think that perhaps this time you will, indeed, read a book right through to the end.