Medicine and literature have always had an intriguing relationship. From greats writing about illnesses, like Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, to the present day surge of Young Adult fiction such as The Fault In Our Stars, a disease as cancer has often played an important tragic trope and medicine has always been a significant part of literary movements and masterpieces. Yet, an encyclopaedia of fictional diseases that is imbued with a whimsical introspection of the human condition is a rare feat and it is here that Vikram Paralkar’s book, The Afflictions, scores big. Captivating and philosophical, Paralkar’s oeuvre is absurd yet erudite, nuanced and well-witted, as he takes you through diseases that on some level, are suffered by humanity at large.
We spoke to the author to delve into his unique work. Excerpts from the conversation.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you were led to pursue writing.
I was born and raised in Mumbai, in a family of doctors. I was always a bookish child, and was drawn to science and literature early. In my late teens, most of my literary reading used to be on the Mumbai local train on the way to and from Seth GS Medical College, where I would lean against metal partitions and immerse myself in Borges or Saramago instead of cramming for exams (as I perhaps should have been doing). After my MBBS, I moved to the United States to pursue a career as a physician-scientist, and I am now on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where I treat patients with leukemia and conduct basic science research into the disease.
I was led to pursue writing by the same force that probably drives most writers: the realization, on reading the works of authors past, that language has a particular kind of power, and, deployed in the right way, can be used to at least ask (if not answer) deep questions about what it means to be human. Eventually there came a time when I felt that I had a voice and perspective worth sharing, and I decided to publish my work.
“Perhaps it was just the raw material that my brain was constantly receiving – as a doctor, the many fragilities of human bodies and minds were a matter of daily obsession – and the contours of imagined diseases would, on occasion, take shape as extensions of my professional musings.”
What inspired The Afflictions?
The Afflictions initially started as a short story. I was hoping to write a fable based upon the story of the 'Tower of Babel' from the Old Testament, in which God, angered by the hubris of mankind, curses the races of men to speak different languages. My story was to be set in a town where, one morning, every inhabitant awakens to find himself speaking a different language, unable to communicate with his own kin. Perhaps because my work during the day involved writing clinical vignettes, I was tempted to turn the fable into a vignette as well, one written by a medieval medical scholar describing an epidemic of fractured language that has befallen a town. Even as I wrote the first draft, the possibilities of this structure became clear to me, and I began to think up other aspects of human nature to dismantle - identity, speech, memory, morality – and carve ‘afflictions’ from each of them.
Can you give me a blurb on the book in your own words?
The Afflictions is best thought of as a work of experimental fiction comprised of fifty mediations on human nature. It opens with an elderly librarian named Senhor José leading a young apprentice named Máximo through a library in medieval Europe. The jewel of this library is the Medical Encyclopaedia, a collection of all the medical knowledge of the time. Over the course of the day, José and Máximo read through the descriptions of fifty different afflictions in the Encyclopaedia, and the reader, through their eyes, glimpses the strange world of these maladies, often a distortion of the familiar world in which we all live. For instance, the first affliction is Amnesia Inversia, in which the patient is forgotten, little by little, first by distant acquaintances, then by those he interacts with his in his daily life, and finally even by those dearest to him, leaving him condemned to wander the earth, unremembered. Each of these afflictions similarly tries to illuminate a facet or two of the complexities and imperfections of Man.
“My story was to be set in a town where, one morning, every inhabitant awakens to find himself speaking a different language, unable to communicate with his own kin.The possibilities of this structure became clear to me, and I began to think up other aspects of human nature to dismantle - identity, speech, memory, morality – and carve ‘afflictions’ from each of them.”
Take me through your creative process behind this intriguing work.
Naipaul once said that talking about his work was unusual for him, because the ideas within his mind were often not fully formed, and the actual words would take shape only during the course of writing and catch him by surprise. I think that captures something very real about the creative process. All I can say is that once the template for these afflictions had taken root in my mind, I found myself surprised by the tangents that they spontaneously took. Perhaps it was just the raw material that my brain was constantly receiving – as a doctor, the many fragilities of human bodies and minds were a matter of daily obsession – and the contours of imagined diseases would, on occasion, take shape as extensions of my professional musings.
Once I had written about sixty of these afflictions, my publisher in the United States and I worked closely to pick the fifty that we both felt most captured the diversity of human experience, and then it was a matter of editing and polishing them until the texture of the writing struck just the right balance between the medieval setting of the book and the contemporary (and perhaps eternal) concerns that the book was meant to raise.
Your book also throws light on humanity’s latent fears at large and is philosophical in many ways. Has the writing of this book transformed you in any way?
I’m certain it has. A reader is always in dialogue with the book he is reading, and, when you’re writing a novel, the intensity and duration of the dialogue is of course much greater, because you’re reading and re-reading your own work endlessly - putting it aside, returning to it, sometimes being surprised by words that the span of time had rendered unfamiliar. I wrote The Afflictions during my training as an oncologist, and my work often involved, during a course of an average day, informing one patient of a new cancer diagnosis, another of the fact that their disease was terminal, and a third that they were cured. Doctors witness every extremity of human emotion on a daily basis, and the latent (and overt) fears of humanity are constantly simmering below the surface of each interaction. It could just be a coincidence but, during the course of writing this book, I found myself having deeper conversations with patients about their lives, their fears, their yearnings. And you’re quite right in identifying the philosophical underpinnings of The Afflictions. This was also a time when I was reading more philosophy – Plato and David Hume in particular, both of whom tend to force readers to question fundamental assumptions that they have been carrying around like unexamined baggage. Would I have read these monumental authors either way? Likely yes. But did the writing of The Afflictions lead me to engage with them in particular ways that then filtered into my writing? Absolutely.
What do you wish the reader takes away from your work?
The feeling of having immersed themselves in a text worthy of their time.
Lastly, what’s next?
I’m working on a third novel. About an eyemaker who can see the past and the future.
Text Nidhi Verma