Book Review: The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar

U Atreya Sarma
The Afflictions |
Novel | Vikram Paralkar |
Harper Collins, Noida | 2019 |
ISBN: 978-93-5302-460-4 |
Pp 223 | ₹ 399

Reviewed by: U Atreya Sarma
A mock-serious medical fiction with a spooky diversion
Be assured that The Afflictions is not something that enervates you or makes you shrink away. Far from it. It administers a spooky and sparkling diversion what with its mock-serious depiction of a mingle-mangle of imaginary psycho-somatic pathological syndromes, with one chapter allotted to each of the 50 afflictions. While you have a with the 50 illustrations representing each of these afflictions, the Latin scientific nomenclature labelling them lends the work necessary gravitas, as if elevating the subject matter to that of a scientific treatise. The chapters are interspersed by 7 interlinking narrative interludes in which there are just two interlocutors – rather one monologist and one listener, to put it precisely. But for this flimsy interconnection, one would wonder how The Afflictions can be technically a novel, though categorised as such.
The monologist is the Head Librarian of the Central Library which houses the “only one Encyclopaedia Medicinae” comprising 327 volumes and which he has been jealously guarding for 70 years. He is Senhor Jose, once a ‘travelling apothecary,’ and his listener is Maximo, himself an apothecary, who comes to join as an apprentice in the Central Library. Jose compliments him: “Your experience as an apothecary is unique. Most of our librarians only have a theoretical knowledge of medicine, which limits their understanding of the Encyclopaedia” (221), and curiously Jose sees an affliction in Maximo, and to know about it, please do read the eerie book. Interestingly, Jose says that he himself was made a librarian by a travelling apothecary.
Some of the obiter dicta in the narration do have a semblance of realism or a thought provoking content. Savour a couple of them –
As Jose exhorts Maximo:
“You know better than I that diagnosis and cure grow more esoteric by the day. It’s not enough to be a physician – now you must know alchemy and cartography. Even the traffic of the stars. How does one keep track of it all? As the knowledge contained in the Library grows, so does its disorganization. Very few people understand this.” (2)
Jose explains the process that had gone into the production of the Encyclopaedia, in minute detail:
“Look at this volume here – at its perfect spine, at the clean, beautiful words. There’s nothing to remind you of how its pages once hung on a butcher’s rack surrounded by giblets. The raw pelt is first washed and soaked in lime to strip off the hair – the smell is horrific, I tell you – and you have to stir it thrice a day for just the right number of days. Too much and it will tear. Then the pelt is stretched, and the pegs holding it are tightened a little every few days, until it’s thin and dry and strong as a drum. Who knows how many animals went into the making of this Encyclopaedia? An Encyclopaedia of healing. Written on death” (3).
And, tongue-in-cheek, Jose talks of a hypothetical situation with a beautiful description:
“If this parchment I’m holding had ended up in an abbey, monks would have slaved over it, coloured it with gold leaf and tempera, drawn winged seraphs in the margins, and set filigreed vines and arabesques trailing from every letter” (87).
The Head Librarian ventures a generalisation of the diseases:
“If you read the Encyclopaedia from beginning to end, you get the feeling that every affliction known to man is part of a single, infinite progression. Or that every disease is a different facet of one great and terrible malady” (159).
And then he foretells:
“The Encyclopaedia isn’t complete – far from it – yet it’s already growing outdated. In a few years, scholars will begin calling for a newer edition” (222).
Only a medical scientist could have conceived and executed the above type of creative narrative. Yes, the author Vikram Paralkar “is a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA... born and raised in Mumbai... His book The Wounds of the Dead was published by HarperCollins India in 2017. The Afflictions has been translated into Spanish and Italian” (Prelims).
The Afflictions has garnered a bunch of international appreciations, and here is just a sample:
“[A] darkly whimsical meditation on human discontents ... Paralkar’s tragicomic imagination, sly sendup of pseudo-Latinate medical prose and fine sense of irony make for an arresting read” (Prelims).
Now it’s time to touch upon a few of the afflictions.
There is Agricola’s Disease, which within two years of its onset, robs its victims of hearing; and the only cure is to place a single drop of an elixir on the invalid’s tongue. It’s so expensive that the otologists can keep only a minute quantity of it, “a dilution of one part to sixty thousand.” Consequently, only the super-rich patients can afford to pay for it. And mind you, the treatment provides only a fleeting relief, so much so they are dropped “back into their oubliette” (11).
One of the queerest is the Libertine’s Disease which produces pruritus profanus – the profane itch even among the chaste; and it can be relieved only by excessive sexual congress but it returns to “torment the invalid even before the languor of the act has subsided” (21). And any slightest error in generating and dispensing the complex and delicate balance of the curative tinctures “can result in the accidental conversion of the subject into a lifelong celibate” (22).
Pulchritudo scelerata, or Accursed Beauty, grants its victims a bewitching loveliness,” and “Anyone who lays eyes” on them “will suffer migraines, catarrh, evanescent rashes, and inflammations of the joints and sinuses,” and the afflicted are condemned to “a lifetime behind masks and veils, unless they agree to scar their faces to the point of disfigurement, thus neutralizing the venom” (37-38).
Many of the people who are not fortunate enough to live comfortable and opulent lives, have at least the luxury of daydreaming of an affluent life. When it goes beyond this dreamy stage, Bernard’s Malady overpowers them. “Unable to repair the iniquities of the visible world, it repairs the fabric of memory. But it succeeds only in magnifying misery through the lens of false opulence” (58).
Cultured people talk of and maintain their own physical space and don’t intrude on that of others, but those affected by Corpus ambiguum forget the boundary between their and others’ bodies. Consequently, they “may reach out and touch, with casual nonchalance, the private areas of other people’s anatomy,” and we are given the case study of a woman sufferer who “bludgeoned her own leg to a pulp, convinced that it belonged to an intruder” (65).
Once the plague of Confusio linguarum sweeps a town, the citizens begin to lament in “tongues never before uttered on this earth,” and they “never recover their native languages and can only speak thereafter in strange new syllables.” And “Once the epidemic is no longer contagious, brave linguists enter the city, hoping to decipher the vocabularies and grammars that the infestation has left behind.” And look at the priorities of deciphering. “The languages of merchants are always the first to be unravelled. Dry conversations about trade and governance begin, while the words of poets and philosophers go unheard” (107). No wonder, isn’t it? The linguists, for once, know very well where the pelf lies.
Chorea rhythmica begins with “debilitating muscle spasms” and the “invalid’s limbs flail of their own will, their wrists contort at strange angles, their arms toss in the air,” and this “disease is often confused with demonic possession (157). Each affected part of the body has its own therapy. Two drops of elecampane for neck-snapping; a sprinkle of ground mandragora for elbow extension; a grain of black salt for fist-clenching. But some “theoreticians believe that the healing power of these tinctures lies not in the ingredients, but in the rhythm and pattern of administration,” and one “scholar suggests that physicians would do better to replace them with sound, produced at the bedside by musicians trained in disorders of movement” (158), namely, music therapy.
The bizarre symptoms, diagnosis and treatment thus go on and on... And at least in some cases, they sound plausible for in the infinity of human pathological and response system, a semblance of these could certainly be seen in some measure or the other. On the whole, this seriocomic study of phantasmal pathology and materia medica provides a healthy entertainment on the wings of pseudo-scientific fancy, stimulates one’s thought, and enriches one’s diction. The author Vikram Paralkar deserves hearty congratulations.

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