Anatomy of the absurd

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 16, 2018

No holes barred: Paralkar micro-details surgical processes and anatomy so much so that, at times, the narrative gives the impression of witnessing a postmortem   -

The Wounds of the Dead Vikram Paralkar Fiction HarperCollins ₹499

Blending the bizarre with the phantasmal, a doctor stitches together a beautifully fearsome meta-fiction on death, the dead and the living

It is not an exaggeration to say doctors have an organic relationship with death. Physicians, especially surgeons, come face-to-face with death almost every day. And this familiarity builds in them a nonchalance that helps them negotiate, understand and decipher death, as well the dead, not just as a biological phenomenon but as a philosophical process as well. Arguably, that could be a reason why doctor-writers can instil in their works a closer understanding of the much simpler act of dying and, as a result, the complex art of living. One senses this pretty quickly while reading, say, Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and the author of, what he calls, a military history of cancer — The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, or the writings of the US-born Indian-origin surgeon Atul Gawande or even Kavery Nambisan.

The closeness and camaraderie they have with death — and life — helps doctors visualise these phenomena in ways that might seem confusingly unreal to others. This perplexity is vividly illustrated in Paul Kalanithi’s painfully sketched autobiographical notes on his life and fatal battle with cancer — When Breath Becomes Air, where he is both the doctor and a patient. To these writers, the reality of death is so up-close that the images emerging out of it might be rather unsettling, as well as revealing, especially when they employ the magic of fiction to capture those experiences.

Such an experience is eerily unravelled in The Wounds of The Dead, authored by India-born physician-scientist Vikram Paralkar, where we follow a few long, winding hours with a surgeon working at a clinic at a godforsaken geography in rural India. Even though the novel’s ‘story’ starts and ends in the span of a day or two, Paralkar has little regard for our default, normative notions of time and space. The sheer bizarreness of the story he recounts ensures the narrative is not bound to any preconditions that is otherwise mandatory in understanding a ‘story’. In this, this short novel stands closer to poetry, an absurd one at that, where the very syntax of the prose is undermined to deliver a rather complex, compounded and calibrated meaning. For starters, this is the story of a surgeon and his three ‘dead’ visitors — a boy of eight, his father and pregnant mother who were fatally wounded in a gruesome attack. One uneasy night, the trio visit the surgeon’s clinic with a request that puts the doctor, and his pharmacist, in a spot — they want the surgeon to fix their wounds before dawn so that the family can return to life. What happens to the request forms the rest of the book.

Evidently, Paralkar is not bothered about the ‘why’ and ‘what’ in his narrative. Why do these three characters appear at the isolated clinic at that hour? Are they really dead? Why does the surgeon agree to their request? Are these events real? One doesn’t get answers. As the narrative progresses, it resembles a mesh of intestines inside a human body, and several questions pop up and go unanswered. One soon realises the absurdity of such mundane concerns even as the surgeon and his ‘dead’ visitors engage in a labyrinthine and Kafkaesque conversation, a discourse on death, village life, human ties, power relations, caste, class and even god.

The Wounds of the Dead Vikram Paralkar Fiction HarperCollins ₹499

The Wounds of The Dead is a disturbing work. There are no happy takeaways. To aptly exaggerate, it is Faulkner-meets-Brecht. Magically un-realist, the novel builds on Marquezian elements of meta-fiction to become a Gordian allegory that readers might decipher with enough labour, a process that offers an extraordinary sense of catharsis at the end. If you have read Will Self, among the recent crop of dark-fiction writers, you might know what one means. Paralkar micro-details surgical processes and human anatomy so much so that, at times, the narrative gives the impression of witnessing a postmortem. But he also writes with a scary rhythm and tenor (“he could speak calmly to a woman whose neck lay open before him, forceps sticking out between her cartilage and muscles…”) that reminds one of Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.

But Paralkar is no Capote. And he is not constrained by the limited bandwidth of non-fiction; so he takes wild liberties to blend the bizarre with the phantasmal and the allegorical (“Our wounds don’t hurt. We don’t feel any pain for the rest of the night.”) to create an eerily beautiful meta-fiction that demands changes in the way we experience art. This liberates the novel from the shackles of providing a meaning or a message, and attains a unique identity. Such fiction, which demands a course-correction, is a reader’s delight. Always.

Published on February 16, 2018

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