I feel quite grateful to Vikram Paralkar. He has presented me with a set of unique and wonderful fictions. They have not just entertained me, but have also made me think about the nature of stories, about the framework, the beginning – and any literary work that does that is worth many a reading and rereading.
It can be said that this “novel” is straightforward. Its title proclaims itself: The Afflictions, and true to this name, the following pages detail nothing but illnesses, suffering, anecdotes of pain, rumours of madness, histories of medical interventions, and accounts of heresy, all relayed by an aged librarian to an eager but physically deformed student. So there is a certain fulfilment of expectations there.
If you signed up for afflictions, you will get nothing but afflictions. In a much more significant way, however, this straightforward novel is extremely deviant and messy and long-winded, and what’s more, it’s not at all a novel. Paralkar is doing something interesting and frustrating.
Of Borges and Calvino
It does not come as a surprise, therefore, when one revisits the epigraph: one quote from Jorge Luis Borges and the other from Italo Calvino, both handling the subject of analogies, parallels, and symbols. Calvino – and his Invisible Cities – is an especially obvious ancestor (Paralkar has thankfully not been traditionally masculine enough to give all of his afflictions female names, like Calvino’s “female” cities, but he still unfortunately employs the male pronoun to talk about all human beings, perhaps to sound typically historical.) The Afflictions will be familiar territory for anyone who has read Invisible Cities. It may even serve as an exciting introduction to the whole of magic realism as an archive of literature.
But even if one doesn’t respond to this particular impetus to the imagination – characteristic of all science fiction and magic realism – one will still find this book to be entertaining in a strange way. The two-page entries (“chapters”) that describe bizarre conditions and the simple representative artworks that accompany them are oddly satisfying in their brevity. Somehow, one doesn’t demand more from each particular “ailment,” even as one sees that each, in its symptoms and complications, is only an extended reference to human stubbornness, jealousy, grief, secrecy, and desire.
Some of these “diseases,” therefore, come across as patently silly – like Pulchritudo Scelerata, where gazing upon a beautiful person causes ugliness in the beholders, and entire towns have to be warned but “face” the difficulty of not being able to hang up a poster of the “accused” in the town square. Or Vulnus Morale, where the disease-causing malevolence in one’s thoughts and malice in one’s actions needs to be kept track of, and then cured by physicians who ask for accounts of good deeds as the antidote.
Then there are others, like Agricola’s Disease, where the invalids have become “profoundly deaf,” but regain their hearing the minute they taste a tiny amount of an old, old elixir – leading to a classist, privileged battle for more and more of this sound-granting antidote. Paralkar’s language is as addicting to read as the elixir must be to the impaired victims:
“They pour the contents into their mouths and the world bursts open. The grumbling of thwarted merchants, the clinking of coins behind the auctioneer’s desk, the cawing of gulls on the sand, the cries of fishwives hawking their catch, and the roar of the churning, frothing sea soak into their bones. The invalids fall to their knees, weeping. And then the cure begins to fade.”
Of those inflicted with Visio Determinata, he tells us:
“The final insult that tips him into complete blindness is often the simplest of sight: the glow of an infant’s cheek, the tint of an autumn leaf, the gentle red of a robin’s breast.”
Everyone is susceptible
There’s not much extraordinary or sweeping about his prose. But give it a second of your attention, and Paralkar will reel you into a world where you are a potential invalid – because you cannot control your envy, or moderate your greed, or let go of your manipulative ways, or are proud of your beauty, your body, your memory. Of Mnemosyne’s Disease, we are told:
“…it deprives its victims of the capacity to forget, which leaves them with a grotesque power. (…) As time passed, they would find themselves remembering not just the contents of their reading but even the shapes of the letters, recalling in perfect detail the boldness of an ‘f’ or the asymmetry of an ‘m.’ They could even recall the outlines of stains on the pages they read.”
Try and imagine for a moment how excruciating this can be, to be able to passionately recall how a tea stain had tainted the middle section of the Times, and you will be able to appreciate what Paralkar is doing. He’s taking ordinary human reactions and equations and pathologising them into fantasies, into fiction, into unreal tales that allay us for the same reason they scare us: they are fictional, they are unreal, they are fantastic. They are real.
The Afflictions melds life and death, pleasure and pain, in a dispassionate and yet thoroughly enjoyable manner. It is one of the best examples of the book doing its job: exploring possibilities.
The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, HarperCollins India.