Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography on Cancer is like observing a massive river overflowing, but one that is kind enough to leave its embankments unharmed.
That’s because despite the richness of its content, most often purely scientific at its core, the book is anything but esoteric. Any other writer would have turned it into a drab non-fiction on cancer—one that is inured to death, not life.
But Siddhartha takes his readers, even those seemingly averse to any text riddled with scientific details, on a fantastic literary journey. He blends his scientific acumen with a humanistic approach to understand the extreme agony suffered by the cancer-afflicted.
The torment that cancer inflicts on its hosts is so deep and vast that it is difficult to contain it within the scientific terminology. It will escape this realm instantly. That’s precisely the reason why the narrator of this macabre tale turns himself into a wordsmith and deftly stitches the arid wisdom of a scientist together with the sensitivities of a writer and a poet rolled into one.
Siddhartha is a writer who wears many a garb effortlessly. He has a cellular biologist’s incendiary enthusiasm to understand the behaviour of a cell that multiplies, migrates and deepens the pain in its hosts relentlessly with ghostly efficacy. He has a historian’s ravenous hunger for indepth research that takes him to the Persian Queen Atossa—who likely had breast cancer in 500 BC and had her breast chopped off by her Greek slave—and brings him back to libraries to pore over all kinds of literature. He is also a philosopher who is able to empathise with the sufferers as if the pain is gnawing at his sinews every waking moment.
He intersperses all this story-telling with the anecdotes of a beautiful relationship he shares with his leukaemia patient Clara, in whose revival he finds his own salvation.
What more, he has that rare ability to meld all these elements into one magisterial piece of literary work that never fails to awe you. Siddhartha’s words flow like a potent painkiller in this body of work tormented by cancer’s willpower to outwit, outlast its hosts and survive for over 4,000 years. It’s a medical thriller at its best.
He achieves it by criss-crossing the world of science—from lamplit dungeon-like basement laboratories to the most modern cancer research centres/hospitals. He walks in and out of these two worlds as if they are united by a common door.
Rarely do we get fascinated by both the writer’s oeuvre and the writer himself/herself. More so if the writer is baby-stepping into the literary landscape. I thought it could only take another Susan Sontag to write anything about cancer or HIV/AIDS so eloquently. I thought her Illness as Metaphor would be the last literary treat because this woman knew what it takes to live and die as a cancer patient.
But I don’t think I was correct. Siddhartha finds intellectual support in such deft phrase-making that you would not hesitate to call it a classic from a writer gifted with a Shakespearean ear.
The prose is lucid, simple, but not simplistic. Do not for once mistake it for a dumbed-down treatise on ‘a magnificent desolation’ called cancer. When you are dealing with a subject steeped in complexity, the trick is to leave the complexity as it is but lay it bare with lucid prose. Only those who appreciate beauty in complexity can accomplish that.
Cancer, a cruel seductress
However, as a reader, I would rather compare cancer to a dazzlingly cruel seductress who leads a host of scientists, surgeons, students, researchers, government agencies, lobbyists, lawyers and activists—who are on a hunt for a magic bullet, a potion or anything that leaves the sufferers in peace—down a blind alley.
She leaves behind a trail so sinuous, rough-hewn and harrowing that each time this hunter brigade thinks it has reached the destination, it realises that it was just a hairpin bend in the alley—one that leads to yet another tortuous path. While the government pumps in loads of money to light up this alley, Goddess Serendipity limits her kindness to mere flickers of hope glowing spasmodically at a distance.
While all this goes on, some hunters give up hopelessly. Some lobbyists call off the hunt for political reasons and the rest continue to grope in the dark. Right behind them is a procession of injured souls ravaged and dehumanised by cancer and cancer therapies: patients.
I belong to a generation that woke up to the ruins left behind by HIV/AIDS more than cancer. By the time we understood the difference between the two stages—HIV and AIDS, some therapies that could send cancer into remission for longer periods (not cure) had already nipped bystanders’ fascination towards cancer by a great deal.
Although AIDS plays a cameo in this book, the writer, often quoting Susan Sontag, does reveal how this affliction added many more facets to an already befuddling cancer conundrum. Unlike cancer, AIDS leaves behind many more deadly socio-political side-effects. Its folklore is one where muffled anguish often sings songs of stigma, guilt and self-dejection. It’s hard to think of any other tragedy as greater than AIDS. Even cancer.
Sontag gets it right: “If cancer was perceived as the product of spoiled germ, of biological mutability gone wild, then AIDS was the result of contaminated germ, of social mutability gone wild…”
A piece of art
Nevertheless, this river flows ever so tirelessly—carving out its own path, softening the hard rocks and churning out its own mellifluous music.
When you have crafted one such beautiful piece of art, you don’t need to set the PR machinery on a hyperdrive to manufacture success. You don’t need to beg celebrities to unveil it. You don’t have to exploit every available platform to promote it. Such work promotes itself! There is such profound magnetism in this work that it makes a host of Indian writers fall by the wayside.
The experience of reading this book can be likened to listening to a haunting song sung so softly, so soulfully that it brings out sadness you never knew you hosted. At the same time, you emerge out of this experience with a tinge of guilt because it fills you with a weird sense of happiness—so subtle, yet so deep!