By Leslie Lindsay
A surgeon in a remote clinic must bring the dead back to life by dawn in this fantastic, wholly unique read filled with existential angst, magical realism.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Set in rural India, NIGHT THEATER (Jan 14, 2020 Catapult) is such an exquisite read unlike anything I’ve read before. Vikram Paralkar was born and raised in Mumbai and now resides in Pennsylvania as a physician-scientist and his expertise absolutely shines.
A bitter surgeon flees from his former job as a coroner/pathologist to a small village clinic where the conditions are poor–he’s constantly cleaning and sterilizing, squashing roaches, and buying supplies out of pocket. He has a little help–a woman he calls a ‘pharmacist,’ but her credentials are questionable and she serves many roles: nurse, confidant, clinic manager, assistant.
One night, a teacher, his pregnant wife, and their 8-year old son appear at the clinic as the surgeon is finalizing some paperwork. They were killed in a violent robbery, but tell the surgeon they have been offered another chance, ‘sent back’ from the afterlife at the hands of the ‘afterlife official.’ He has til dawn, less than 24 hours, to mend their wounds, to bring blood back to their bodies, to allow breath to flow again.
He’s skeptical, asks questions. Doubts rise. Who are these people? What do they want? Are they ‘for real?’ Criminals? Demonic? Is he merely exhausted? Is this really happening? The surgeon works quickly. He knows what to do.
As a reader, we are asked to suspend beliefs, consider alternatives—what do angels look like? What do they say? Can the dead feel pain? Emotions? Can they cry? Is the afterlife run by bureaucrats? Is the afterlife truly ‘better?’ And who is God, anyway?
THE NIGHT THEATER braids together and active story (can the surgeon mend this family within the time period), with a sort of existential questioning, ruminations on life and death. I was held captive in the glimmering but grotesque descriptions of the body, decay, the surgical procedures, and the magical essence of not fully knowing, palpating that luminal space between sleep and wakefulness, life and death. I was undone by this book.
Please join me in welcoming the talented Vikram Paralkar to the author interview series:
Wow. What a tale. I am so very intrigued with NIGHT THEATER and have so many questions, but first I think we as writers are always haunted into what we write. Something—or someone—is quite literally tugging us along, begging for a story to be told. Can you talk about what it was for you in this story?
I’m delighted that NIGHT THEATER resonated with you the way it did. There were several themes that I had been obsessing over before I wrote this novel, and I can broadly group them into four categories: First, the position of the doctor in society, and the contrast between the Hippocratic ideal of the wise, compassionate doctor and the reality of the flawed human who often inhabits that role. Second, the contrast between our fragile bodies and the scale of the universe, which makes our earth appear like a speck of dust in the amber of deep space and deep time. Third, narratives of God and the afterlife, and the way in which modern humanity, straddled with existential quandaries that have no easy resolution, has to grapple with the nonexistence of God. And fourth, the nature of corruption, and the way in which it corrodes human beings and societies, creating impossible choices for those who wish to pursue honest lives. These concerns had occupied me for years, and they led to the plot of NIGHT THEATER crystallizing in my mind: A cynical, disillusioned, but deeply moral surgeon, battling corruption in his work in a rural Indian clinic, would be faced one night with a task that would dwarf any challenge that had ever been placed before him in the course of his career: to return the dead to life.
Your experience as a physician and scientist absolutely shine and inform your writing, but you do aren’t a trained writer, are you? What inspires you to keep the saw sharp? How do you balance two very demanding jobs?
My education has been entirely in science and medicine, and I’ve never taken any writing courses or workshops. But what better training could there be to become a writer than to read literature and be inspired by it? I started reading Dostoevsky, Borges, Saramago, Calvino, Naipaul, Nabokov, Elliot, Woolf when I was in my late teens. The texture of their prose and the sophistication of their ideas inspired me to write. As to the act of balancing demanding jobs – Medicine, Science, and Fiction are all important to me. I take them all seriously, and I feel driven by them.
I love that NIGHT THEATER is set in a rural village in India; I think it sheds a fresh light on a very familiar setting: a medical clinic, but adds a sort of unique slant to the story. Do you think the story would be different if it were set somewhere else?
It was important for the plot of NIGHT THEATER that it be staged in an isolated setting – one that would simultaneously be open to the sky and its immensity, and yet claustrophobic and cut off from the world. As it happened, there was a particular personal experience to which I could turn for inspiration on that front. As a final-year medical student, I was assigned to a two-week rural health rotation in a small village clinic, where I was supposed to work under the supervision of a senior government doctor. The day I landed there, the senior doctor left on vacation, leaving me to my own devices. It was a terrifying feeling, to be left in that place, feeling grossly unqualified for an assignment that involved human lives. I still remember how it felt, standing at night in the entrance of that clinic, looking up at the pitch-black sky and beholding stars I had never before seen through the urban haze of Mumbai, wondering what I would do if a villager showed up at my doorstep with a medical emergency. I wanted to smuggle that feeling into the mental state of the surgeon in NIGHT THEATER, and turn the clinic of the novel into his claustrophobic universe. He would only have access to the things that the clinic could provide to him, and the outside world would provide nothing – no resources, no personnel, no moral guidance. I find it difficult to imagine that I could have executed this story in any place other than a rural clinic.
I was so taken with the descriptions of the after-life and God and angels, the ‘officials,’ re-birth, all of it. Certainly, these are topics that have been discussed and regarded for years and years; no one really knows what happens after life. Can you talk a little about the bodies of literature your characters drew their beliefs from? And have you worked with patients with near-death experiences?
There are two primary living characters in NIGHT THEATER: the surgeon and his pharmacist. The surgeon is a highly-educated atheist who does not believe in God or the afterlife, while the pharmacist is a young village woman with a partial school education, and she accepts the mainstream Hindu cosmogony of karma and rebirth that has been part of her upbringing. The dead patients, who have returned from the afterlife, prove them both wrong, and reveal an afterlife that turns out to be entirely unexpected – a bureaucracy in which the dead must endlessly petition officials for the privilege of rebirth.Kafka was of course an inspiration for me in the formulation of this aspect of the tale. The characters in this novel wouldn’t have known about Kafka, but the idea of a complex, de-humanizing bureaucracy would have been familiar to them from their encounters with government corruption. My own reason for crafting such a realm was to subvert the idea of the afterlife itself. The afterlife is supposed to be a consolation for our anxieties regarding death – a place where final justice will be meted out and all wrongs righted. But are we entitled to these consoling narratives? And do ideas of the afterlife make our decisions here on earth any easier? These were the questions I wished to confront.
Ultimately, I think NIGHT THEATER is a tale about morals—doing what’s right—but it’s also about miracles. Small ones, big ones. Can you expand on that a little? Or, correct me if I am wrong—maybe that wasn’t your intended theme.
Oh no, you’re absolutely right. The word ‘miracle’ is of course a loaded one, and is often abused in quite facile ways. It always strikes me as strange when a news report refers to the discovery of a lone survivor from a catastrophic train accident as a “miracle,” leading to the rather uncomfortable corollary that some celestial overseer decreed that all the other travelers were meant to perish. To me, the word ‘miracle’ speaks not to any particular phenomenon in the world, but to the change that it is capable of evoking in the mind of the perceiver. We are not creatures that just process facts and make decisions about food and shelter and safety. We infuse every aspect of our lives with emotional weight, with meaning, with significance. It is in this sense that I understand the word “miracle.” The functioning of a cell is miraculous, the breath of a child is miraculous. Music is miraculous, as is language. Some of us, because of the states of our minds or the events of our lives, are shut off from the ability to see these miracles. The surgeon in NIGHT THEATER, in the beginning of the novel, is trapped in such a state, where his despair and his cynicism prevents him from seeing any of the miracles of life. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether he is able to see them by the end.
I can’t wait to see what you do next—no pressure! Is there another story calling to you?
I’m working on another novel, about an eyemaker who can see the past and future of his clients. Medicine, morality, time.
Vikram, this has been so insightful and fascinating. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
We could have talked endlessly about philosophy and ethics, about the paradoxes in our ideas of humans as both thinking creatures and creatures of flesh and blood, about the impossibility of final knowledge and our obligation to make moral decisions based on imperfect insight. About God, about belief, about skepticism, and about how the practice of medicine touches every one of these issues. But that would have taken us all night and day!
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this and other bookish things, @leslielindsay1
For more information, to connect with Vikram Paralkar via social media, or to purchase a copy of NIGHT THEATER, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vikram Paralkar was born and raised in Mumbai. Author of a previous book, The Afflictions, he is a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he treats patients with leukemia and researches the disease. He lives in Philadelphia.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020 and the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this spring. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
Second edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from Woodbine House
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[Cover and image courtesy of Catapult Books and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this and other bookish things, @leslielindsay1]