Fantasy Books

‘The Afflictions’ by Vikram Paralkar: Journey through a Wunderkammer

Memento mori: Edvard Munch’s oil, ‘Ashes’.

Memento mori: Edvard Munch’s oil, ‘Ashes’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Just an inventory of imaginary diseases or the human condition under strobe lights?

There is a single conceit on which the whole of Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions is based. If you fall in step and let it work, you will go under and be submerged in a world of imaginary diseases. If you don’t allow the author to take your hand and lead you through a surreal compendium in a pseudo-mediaeval library, the book will fail for you.

Perhaps it will depend on how much you love your Borges, how much you care for Calvino. These are the two presiding spirits, one invoked in the reviews that are quoted, the other implicated in an epigraph. If you are fanatical about these two, it is possible that Paralkar may fail to work his magic. If you are often beguiled but can only take small doses of Invisible Cities or The Book of Imaginary Beings, it is possible that you might pick your way through The Afflictions as if you were in one of those old-fashioned Wunderkammers.

Reviewers’ Syndrome

Here is a disease I just thought up. It is called Reviewers’ Syndrome. The first symptoms come when the sufferer is presented with a book called The Afflictions that has a list of diseases in it. The sufferer is unaware of his condition until he stumbles upon an imaginary disease that seems to have a resemblance to the human condition as we know it, rather than as the author has imagined it. The crisis comes quickly as the reviewer begins to look for the possibility that under the whimsy lies gravitas.

‘The Afflictions’ by Vikram Paralkar: Journey through a Wunderkammer

Could it be that the many amnesias that Paralkar invents — Amnesia inversa, Amnesia histrionis, Amnesia esoptrica — are gesturing towards the way in which our society seems to be willing to forget at the cost of having to relearn? Could it be that the many diseases involving language — Lingua fracta, Aphasia floriloquens, Confusio linguarum, for instance — indicate the authorial unease with the way language has been mauled, the Orwellian barometer of the collapse of language pointing to stormy times ahead?

We all had anxieties over identity; these have been, we know, thrown into sharper and clearer relief by social media. Are the many identity maladies Paralkar imagines — Corpus fractum, Exilium volatile, Bernard’s malady — tropes meant to illuminate this brave new e-world? Or are the ones in which entire communities become infected by each other and/or suffer in harmony — Insania communalis, Corpus ambiguum, Conscientia errans — indicative of the new corporal us-ness we must now enjoy? Perhaps there is something deeper here, some concern for the way things are, for the cycle of birth and death, hinted at in Forma cyclica, Mors inevitabilis, Renascentia, Mors transiens.

I know. I should have explained each of these ‘new’ diseases, but it is difficult. Let me simply take Mors transiens where the body dies and seems to even undergo putrefaction only to revive itself again. Could that be botox and liquid nitrogen? No. Wait.

Death, thou shalt die

Here is what Paralkar wants perhaps to say about death that will not die: “The tremendous distress that this disease inflicts on mourners is unquestionable. The trauma it inflicts on the rich history of intellectual accomplishment is less acknowledged, yet every bit as pernicious. Mors transienshas poisoned with doubt what was once an immutable given. By stripping humanity of the fundamental absolute of civilization, Mors transiens threatens, in one fell stroke, to topple the magnificent edifice of philosophy, art and literature that has rested on the finality of death since the day Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.”

If you cherrypick your way through the book, there is another way of looking. These are not diseases that are imagined. They are the human condition under strobe lights. Take Tabes arcana: “Once touched by the affliction, their bodies become susceptible to the corruption of death even as they speak and breathe.” (Memento mori, anyone?)

Heal thyself

Or here is a case study from Corpus ambiguum which is supposed to be a condition in which the sufferer can “only with great effort... recognise their skins as the boundaries of their bodies. The slightest distraction makes them lose their sense of where their bodies end and the surrounding world begins.” (Babies tend to be like that.)

Paralkar then goes on to talk about a well-documented case in which a woman bent the disease to her will. “She took up the study of anatomy and became a healer. By laying hands on invalids, she would sense their pain, identify their pathologies, even manipulate their organs into expelling the stones and cysts that had laid them low. Then she began to expel demons from the epileptics. The local priests resented this intrusion into their domain and accused her of witchcraft. She fled the place leaving the townsfolk to the privacy of their own afflictions.”

Medice, cura te ipsum.

The writer is a poet and novelist.

The Afflictions; Vikram Paralkar, HarperCollins India, ₹399

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 4:36:24 PM |

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