In his inventive novel charged with philosophical gravity and sly humour, Vikram Paralkar takes on the practise of medicine in a time when the right to health care is frequently challenged. Engaging earthly injustice and imaginaries of the afterlife, he asks how we might navigate corrupt institutions to find a moral center. Encompassing social criticism and magically unreal drama, Night Theater is an intriguing read and enthralling story of a surgeon who arrives at a greater understanding of life’s miracles through the process of tending to the wounds of the dead.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Vikram Paralkar lives in the United States and is a hematologist-oncologist and scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. We have a chat about his novel Night Theatre.
Dipa: Every culture, creed and ideology has its ideas about the afterlife. What inspired the narrative in your book Night Theatre?
Vikram: Our human intellect has forced upon us, as a species, the uncomfortable knowledge of the inevitability of death, and it therefore isn’t surprising that our primary cultural project throughout history has been the denial of it. This denial has taken highly creative and varied forms, and is almost always fused with a separate concern that is also dear to our hearts and over which we often have little control: Our desire for justice. Given that our lives are transient, and that justice in this mortal world is often elusive, it is comforting to posit a realm in which the good will be rewarded and the evil punished.
But are we truly entitled to believe in such a realm? Isn’t it escapist? There is one world that we all can agree truly does exist – the one we’re currently inhabiting – and I strongly feel our efforts are better spent in remedying the injustices of this very world, in being of service to humanity right here, as opposed to investing–as many religions urge us to do–in celestial real estate.
I crafted the afterlife in Night Theater for the explicit purpose of posing existential questions to the reader: If the afterlife could be shown to be as unjust as the mortal world, perhaps even more so, would it rid you of your responsibility to be moral? Would it dissolve your obligations to your fellow man? Would it neutralize the need for compassion and service?
Dipa: Chinese mythology in particular envisions the afterlife as a bureaucracy—similar to the way you conceptualised it in your book. Tell us about your thought process in applying this system of governance to the afterlife.
Vikram: Night Theater begins with a surgeon who is struggling against corruption in his dilapidated village clinic, and who is visited one evening by the dead and thrust into a bizarre night of revelations and surgeries, with the surgeon trying to restore them to life.
My central goal in this narrative was to isolate the surgeon on a moral island. He would receive no guidance, neither from this earth, nor from the heavens. He would be the sole locus of his morality, left with nothing more (and nothing less) than his own conscience. The story required imagining an afterlife that would certainly not provide any answers to the surgeon, and which would mimic the same bureaucratic corruption that had plagued the surgeon on earth.
The direct inspiration for this kind of afterlife came less from Chinese mythology than from Franz Kafka. I’m a great admirer of Kafka’s writings, especially of the way in which they capture something very deep about the predicament in which we humans find ourselves when our societies become large and impersonal and the individual fades in importance, replaced by rules and regulations and diktats and documents. That was the spark from which the afterlife of Night Theater emerged.
Dipa: Death is the great unknown—a journey that terrifies a vast majority of people. On the other hand, bringing life into this world is typically portrayed as a joyous event. I’ve always seen life and death as two sides of the same coin. What is your take on the sojourn between life and death?
Vikram: I think we are enormously privileged to exist at all. Think about all the coincidences that had to occur, all the events that had to progress just so, from the dawn of time onwards, for any of us to exist. Think about how easy it would have been for the earth to never have had liquid water upon it, for the first bacterium to never have formed, for humans to never have evolved at all.
Now, it’s true that we could look upon all of this and say, “These decades of existence aren’t enough. I’m not satisfied. I desire immortality.” It’s an understandable demand, but why do we believe that the universe owes us immortality in the first place? Perhaps what we owe the universe is gratitude. Gratitude for allowing us to exist, and for the ability to love and think and befriend and converse.
Dipa: As a scientist, what do you think is the purpose of death? Do you find yourself having to reconcile faith and reason within yourself?
Vikram: Faith and Reason are very loaded concepts, and there’s no way I could do justice to them in a brief answer. I don’t consider myself to be a person of faith in any meaningful way, though I certainly am deeply interested in philosophy, and in philosophical concerns, several of which are contiguous with religious concerns.
I think of myself as a Hindu atheist, as someone who doesn’t believe in gods or afterlives or rebirth or karma, but with whom the central message of Hinduism resonates: We are part of the universe, we arise from it, we return to it, and all that matters is what we do as individuals with the time that we are privileged to have.