28 March 2019
‘I read this book in a single addictive sitting. It will stay with me for a long time’ Jeet Thayil
‘By the time I reached its smashing final line, I was hoping Paralkar would resurrect the dead for a sequel’ The Hindu
As dusk approaches, a surgeon goes about closing up his dilapidated clinic in rural India, when he is visited by a family – a teacher, his wife and their son. Victims of a senseless attack, they reveal to the surgeon wounds that they could not possibly have survived – and which the surgeon must mend before sunrise so that they may return to life.
Vikram Paralkar tells us the story behind Night Theatre.
I started writing Night Theatre with two questions in mind: What obligations does a doctor have towards a patient who lays an impossible task at his feet? And how does a moral person conduct himself within a society that tries to corrupt him at every turn? These issues had been occupying me for some time, and I was looking for a way to coax them into literary form.
The seeds of Night Theatre were sown a decade earlier, in 2003, when I was in the final year of medical college in India. One of our mandatory rotations was in a tiny government clinic a few hours from Mumbai. A classmate and I were posted there together, but the classmate, having found some means of bribing his way to a completion certificate, never materialised. I, on the other hand, presented myself to the village, only to learn that the senior doctor stationed there was leaving the next afternoon on a long vacation. And so it happened that a sapling of a medical student, green with little more than textbook knowledge, was stranded alone in an isolated clinic.
Nothing untoward happened during my brief tenure there, if only because the gods were kind enough to preserve the health of the villagers during those weeks, and keep at bay any illnesses that my rudimentary skills could not tackle. But the anxiety of my first night was an experience qualitatively different from any I had previously known. It was the realisation that the lives of others might, at any moment, be thrust into my hands. Incompetence and failure, which, until that moment, could only result in poor examination grades, would now be measured in breath and blood.
I’ve always had an affinity for the uncanny and the absurd, and so, when the opportunity came for me to smuggle the emotional core of my own experience into fiction, I reached for the most absurd task I could place before my protagonist, a cynical but moral surgeon. If breath and blood were to be at stake, then perhaps the most impossible patient would be one who possessed neither. That was how the plot outline of Night Theatre took form. A surgeon in a village clinic, brought to grief by government corruption, would be visited one night by the dead, who would beg him to mend their wounds so they could return to life at dawn.
Night Theatre unfolds over the hours of one night and the morning that follows. To the reader who chooses to spend any time at all within its pages: much gratitude and affection.
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