Why Did it Take So Long for Us to Get This Must-Read Novel?
Night Theater debuted this month in the United States, following success in the U.K., where it published last year, and in India, where it first appeared in 2017.
Author Vikram Paralkar is both scientist and storyteller. A Philadelphia-based oncologist and researcher, he writes gripping medical drama. In this, his second novel, Paralkar weaves that drama together with meditations on mortality, the afterlife and religion.
Night Theater’s premise is simple, if macabre. An unnamed surgeon runs a clinic in a small village in India, dispensing polio vaccines and rudimentary urgent care. He’s decamped there to escape a scandal, and now toils in relative obscurity with few of the supplies and creature comforts he once enjoyed at the big hospital in the city.
One night, a trio of patients arrive with an unusual request. Roadside robbers stabbed and murdered them, but if the surgeon can operate overnight and repair their injuries by sunrise, they will return to life.
The surgeon considers this young teacher, his near-term pregnant wife and their young son with no small measure of disbelief.
“This was unacceptable,” he thinks. “One could string letters together to say anything, anything at all, no matter how outrageous. The surgeon wished his thoughts would connect, one to the next, turn the man’s words into something that made sense.”
Nevertheless, he agrees to try.
Why does this curmudgeonly doctor decide to tackle these people’s bloodless stab wounds? What if they’re actually ghosts who will drag him down to the underworld? Can he reasonably ask his pharmacist assistant and her husband, who he must send to the next town for more medical supplies, to join him in this folly?
These are the easy questions, answered with a plot that races towards sunrise. The villagers’ second-chance lives are very much in the surgeon’s hands, and everyone knows it.
Inevitably, conversation turns to the attack and its aftermath, and Paralkar’s novel transcends to explore such heady subjects as the existence of the afterlife. Yet he never bogs down his action with soliloquy or speechifying disguised as dialogue. His straightforward treatment, coupled with the surgeon’s often-sour assessments, raises welcome questions instead of dispensing feel-good, Oprah-esque platitudes.
“‘I know I must sound half-mad when I talk like this, but it’s these things that really separate life from death,’ the teacher insists, waxing rhapsodic about cold drinking water, as the surgeon works on his wounds. “ ‘Yes, I’ll have to return someday, but now that I know what it’s like, the time I spend on earth will be different.’…
“The surgeon grimaced. It was too naïve, all of this. Not what he’d expected at all, certainly not from someone whose knowledge of life was supposed to surpass his own.”
It all makes Night Theater both a thought-provoking fable and a page-turner with a knockout ending. Paralkar has crafted a winner, and one wonders why it took so long to land Stateside.
(Catapult, January 14, 2020)