‘Night Theater’: Surgery, Corruption, and Chekhov

The well-timed choreography of Vikram Paralkar's Night Theater leads us to interrogate the unfamiliar notes of our personal harmonies.

Night Theater
Vikram Paralkar
January 2020

Reading Vikram Paralkar’s second novel, Night Theater, brings to mind another doctor-writer from another century. Anton Chekhov. This Russian physician and writer gave us well over a hundred fictional doctors in his plays and short stories. With each one, he gave us different memorable archetypes: the narcissist, the genius, the healer, the bumbling idiot, the cynic, and more. And with each one he also gave us richly evocative studies of the medical profession—its many conflicts, rewards, labors, and satisfactions.

Paralkar, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, gives us just such an archetypal doctor in this novel: an old, once-brilliant surgeon resigned to working the balance of his life in a threadbare government clinic of a tiny, nowhere village. When a family of three dead people arrives at the clinic one night, Paralkar’s doctor is given no choice but to follow along with their desperate plan. The majority of the novel is about what transpires throughout the night, before the much-anticipated and much-dreaded dawn is upon them.

In the short story “Ward No. 6”, Chekhov reveals one of the reasons for his frequent literary exploration of the doctor-patient equation:

People who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings, for instance—judges, police officers, doctors—in course of time, grow so callous, that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients, in this respect they are not different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in the backyard and does not notice the blood.

Paralkar’s doctor in Night Theater has also, in this manner, grown cold over his decades of practice, first as a coroner and then as a surgeon. Valuing process, procedure, and precision above all else, he has managed to achieve a certain emotional distance from all the pain and suffering he must trade in.

… it’d been far too long since he’d felt any emotion worth mastering. Health itself appeared so bleak a state that sickness and death wrung little pity from him any more. Sometimes, when a patient’s final breaths seemed no more than the last turns of a wheel, leaving behind an object to be removed, charred, turned to ash, and stirred into a riverbed, his indifference terrified even him.

However, with his own mortality thrown into sharper focus due to his dwindling years and the on-hand overnight crisis, the doctor sinks into an existential turmoil where he questions both his own ideologies of life, death, and the hereafter as well as those of the dead man he is attending to. Answers elude or frustrate the doctor constantly, leaving him more cognitively exhausted than the lack of sleep and performance of multiple surgeries.

By not giving any of his characters any names—they are simply “the surgeon”, “the pharmacist”, “the teacher”, “the official”—Paralkar has attempted, perhaps, to make his archetypes seem more universal. The surgeon could be any man of medicine struggling to manage his emotional inner world with his external system-driven one. The pharmacist could be any young, semi-educated woman with her superstitious beliefs about good and evil, the divine and the demonic. The teacher could be any husband or father doing what he thought was best for his family. The official could be any corrupt bureaucrat grasping every opportunity to turn a situation into a profit.

While Paralkar mostly succeeds with the above, where he falters a bit is in his rendering of the tense connections between the characters during these defining moments of their existence. The small cast moves around the clinic with well-timed choreography, bringing to mind some of the award-winning Marathi plays from the 1970s and 1980s theater scene of Mumbai (Paralkar’s hometown.) But the long stretches of dialogue and surgery descriptions—the latter done with admirably exacting detail and language—drag their momentum and dilute their drama. Also, at times, Paralkar’s metaphors and similes invoking the medical world, when applied to non-medical aspects, do not seem to have quite the desired effect.

One of the other recurring themes of the novel is human corruption. Time and again, the plot veers in this direction by showing how various characters embody or experience corruption differently. While corruption exists in almost all societies and cultures, the many insidious ways that it continues to spread a terminal rot throughout entire institutions in India could have been, perhaps, probed with a greater sense of urgency and incisiveness.

The novel ends with an inevitability and predictability, which is, given the way the story begins and progresses, as satisfying as it should be. This inconclusiveness calls to mind what Virginia Woolf has described, when writing about Chekhov, as the “note of interrogation” where the “tune is unfamiliar” (see the essay, “The Russian Point of View: in The Common Reader; Mariner Books; 2002). Paralkar’s ending, then, is also pitch perfect, leaving readers questioning their own thoughts and expectations and listening, in a more alert way, for “those last notes which complete the harmony.”