When they come for you

Pulitzer-author Siddhartha Mukherjee on scientific ambitions and censorship

When they come for you
Trust Siddhartha Mukherjee — the man who walked away with the Pulitzer Prize for stripping medical jargons and laying cancer bare to readers — to dig into the annals of scientific history all over again, pluck facts and string them together to make his points lucidly, his dry humour eliciting sniggers all around, instead of vitriol.

This time around, the subject that Mukherjee, senior oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, chose to dwell on was censorship and the increasing blatancy with which organisations are able to ban books and works of art — with particular reference to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History — at slightest pretext and how that would eventually hamper scientific ambitions of a society. The lecture was organised by Penguin India in Delhi to celebrate the occasion of his receiving the Padma Shri award.

Mukherjee, who, it is said, started writing The Emperor of all Maladies, when a patient of his asked him to explain “what is it I’m battling?” took to the task by reading two of his works — a short story The Perfect Last Day of Mr Sengupta, published in Granta Issue 124 and an unpublished and untitled work, which, according to him, could be called First They Came for Salman Rushdie.

The first work, The Perfect Last Day of Mr Sengupta, trod an uneasy ground in order to elucidate how grey the world that connects personal freedom and societal norms is. The story traced the last day of a cancer patient in considerable pain in India who was forced to go through the ordeal, as the laws would not allow euthanasia, and whom Mukherjee came across by chance on his visit to India from Boston. As Mukherjee read out what followed between them, the listener could easily read between the lines, the lines that were crossed subtly in order to let the man have what he chose — death instead of pain.

Mukherjee quickly moved on to his second work that took us to 1930s Berlin, its scientific eminence and — with the same precision that one had seen in his masterpiece, The Emperor of all Maladies — traced its Nazi past, and connected the slow but emboldening ways of the exploitation of human rights to the denial of freedom of expression.

Deftly, he moved to the present day India and, again, with the confidence of a consummate researcher, drew the parallel between these two disparate times to hint at things to come if we do not wake up now. Mukherjee finished his lecture with an ominous “first they came for Salman Rushdie”, drawing inference from the famous poem written by a German pastor Martin Niemoeller in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist; Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —Because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me —and there was no one left to speak for me.


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