Tales of bringing the dead back to life

Medicine meets magical realism in “Night Theater,” a novel by Vikram Paralkar, an oncologist and researcher at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Picture of Doctor Vikram Paralkar in his lab.
Vikram Paralkar, researcher, doctor and scientist, has written a new novel, "Night Theater."

A Penn oncologist’s new novel is being acclaimed by TIME Magazine. In a Q&A, Vikram Paralkar—who is a scientist, doctor, and operates a research lab—reflects on his craft, day job, and the attention attracted by his new fiction novel in which a surgeon is asked to bring the dead back to life.

“Night Theater” weaves together a little bit of magic and philosophy while navigating the complicated facts of health care in the modern age into a compact, compelling story. TIME called it “one of the 12 New Books You Should Read.” Paralkar is a professional who has an established career in a completely different field and is able to write works of fiction that are informed by that experience.

The book, published by Catapult, is set in a small clinic in a village in India where a doctor is working in deprived circumstances. He is able to give nothing more than the most minimal care to the villagers under his medical care. One night after a particularly trying day, he is visited by a young family who reveal to him that they have been murdered, and they need him to stitch up their wounds in order to return to life at dawn. The entire book takes place over one night and the morning that follows where the doctor has to orient himself to an impossible situation and try to find humanity and save the life of these characters. 

Book cover of Night Theater, a novel by Vikram Paralkar

This book has been published in India first. How does it feel to have it come out for readers in this country?

I’m really delighted to have the book published here. So many of my friends have been waiting for it to come out so they can read and recommend it to others. It’s been great to finally have it released in the U.S.

You grew up in India in a medical family and followed in their footsteps. Tell us about what that was like for you as a child.

Both of my parents are doctors. They’re retired now. My dad is a surgeon, and my mom is a gynecologist. They have their own clinic in India. I grew up on the second floor of the building where the first floor served as the hospital. It was a very medical environment. Everyone assumed I would go into medicine, and I was interested in medicine and science since my early childhood. 

You are a doctor, a researcher, you run your own lab, and you are an author. Where do you find the time to do it all?

I’m not sure I have the actual time. It’s one of those things where if you want to do something, you find the time. If something is important to you and an integral part of who you are, then you figure out a way to do it. 

I have been an avid reader of literature ever since I was a teenager, and I used to write essays. I was also the editor of my college magazine. Even as I was pursuing a scientific career, writing and literature was always in the background. It was almost inevitable that I would end up writing novels.

What is your writing ritual? 

I try to squeeze writing in on weekends and in evenings as often as I can. My career doesn’t allow me to go to writing retreats and spend six weeks locked up in a cabin in the woods to work on a manuscript. That would be great to do one day. In the interim, I squeeze writing in as and when I can.

How do your patients feel about you being a famous author?

I don’t know if I’m famous [laughs], but it has been an amusing experience. Everyone has Google these days. So, yes, sometimes they know I’m a writer. I try not to bring up my writing in my interactions with patients, of course. 

There have been occasions when I’ve had difficult and complex conversations with very sick patients, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I heard you wrote a book. Tell me about that book.’ It feels very strange transitioning from talking about a patient’s life-threatening prognosis to something that purely concerns me and my life. 

Without spoiling anything for our readers, can you talk to us a little bit about the book in your own words? What can readers expect?

‘Night Theater’ is set in a clinic in rural India. A surgeon is visited one night by the dead, who ask him to stitch up their wounds so they can return to life at dawn, throwing the surgeon into a medical, moral, and existential crisis. At the core of the novel are questions about the obligations of the doctor, the place of human beings in the cosmos, the struggle to be moral in a society riddled with corruption.

How do you want readers to feel after reading your novel?

I want readers to feel as though they’ve had a glimpse into a different world. I want them to understand what it feels like to be a doctor faced by an insurmountable obstacle. I want them to come away feeling moved—perhaps illuminated. 

How did you come up with the concept?

The central idea actually came to me in a flash. I was trying to write a story that would crystalize questions that had been circulating in my mind for a while. What exactly are the obligations of a doctor to society? How do those obligations change if the doctor is burned out or sleep deprived, or incapable of connecting with the value of his work? What does a human being do when faced with ethical questions to which there are no clear answers? How does a moral person act in a society where the corrupt are rewarded and the honest are punished? So, I decided to take a doctor who was disillusioned with his work, with society, with himself, and straddle him with a task so monumental that it would dwarf any challenge that had ever been placed before him through his entire life and career: restoring the dead to life. I wanted to see if a situation of this kind could enable him to find his humanity.

You said you loved to read as a child. Who were some authors you grew up reading and possibly inspiring you to write?

My interest in literature began in my late teens. Around the age of 17, I began to sense this entire world of literature out there, about which I had never been taught at home or in school. So, I began to access it by reading works from writers like Dostoevsky, Gabriel García Márquez, and José Saramago. As I read them, I began to gain a sense of what was possible with language. I saw the power and beauty of words, and the manner in which they could convey the depth of human experience.

What types of books does a published author such as yourself find himself reading these days?

I try to read as widely as I can apart from the reading I do for work. I try to keep a steady stream going. A fantastic nonfiction book I recently read was ‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado. It is an experimental memoir about Machado’s attempts to chronicle and understand an abusive relationship in which she was trapped. It’s a powerful book whose structure places you in the mind of the author, helping the reader to truly inhabit her life.

Other books I’m reading right now are ‘Lost Children Archive,’ a novel by Valeria Luiselli. Luiselli was in part inspired by the ongoing American policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican American border, and ‘On this Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ by Vietnamese American poet, Ocean Vuong.

I’ve just started reading these and am looking forward to them. 

What is your favorite bookstore here in the U.S.?

People’s Books & Culture, an independent bookstore on 34th and Sansom.

This is not your first published work. Tell us a little about your other book.

My first book was titled ‘The Afflictions.’ It was a collection of imaginary diseases from a medieval encyclopedia. It begins with an older librarian leading a young apprentice through a library in medieval Europe. They skim through descriptions of diseases in an imaginary medical encyclopedia housed there, and the book is made up of 50 medical vignettes from this encyclopedia. 

For example, the first affliction is titled ‘Amnesia Inversa,’ in which the patient is forgotten, first by distant acquaintances, then by persons with whom he interacts in his daily life, and finally even by those nearest and dearest to them, leaving him condemned to wander the earth, unremembered. Similarly, ‘The Afflictions’ takes 50 different aspects of our lives that are essential to our identities as human beings and distorts them into magical afflictions.

Any more books in the works? A Sequel to ‘Night Theater’?

Not a sequel, but yes, I am working on my next novel in between grant proposals. The protagonist in this novel is an eye maker who makes prosthetic eyes. In order to craft the fake eye, he has to stare into the good eye of his clients for hours and hours while he replicates every detail on the prosthetic. What his clients do not know is that when he stares into their eyes, he can see their past and future. The eye maker is living his life vicariously through the lives of his clients, vowing never to get entangled despite anything he might see. But, one day, he sees something that leads him to get involved in a client’s life.

What do you like to do in your free time besides writing?

Music is really important to me. I listen to a lot of classical music. I sit on the board of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and attend their concerts. I also attend, whenever I can, concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In an alternative universe, I would have loved to have become a musician. I used to play the violin, but I don’t have the time anymore. Right now, in my leisure hours, it’s writing, music, cinema, and spending time with my husband, Nate.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m really grateful to the University of Pennsylvania for letting me have the kind of career as a physician and scientist that allows me the luxury of writing a novel. Not every kind of employer would permit their employees the time and resources to pursue an avenue like this.

Paralkar will read from “Night Theater” at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 27, at People’s Book & Culture, 130 S. 34th St.