Vikram Paralkar’s Universe
Vikram Paralkar would appear to be a mass of contradictions: a novelist whose work confronts mortality, a cancer physician who constantly helps others deal with death, an atheist who is married to a minister. Yet his joy for life is palpable.
- [Vikram] We now know that we live in the universe
that is 14 billion years old.
Now, a galaxy has 100 billion stars,
and there are probably 100 billion galaxies
in the observable universe.
How do we reconcile that kind of scale?
Put another way, does the cosmos
care about the sickness and death of a human being?
- [Narrator] For as long as he can remember,
Vikram Paralkar has been kept up at night by big questions.
- How must a moral person exist in,
and conduct himself or herself in a society in which
the corrupt are rewarded and the moral are punched.
- [Narrator] By day, Paralkar is a doctor
who treats patients living and dying with cancer.
After hours, he's a novelist who explores
the limits of mortality.
His supernaturally tinged fiction
is often grounded in medicine,
but like the author himself,
he's most concerned with philosophy.
His debut novel, 2014's "The Afflictions"
conjures up a world where illnesses infect souls
as well as bodies.
- I remember wondering
how the difference between health and disease
could be contained in such tiny bottles.
In one state, man is free to walk and speak.
In the other, he's flat on the ground.
How can the red liquid correct this difference?
Even now, I marvel that two substances when mixed
can lose their individual qualities
and become a third substance that is entirely new.
It makes me wonder what we find
if we could distill a human being.
How many elements mixed in what proportions?
Would one of those be the element of the soul?
And could you distill even that one further.
- [Narrator] Paralkar was raised in Mumbai, India,
in what is described as a marginally religious household.
Hinduism was largely cultural,
and when at 13, he announced he was an atheist,
it wasn't a big scandal.
His parents had both rebelled
against their own more orthodox upbringings,
and each became the first doctor
and their respective families.
And while Vikram was growing up,
they run their own clinic from inside the family home.
- As a kid, I would actually go to the operating room
with them and look at surgeries.
I was fascinated by biology from a very early age.
Whenever we would get fish home to eat,
I would dissect the fish and dissect the brain of the fish
and do all these medical things.
So I was just drawn to medicine from early in life.
- [Narrator] But Paralkar could follow only so far
in his parents footsteps.
In 2001, after finishing medical school in Mumbai,
he struggled with the idea of leaving India for the West.
Yes, he would be able to become a physician scientist,
someone who would get to treat patients and do research.
But that was just the first of his motivations.
- The second was my aberrance of
the casual public corruption that existed.
I just realized how difficult it was to live in India
without bribing someone,
how difficult it was to just accept a traffic ticket
and then spend hours and hours in the police station
trying to just pay your fee and leave
as opposed to just slipping $100 bill to the traffic cop
with your ticket.
And the third was the fact that I was gay, I am gay
and I did not want to live a life in India
where I would constantly have to either hide my sexuality
or live as somewhat of a gossiped-about pariah.
And those were the three decisions that led me to move
to the Western world
and I considered either the UK or the US,
and eventually I ended up settling in the US.
That said then, you're living in a country
which is a superpower,
which is performing as a nation state
actions around the world that now are on your shoulders,
because now I'm a voter in this country,
and I have to be responsible, ethically and morally
for the decisions of the country,
- [Narrator] Paralkar sees moral quandaries everywhere,
and wherever he finds them, he can't help but address them.
Today, Dr. Paralkar works at the University of Pennsylvania,
where he studies leukemia,
a cancer of the blood and bone marrow,
spending about 80% of his time in the lab,
and the other 20% with patients
who are often staring down death.
- Every patient that you see with acute leukemia
has a seven in 10 chance
of not making it the next three years.
And there are these conversations
we as leukemia specialists have to have with patients
who have just learned a day ago
that they have leukemia cells in their blood.
And then we have to be the ones to go into the room
and explain to them what they have, why they have it,
and what the implications of this disease is.
And I've seen different doctors
approach this challenge in different ways.
One kind of way is to cloak everything in jargon.
So for doctor, and that is a defense mechanism for doctors
where they feel as though if they can throw out
some buzzwords, then they have done their job
and conveyed information to the patient.
And then the patient can just stick with the plan
and keep moving along.
I try my best to explain in
as clear and simple language as possible,
understanding fully well that the patient is not
going to be able to retain everything that I'm saying,
is not going to be able to process everything
that I'm saying and this will be
something that will have to be reinforced again and again.
My approach has been that I'm treating not just the patient
but also their family.
I'm trying to do my best to save the patient's life
or prolong the patient's life.
But there will be patients who will not make it.
And then the family has to move on
with memories of what that treatment experience was like.
- [Narrator] After a full day at the hospital
and before sitting down for a night of writing,
Paralkar can often be found unwinding at home
with his husband, Nate, a Unitarian minister.
When they met in 2009, the two immediately connected
despite their apparent differences.
- It was really interesting when I first met Nate,
and it became clear
that this was becoming a serious relationship.
I would often find myself, talking to myself,
"am I really dating a minister?"
- [Narrator] Vikram married Nate in 2020
in a nondenominational ceremony
that reflected the couple's shared and diverse interests,
including an Einstein quote, custom vows, a Hindu prayer.
And though he doesn't personally follow any religion
Paralkar does hold dear
the questions that live at the heart of all faiths.
- Questions about morality, about meaning, about purpose,
These are the questions that religions try to answer,
but I just don't find the solutions
that religions come up with particularly satisfying.
And that was what led me to become interested in philosophy.
Because I did feel that science and scientists
often tend to be somewhat scornful about these questions
and the rejection of religion sometimes leads
to a wholesale rejection of the questions that drive it.
That is not a position that I hold.
- [Narrator] These questions and more drive his 2017 novel,
The story of a disillusioned surgeon
working at an isolated rural clinic in India,
as he battles government corruption,
and ultimately is tasked with resurrecting the dead.
- "It couldn't be, it just couldn't.
"Why have you come to me," said the surgeon.
"Go find a priest, a sorcerer, leave me alone."
"We need you to fix our wounds, Dr. Sahib.
"At sunrise, our bodies will fill with blood again,
"and we no longer be walking corpses."
"How? Why? How is that possible?"
"The answer is long and complicated, Sahib,
"and I don't understand everything myself.
"I can only tell you now that an angel took mercy on us.
"I'll explain everything else later.
"We have so little time, I know nothing about surgeries.
"But I'm sure that injuries as severe as ours
"will take you all night to stitch up."
- [Narrator] On the page, Vikram Paralkar
processes the kind of existential anxieties
that he faces in his day job.
He imagines life, interrogates death
and ultimately finds a way to embrace mortality.
- All of us know that we are going to die.
And the fact that we do is in some ways, both the tragedy
as well as the beauty of the human condition
that we know that we have transient lives,
that we are flecks of dust in the amber of deep space
and deep time and accepting...
- But we feel so important to ourselves.
- Yes, we do.
And we feel important, and we are important to ourselves.
And if you think about it,
imagine the coincidences that went into creating us,
imagine the number of chance encounters and DNA divisions
and sperm and egg fusions that had to happen
since the beginning of time for us to exist,
And the geological changes and social changes
and population shifts that had to happen to create us.
And so that's an immensely privileged position to be in.
Now, of course, I could be ungrateful
and say that, "well, this is not enough."
I exist and I have my 80 or 90 years of existence,
but actually what I want is immortality.
And I don't think the universe owes that to us.
And so what we can,
we can mourn the fact that we don't have immortality
or we can celebrate the fact that we exist at all.
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.