Vital Force, India: Enigma and Presence, Hernán Romero — Jessica Sequeira

“Mime is the only national language,” wrote the Chilean doctor Hernán Romero in 1956, referring to India. Though he is talking about physical gestures here, the rest of his book extends his impressions of the country’s behaviour to human psychology, disease and mental wellness. Mime subtly transforms into mimesis, for Romero: our constant desire is to become like the other, even if we are not conscious of it, even if our best interests lie elsewhere, he seems to imply. Such desire stretches to the most intimate parts of ourselves, our bodies, our minds: and so these tender parts succumb with only superficial reluctance to the most nefarious infectious diseases, and to the most profound lethargy, fatalism and depression. The process of mimesis, in the form of transmission, can affect both individual and institutional bodies. Depending on whether this is viewed positively or not, the process can be referred to as influence or infection.

When Romero travelled through India in 1954, two years before he published the book about his experiences, tuberculosis was the most common disease in the country. Romero worked for the World Health Organization(WHO) as part of a special international team, and it is natural that the idea of infection obsessed him. Beginning from his own experiences but quickly going beyond them, he describes India as a whole, using metaphors of organisms everywhere: individual bodies, the body of the WHO, the nation-body of India. No body (and nobody) is immune, but the question of whether healing should derive primarily from without, via foreign aid, or within, via autochthonous measures, is not so easy to answer.

As Romero’s stay in the country extended, he began to experience serious doubts about the purpose of the organisation’s activity. These doubts as to whether his organisation should be there at all provide the start and finish to the book, the fundamental philosophical question that not just endcaps but also grounds it. Near the beginning he writes that: “Westerners and their procedures only manage to disturb that civilisation which they do not even manage to understand, let alone change. Possibly they would do well to leave. In any case, it doesn’t suit them to intervene except if requested, and even then, only given well-defined conditions and requirements.” And at the end he writes:

It would be unfair and foolish to criticise [the WHO] because it combats illnesses and saves lives, thus exacerbating overpopulation. It would also be unfair to accuse it of not influencing social, economic or cultural factors, which at times have a greater influence on health than medical ones as such. […] The transformation [of India] must gestate in its interior and this seems perfectly possible, given the superior quality of its people… The formula for action could be captured with what in cardiac physiology is called the law of all or nothing. Either the help and cooperation of the West are accepted with enthusiasm and without useless reserve, or the latter removes its hands. Taking them away will neither deepen the drama nor delay an unavoidable process.

A cough, a sneeze, a propulsion of spit; mycobacterium in the lungs; fever, night sweats, weight loss. This is how the current WHO website describes the transmission and symptoms of tuberculosis. And how might we talk about the pathogens and spores of self-transformation?

Even as Romero engages in institutional critique, he also tracks changes within himself. A parallel narrative might be followed through Romero’s own emotional states. At the start of his book on India, gazing at some trees swaying in the wind, the Chilean doctor writes of the subcontinent with tender feelings. The nostalgia does not last even a page, however, before it is tempered by his more complex reflections that the organisation to which he belonged did not ever perhaps truly belong there, and that his work might have been superfluous or harmful. Such conflicted sentiments persist throughout the book. Indeed, Romero  announces a paradox from the very title: India: Enigma and Presence. Along with his book on India, Romero also wrote two other books with contradictory titles: Pakistan: Improbable and Real and Japan: Man and Landscape.

The doctor seemed to view life itself this way, in terms of opposites that contrast yet coexist. The prose constantly makes one argument, then what would seem to be its opposite. Romero calls attention to the contradictions in his own identity: he is an American but from the South, a worldview that does not fit neatly into the Anglo America-India axis; he is a Jew, yet approvingly quotes a Bengali friend who says that “like the Jews, the Indians are discreet or humble when they are below or at one’s level, and arrogant when they feel themselves to be above”; he is a doctor sent to provide external technical cures, but constantly hints that the cure must come from the inside; he is a Westerner, trained in the Greco-Roman tradition and proud of this, yet also interested in other forms of medical thought. In an attempt to define himself, he says: “Let us say that I considered India as a Westerner and that after this adventure, my soul might have been damaged or perfected: but it continues to be essentially of a Jewish-Greek or Greco-Roman origin.” Damaged or perfected: even he is not sure.

Perhaps in another time and place Romero would have been able to live without questioning himself at all, and he feels this. “Nearly a quarter century ago, I accepted the position of doctor in Braden, the copper mining company, and went to live on the mountain with the triple aim of smoking a pipe, learning English and reading Proust. In this order I achieved it, more or less.” Yet he also discusses his experiences in Russia, a long digression that references everything from the horrors of “abortariums” to the concept of wishful thinking. When he describes India there is a sense that he does not know just how he got there. Within his self as an educated middle-aged man a Proustian impulse still lurks, evident from the very first paragraph of this book in which some trees, his madeleine, send him plunging back into the past:

From my window I see the tops of trees swaying in the breeze of the afternoon and imagination brings me once again to India, where the landscape seemed to me extraordinarily motionless, like a postcard. I experience anew the anguish and obsessive preoccupation to which I was victim during the long months of my stay in that country. I feel also that after that experience I am not the same and that perhaps my preoccupation for that people will never abandon me, as like many others who knew the country I fell in love with them, and their destiny now appears to me mournful and without hope.

 Yet this nostalgia clashes with his impressions when in the country itself. “I never liked the food of that land, and I defended myself by means of walnuts, almonds and boiled eggs, as well as by fasting,” he complains. Looking at the Himalayas, he says: “The truth is that for the man who come from a country like Chile, the spectacle must be less impressive than for the Indians themselves or for an Argentine. The flat surface of Bengal, like a billiards table, seemed awful to me and certainly contributed to its having a great deal of everything, but not beauty.” And he criticises Indian institutions like Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, which he says has a beautiful campus but does not teach technical skills, and the medical hospitals that suffer from insufficient specialisation of their doctors. Cynically, Romero states that the question of when Russia will carry out “its most effective interference in India is merely a question of the time and opportunity.” As he writes:

Communism, which has its ideological roots in Europe, and in the opinion of the English historian is a heresy of Christianity, is foreign and even repugnant to the Indian, given that it would go against his basic principles. Rational, materialist, and at the first provocation brutal, it has no point of contact whatsoever with its conduct or its philosophy of life. It does offers something to eat, however, and declares itself to be an enemy of colonisation, that is, the interference of Europeans outside their peninsula.

Since Romero is not a spiritual seeker or someone with an innate interest in Indiathis criticism of its music, food and landscape at first comes off as an openly disillusioned take by a person who has professed that he comes from a different cultural background. Yet perhaps his suspicion is also a form of self-protection, a form of inoculation against the fatal passivity that he fears.

Romero wrote his books in the travel vein for the Chilean publishing house Zig-Zag, at a time when it was expanding its selections and its public. The ’50s were a relatively stable time in Chile, and there existed a public eager for stylish accounts of time spent abroad in “exotic” cultural environments. The erudite yet entertaining impressions of the poet and diplomat Juan Marín, for instance, were edited by Zig-Zag in a similar spirit. Romero’s book is travel writing, but it is also much more than this. Romero was interested in other cultures beyond sightseeing. In another essay called “Arab Science in Perspective”, for example, he displays his interest in alternative medical traditions, such as that of the Arabic school. He writes that:

In the India of today —in which the author has personal experience— the overwhelming majority of the people and virtually all of the villagers receive the attention of indigenous practitioners. They follow the principles of the Ayurveda, the science of longevity, which was developed in the Atreya schools, by Brahman doctors, 2000 years ago, or they are followers of Unani, which means Greek and, in truth, refers to practices of Arabic-Persian origin […] Even if their original character has degenerated in many senses, both stem from a philosophical conception and are attempts to consider the organism as a microcosmos and situate it in relation to the macrocosmos of the universe. They think of the world and the human body as manifestations of the divine substance and energies, a concept that is rooted in the Vedic traditions. Ayurveda accepts the theory of the three elements wind, bilis and phlegm— which are symbols of the air, fire and liquid force of the vital energy. Unani dates back, through Persia and Arabia, to the Galenic, Hippocratic and Pythagorean concepts and, passing through the filter of Avicenna, acquires many elements of Aristotelian philosophy. It maintains intact the concept of the four humours.

Whether or not one believes that changes to bodies represent the “manifestation of the divine substance and energies”, the question of when to let a system work on itself and when to introduce external influences, when to lower the barriers and when to put them up, when to be open to foreign and potentially mood-changing factors and when to cling to one’s own resources, when to welcome the incursions of others and when to seek to preserve the self, remain pertinent questions, as does the question of what identity means beyond copying what others (Westerners, for instance) choose to do.

Perhaps Romero’s overly expansive examination of India was an attempt to take a more holistic look at the country in search of the real roots of disease. Near the end of India: Enigma and Presence he writes that: “It is not surprising that a health inspector, who is dedicated professionally, with as much inefficiency as devotion, to encouraging the well-being and happiness of his fellow man, would experience depression as he carried out his mission in India.” He is speaking, of course, about himself.

What is the self beyond mimicry? The doctor is always at risk of being infected by his patients and his surroundings, just as his patients are at risk of avoiding a necessary self-cure via their reliance on him. Oral communication works in the same way as medicines, and in administering his reflections to us, Romero influences, or infects, us with the same questions. As a doctor, Romero has operated on his surroundings but has also been operated upon by them; and now, reading his book, our own insides may begin to feel the Indian itch (though to be medically accurate, one would really have to say pains and chills). Romero’s essential questions lodge themselves deep: What is the vital force of the self beyond context? And if one moves to a different context, what happens to this self? If you are a reader who has chanced to pick up these moulding yellow pages, which elicit an immediate achoo-and-gesundheit thanks to who knows what dextrous aerobic bacillae, please at the very least consider this a health warning.


Jessica Sequeira has written the novel A Furious Oyster (Dostoyevsky Wannabe), the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval (What Books) and the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age (Zero). She translates from Spanish and French, and lives in Santiago de Chile.

Image: Mycobacterium tuberculosis Bacteria, the Cause of TB, NIAID, Creative Commons