Mystery and controversy regarding our main point of concern today ensure that The Healer and the Drug Pusher is a page-turner. Why is a foreign castaway consigned to death found close to an ancient Tamil village in Sri Lanka?
Daya Dissanayake, a CEO of a pharmaceuticals company, has already established a record by winning the National Award for the best English novel twice, first with Kat-bitha, a tale of tourists at Sigiriya centuries ago, in 1999, followed by Eavesdropper in 2007. Astoundingly he was also one of the equal winners of the first Swarna Pushthaka Award for the Best Sinhala Novel of the year with Chandraratnage Bhavanthara Charikava, a tale of murder and rebirth, launched on the same day as his own English version, Moonstone.
The Healer and the Drug Pusher is Dissanayake’s most integrated and technically accomplished novel. First published by the Writers Club Press, USA in 2000, it appeared as a serial in the Sunday Island in 2001. It is a tense and fast-moving story which narrates the course of two urgent quests, one set in the 10th Century AD, the other in the present.
The narrative is firmly structured and finely visualized, contrasting not only the values of health care systems then and now but conveying the textures of two different ways of living, one community-based and closely interwoven, the other individualistic; the deft, yet unobtrusive contrast between the life-styles of the two eras, above all the sensuous communication of a vibrant life lived close to nature and the fragmented hectic life of today is admirable. The very rhythms of the dialogue are revealing.
“Doesn’t it mean what it says? Say no to drugs?”
“That is what it means, exactly. Say no to drugs. The drugs that you are peddling.”
“I am not peddling drugs. I market pharmaceuticals.”
“That well must be on the beach, so close to the sea.”
“It is close to the sea, but the water is very sweet."
One is staccato, the other flows.
Dissanayake does not deal with the state medical system described in the Chronicles and the Rajaratnakaraya, but provides fascinating details regarding the origin of hospitals in the island and their connection with Buddhist thought and traditional faith in astrology, creating a lively picture of the methods of treatment and nursing in ancient days.
His characters come alive and capture the imagination of the reader. It is easy to visualize contemporaries like the hectoring get-ahead Raju and his equally strong-willed daughter Bhanu; the young couple from the tenth century with their strong yet hesitant attraction for each other have a charm of their own.
Bhanu’s character develops convincingly in the course of her constant visits to the hospital between lectures due to her anxiety over her Sinhala friend Suneeta. She encounters Rhoda Whiteriver, courageous, controlled but desperate in the face of what seems appalling callousness concerning the life of her husband who is struck down by paralysis.
“He couldn’t get up from the chair. He couldn’t move his feet...... we were in the middle of the ocean and there was not a boat in sight. I started calling for help… I was advised that Galle was the nearest port.”
The parallel to Mitra adrift in the ocean and a similarity or otherwise of the responses of the islanders is never stated yet significant. Bhanu, the youthful campaigner seethes and rages at the smooth unyielding barrier of seeming indifference, while Rhoda waits in passionate hope for the plane to arrive and whisk Jim away to America and safety. We see Bhanu mature under the impact of Rhoda’s reactions. Though Dissanayake’s novels sometimes tend to be cerebral, The Healer and the Drug Pusher transcends the limitations of a roman a these.
All in all a good read not least for the glimpses of our past based on the author’s passion for archaeology and sound historical reading. To combine information with excitement is no easy feat but Dissanayake achieves it.