Siddhartha Mukherjee an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, New York, grabbed the attention of readers and doctors with The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010). With his recent book he proves beyond doubt that he is one of the most important nonfiction authors of our time. The Gene: An Intimate History opens in 1865 and travels to today. En route readers meet an Augustine priest Gregor Johann Mendel, naturalist Charles Darwin, English bacteriologist Frederick Griffith and James Watson and Francis Crick who solved the structure of DNA, not to forget a host of other characters who have determined our understanding of the gene. But ‘meet’ wouldn’t quite be the right word here, since Mukherjee’s depth of research and the finesse of his prose make these people jump off the page and infiltrate our drawing room. The Gene is elevated from the historic to the humane by Mukherjee’s accounts of mental illness in his own family. It is a book that impresses not only with the rigour of its research but for forcing us to reckon with the most fundamental questions; what triggers lie behind mental illnesses; the role of nature versus nurture; what is normal; where does twilight end, where does daybreak begin? In an email interview, Mukherjee touches upon some of these questions:
You are an avid reader. This book is of course replete with literary references from Manto to Byron. Which literary works on the idea of ‘madness’ have stayed with you? Which do you find yourself returning to?
I loved Manto’s book in particular. I’ve also loved Ian MacEwan’s book Enduring Love which is about an obsessive syndrome that causes a peculiar form of attachment. Books about the psyche are hard to write because they can stereotype and typecast people. It’s important to be honest and sensitive when writing about psychiatric disorders and the effects they have on people’s lives.
You describe your uncle Rajesh’s madness as the madness of arrival, and Jagu’s as the madness of departure. You write that the partition of Bengal was a ‘radical resetting of all clocks’. In what ways do historic events reset all clocks?
For our family, and for many such families, Partition was a radical event, and much of our family’s history involves resetting clocks from Partition onwards. Historical events as radical as Partition are often used as watersheds. We judge our lives and stories based on them.
Mendel is a fascinating character in the book. You write of the importance of ‘tenderness’ in his work. What is the importance of ‘tenderness’ in scientific inquiry, is it a highly underrated quality in the scientific discipline?
Tenderness is probably the most important aspect of scientific inquiry. You have to be able to tend an idea from its infancy into its maturity. When we culture cells, or create a scientific experiment, we really exercise a form of tenderness.
You write in science, a ‘word is a hypothesis. In natural language, a word is used to convey an idea’. You have previously said, ‘science is the greatest story we tell ourselves’. What is the difference between a scientist and storyteller when it comes to the use of language? And in The Gene how do you see yourself—as scientist or storyteller?
This book is so much more than just a scientific inquiry and is yet so much more than my personal history so I would say that I see myself as both at all times.
With The Emperor of All Maladies, the psychological stakes were very high. How difficult was it to write about your own family in moments of deepest vulnerability, whether it was about your uncles and mental health or your father and ‘hypertension of the brain’? What were your concerns when writing those parts?
Writing the personal narrative in The Gene about my family and their medical history put me in an extremely vulnerable state. However, I tried to be sensitive and honest while writing about these moments.
Genetics is awfully misunderstood. You write of the misconception where daughters hate their mothers for passing on the BRCA1 mutation to them. What would you say is the most dangerous misconception when it comes to questions of heredity?
The idea that genes alone control destiny. Genes have a powerful influence on destiny, but they intersect with chance and environments to produce their ultimate effects on destiny and fate.
When it comes to the genetic diagnosis for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, you write ‘we want to eliminate suffering, but we also want to ‘keep those sufferings’’. In these disorders, how is one to know where the person ends and the illness begins? What is the border between the two?
It is not possible to define these borders in a person. It depends entirely on the situation. Psychiatrists and families struggle with defining these borders all the time.
‘And what is normal’? Is that the question that keeps you up at night? What is the question that keeps you up at night?
Certainly a question that makes me want to think deeply about normalcy. I’m not sure it’s easy to define normalcy. It depends on the context of the question. What is “normal” in one situation may be profoundly “abnormal” in another. The psychologist and writer Alison Gopnik describes how attention deficit and hyperactivity (ADHD) might have been a crucial advantage in another century, when humans depended on hunting and gathering and having multiple simultaneous points of attention – but might become a liability or even a disease in another context.
Vogue recently anointed your wife and you as ‘The Most Brilliant Couple in Town’ in an article, which would make Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tingle with envy. Does such adulation bemuse you? How do you deal with it?
I try not to think about it. Sarah and I are both immersed in our work. We are grateful for all the support we have received for our work.