Book Review: Bharat Venkat, “At the Limits of Cure”

Linda Hamrick //

To hear the words “I am cured” incites satisfaction, joy, relief. Cured in the past-tense is the signifier of an illness overcome. To have been cured asserts that there was a previous state of being and that an illness, whatever it was, is no longer with us in the future. Bharat Venkat’s At the Limits of Cure questions whether this is true, positioning the idea of cure against an age of antibiotic resistance, homeopathic medicine, and changing determinations of disability and illness. Using anthropological history as the foundation of his book, Venkat takes the reader from an India under colonial oppression to the twenty-first century. Less formally declared, but vital to the argument, is his reliance on the idea of the “curative imagination.” That is, how we imagine cure’s possibilities to exist, to change, to be in multitudes, to resist, to hold boundaries. This curative imagination, Venkat claims, is directly tied to how we understand time. However, if cure is constantly in transformation—shifting its boundary lines, limitations, and the possibility it ever had an end—how then do we begin to understand cure?

In focusing on the curative imagination, an important consideration of At the Limits of Cure is rethinking what the end-goal of cure is. Is it the absolute removal of illness? Venkat suggests not, and that the possibilities available to us for cures exist within the realms of what we, individually and communally, desire of them.

In chapter one, “To Cure an Earthquake,” Venkat demonstrates that cure, or decisions surrounding cure, are related to colonial occupation and its remnants. Venkat focuses his analysis in this chapter on Indian sanatoria practices and argues they offered a unique openness “explicitly opposed to the predicament of the Indian body in the colonial city” (36). Compared to the waves of tuberculosis, which was described by the British as a “disease of civilization” and viewed as a “necessary, if not partially lethal, step on the path toward modernity, one built on Darwinian notions of natural selection” (40-41), the sanatoria was a place of freedom for the colonial body and a space for resistance, in which engagement of cure was decided on by the patient away from the colonized city. Freedom, in this sense, is an act of cure.

Except, as Venkat demonstrates, when freedom is not. Venkat indicates this in his exploration of the practices of Zenana missionaries, specifically their invasions of Muslim Indian women’s private spaces in order to physically and spiritually convert them. Venkat approaches the power white women historically held by influencing and oppressing other women through the colonizer-colonized relation similar to Gayatri Spivak’s observation on “white men saving brown women from brown men” regarding the colonizer-colonized relationship. He refers to white women’s invasion of the Zenana as an extension of the “liberal feminist imaginary” where colonial women missionaries saw themselves as saviors to “Indian women [who] had been deprived of freedom, held captive by Indian men” (45). Though arriving with the intention of bringing healthcare, i.e., “cure,” this came at the cost of consent. Compared to what Venkat argues about the cures of the sanatoria, the invasion of the Zenana demonstrates that even under the pretext of freedom, where decisions of freedom are made without the consent of those involved, they are another form of colonial occupation.

While his foundations are in anthropology, this correlation between the curative imagination, colonial occupation, and freedom can be studied with and is on par with current practices in Critical Disability Studies and Postcolonial Studies, and can have useful applications to other fields. Though briefly indicated by Venkat himself in the introduction, the curative imagination and cure have a fluid relationship with our evolving understandings of disease and illness. Venkat indicates this by citing scholarship related to Deaf studies (Virdi, Hearing Happiness and Friedner, Becoming Normal), but this can be branched out to growing developments in scholarship and activism outside of the academy. Mad Pride and Disability Pride, in particular, have strong footholds in the ideology of “freedom as cure,” as in freedom to identify with Disability and/or Madness, freedom to non-identity, freedom to seek treatment, autonomy in treatment, etc. The anti-psychiatry and anti-carceral movements also have mobilized for and around the concept and right of freedom, particularly in regards to the topic of involuntary incarceration. A scholar looking for examples of how colonial oppression influences conceptions of cure will have much to gain from At the Limits of Cure for these reasons.

Establishing the book as an anthropological history, Venkat demonstrates that the curative imagination shapes our understanding of time, both in the histories of science and medicine, but also in established therapies[1]. Time and history form the narrative structure of the book, and, while Venkat walks us through a history of tuberculosis in India, he does not always do so linearly and admits to making side stops or returns to timelines previously established. Of these side stops, the most enjoyable are his brief creative narratives of the reader’s journey along this curative imagination, brief moments when we are asked to have “a bit of imagination” ourselves (28). This visualization grants us access to the core of Venkat’s book, which is a testament to how our ability to imagine the possible range of cure, our curative imagination, changes our understanding of disease and illness over time. Though we touched on the colonial implications of this, it is also important to conceptualize what this may mean for a future that may see the rise of antibiotic resistance, rare illnesses with no clinical trials, and impossibly expensive treatments with no cure for the masses. To imagine the possibility of cure is more important than ever as we are “condemned to witness […] cure arrive at its limits, its romance wither” (250).

Venkat asks if a cure can be something other than a promise. The end of cure, from the very start, is implied to be an end to illness, an end to treatment, an end to suffering, and an end, I would add, to humiliation. Even as we question new interventions in medicine like CRISPR, Venkat cautions us to not fall into the trap of believing we have found cure’s end. What he offers, instead, is a belief that we will find new means by which the body can fail and that new interventions will generate new cure after cure. With this, we will never do away with the boundaries of cure or reach an end to cure but its very limitations will be reconfigured and revealed “anew.” As our limitations are transformed and re-revealed, we must reimagine our curative potential, much with the same curative vision Venkat ascribes to David Chowry Muthu and other medical practitioners who established the original Indian sanatoria in the face of colonial occupation, searching for freedom, not only an end.

Author Bio: Linda Hamrick is an M.A. student in the English department at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she received her B.A. in English in May 2021. Her research interests are in Science Fiction, disability studies, and the posthumanities. She is currently exploring interactions between artificial intelligence and humankind across science fiction, most notably in interactions existing in disabled spaces.

Image Source: Cover image for At the Limits of Cure, Duke University Press

Works Cited:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson. Univ of Illinois Pr, 1988. 271–313. Print.

Venkat, Bharat J. At the Limits of Cure. Duke University Press, 2021. Print.

[1] For more on the relationship between the curative imagination and time, see Venkat, At the Limits of Cure, 5.

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