It will not be an exaggeration to say that the physician turned novelist A J Cronin inspired many of us in South Asia to join the medical profession. His description of patients with tuberculosis which is still rampant in our part of the world is fascinating to read. How cleverly he spun a story around these characters! In “The Stars Look Down”, his opening paragraphs describe a cough in a character which has profound implications as the story unfolds. His timeless stories about coal miners with TB in Wales in the early 20 the century ( “The Citadel”, for example) has echoes of stories of patients in present day Kathmandu to Karachi to Kerala.
The viva voce exams for his MRCP that he describes in his autobiography “Adventures in Two Worlds” is very reminiscent of exactly what goes on in many medical colleges throughout South Asia even to this day. Many factors are dependent on the whim of the examiner. When one of the viva examiners realizes that he is not a graduate of Oxford nor of the “other shop” ( Cambridge) but rather from a Scottish University, the disdain on the part of the examiner is apparent. Cronin suddenly feels ill at ease in his inexpensive suit. What follows is some of the finest and most relevant writing about appearing in a viva exam that many South Asian doctors trained in this part of the world can easily identify with and will love to read.
Many of his stories also dealt with social injustices where the protagonist is a lone fighter for the rights of the disenfranchised. In South Asia where there are too many examples of social inequities and selective application of the law, the selfless character of Francis Chisholm in “The Keys of the Kingdom” will continue to inspire long after you have finished reading the book.In the seventies no Western book store in South Asia worth its name would be complete without a collection of Cronin’s books. We all fervently discussed the various characters as they continued to hold us spellbound. The teachers liked it too if they found us reading Cronin. As students, for once we agreed with our teachers. In my own case it was an Irish American Jesuit priest Fr. Tom Gafney from Cleavland, Ohio who introduced me to the works of Cronin. For this I am eternally grateful. I am certain I was not alone.
For me the liberal attitude towards religion exemplified by Father Francis Chisholm, the main character in “The Keys of the Kingdom” spoke volumes. When the Chinese headman comes to the priest “to pay his dues” to be converted to Catholicism after the priest has cured the headman’s son of a critical illness, the priest sends him away. Chisholm requests that the headman return to be converted only of his own volition. For that period ( early 1900s), this was a very “secular’ stance. In all likelihood having grown up in a religiously mixed background, Cronin clearly understood the importance of this perspective of the priest and could present it in a telling manner. In South Asia with its kaleidoscopic religious and ethnic background understanding Chisholm’s perspective has become critical for our survival.
Indeed Cronin made such a great impact in South Asia that there are at least two Bollywood movie adaptations based on this work: The Citadel and The Judas Tree.