Jolted awake by a ringing telephone, the narrator (assumed to be Mukherjee) listens to his mother give a tearful report of his 83-year-old father’s waning health. Telling her that he will book the next flight from New York to New Delhi, Mukherjee’s mother wavers, regretting that her call now spurs him to purchase expensive airfare. In a tone of knowing sarcasm, Mukherjee writes, “The frugality of her generation had congealed into frank superstition: if I caught a flight now, I might dare the disaster into being.” Arriving in “sweltering, smog-choked Delhi,” Mukherjee joins his mother in a hospital’s I.C.U. A physician himself, Mukherjee notes the facility’s piteously tumbledown conditions, its crumbling floors and exposed utilities, jibing that, if one were to trip on the concrete rubble, “a neurologist would be waiting conveniently for you around the corner.” No doubt accustomed to the comfortable amenities of American hospitals, Mukherjee magnifies the miserable disarray of the Delhi facility—a defective heartrate monitor, a fractured suction catheter, a hospital bed with cracked wheels, a delivery van used as an improvised ambulance. This world, far from New York, is mired in seemingly eternal disrepair: “Delhi had landed upside down. The city was broken. This hospital was broken. My father was broken.”

These would seem to be the smug observations of a dismayed tourist were it not for Mukherjee’s thoughts on the intricate and noiseless machinery of homeostasis, the cohesive force that sustains internal constancy. “There’s a glassy transparency to things around us that work,” he writes, “made visible only when the glass is cracked and fissured. […] To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning.” As Mukherjee witnesses the spiraling decline of his father’s health within a deteriorating, dismally ill-equipped healthcare system, he focuses on the regularities of equilibrium by juxtaposing the homeostasis of healthcare institutions and human bodies. Mukherjee relates a memorable story from his early career when he staffed nightshifts at an urban clinic, where his colleague, an older nurse, stacked oxygen masks, oiled oxygen valves, and arranged beds. He belittled the nurse’s exacting preparations as an “obsessive absurdity” but, when his first patient arrived with an asthma spasm, he realized how critical the clinic’s flawless order was to his life-saving efforts: “The knob of the oxygen turned effortlessly—who would have noticed that it had just been oiled?—and, when I reached for an I.V. line, a butterfly needle, just the right size and calibre, appeared exactly when I needed it so that I could keep my eyes trained on the thin purplish vein in the crook of the elbow.” Had these things not been prepared, had they not been finely tuned for use, had an instrument been misplaced, would Mukherjee’s patient have lived? He experienced an example of institutional homeostasis, conducive to optimum medical care, which facilitated essential processes to occur successfully without mishap.  

Now in the New Delhi hospital, Mukherjee notes that its medical staff has “to settle for a miserable equilibrium. Amid scraps and gaps and shortages, they had managed to stabilize [my father].” He arrives at another stark realization, “I had versed myself in the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept my father, for so long, from acute decline?” Recollecting his father’s life at home in between hospitalizations, Mukherjee references a different kind of homeostasis that helped to prolong his life. For example, when his father was unable to go to the local market to haggle for fish and cauliflower, the vendors came to his home for usual business— “The little rituals saved him. They […] restored his dignity, his need for constancy.” Mukherjee accentuates the protean workings of homeostasis, its variegated forms that sustain the patterns of normalcy that give regularity and meaning to human life—indeed, equilibrium is not only an infinitude of minute chemical and biological factors, but familiar ease in a world that one knows and loves. Equilibrium, however rigorously maintained, succumbs to decay. Mukherjee aptly quotes Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Old Fools”: “At death you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see.” Mukherjee notes that the experience of his father’s decline was not so much observing him disintegrate into a similar kind of molecular dust, as imaged in Larkin’s verse, as it was his solidity upheld by homeostatic forces, a steady chugging of biological gears that made intricate compromises to sustain his deteriorating body.

After his father emerges from the coma, Mukherjee enlists curious pedestrians to help lift him into a makeshift ambulance. His father’s jostled body resembles a “botched Indian knockoff of an ecstatic Bernini.” The thematic kernel of Mukherjee’s narrative, homeostasis, draws scrutiny not only to the experiences of individual bodies but the systems and institutions that heal them, to the material environments in which fragile bodies are cared for, repaired, and rehabilitated. “The hospitals that work, the ambulances that lift patients smoothly off the ground: we neglect the small revolutions that maintain these functions,” reflects Mukherjee, “but when things fall apart we are suddenly alert to the chasms left behind.”


Mukherjee’s narrative draws on the influential thinking of the physiologist, Walter Cannon, who, blending the Greek words homoios (similar) and stasis (stillness), termed the notion “homeostasis.” The idea of physiological constancy, as Mukherjee notes, clashed with established scientific belief that understood animal/human bodies to be systems of individual parts, each component working to carry out its specific function. Indeed, the focus was on the action of these individual parts but Cannon’s research shifted scientific attention, rather, to how these individual parts function to uphold collective maintenance. One the most powerful elements of Mukherjee’s story is the juxtaposition of physical equilibrium and the equilibrium of nations/political institutions. His father lived through the massive tumult of political events that upset the homeostasis of established human communities. For example, in the 1960s, he fled Calcutta as the city sagged under the weight of Partition migrants. He witnessed yet another heartbreaking rupture of homeostasis while living in Delhi during the 1970s, when the lure of prosperity created a mammoth surge of urban migration that exhausted the city’s resources while beleaguering it with miasma, crime, and derelict civic infrastructure. These historical collapses of equilibrium—events that pushed society beyond routine, self-correcting maintenance—lead Mukherjee to ask how clinicians, political leaders, and urban planners can devise a way to measure equilibrium in broader human and political contexts: “If we could measure homeostatic stamina—if we could somehow capture and quantify resilience—we might find a way to conserve things worth keeping before they failed, or, for that matter, learn to break things that we wanted broken.” What do human societies and bodies need to keep life-sustaining equilibriums? What keeps them resilient and fortified against the vicissitudes of change?


Condé Nast

Place Published

The New Yorker