The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh: A futuristic fiction around Malaria with a bit of Supernatural

The Calcutta Chromosome is an experiment at best, a motley of science fiction (or medical fiction if such a term exists) and a supernatural thriller.

The research aspects on Ronald Ross, the recipient of the ‘Nobel Prize for Medicine’ for his discovery of the transmission of malaria by mosquitoes in 1902, are brilliantly portrayed. It fascinated me to read about Ronald Ross, and the other researchers involved in the research on malaria and syphilis in the 1890s.

The storyline, however, is mediocre at best, but then it is Amitav Ghosh’s writing which is bound to keep you riveted. 

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome was published in 1995 and happens to be the third novel written by Amitav Ghosh. The book received the Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction in 1997. With a work that early in author’s life, it becomes difficult to judge this book on the parameters post ‘The Glass Palace’, ‘The Hungry Tide’ and the Ibis Trilogy. Amitav Ghosh definitely took a risk at such an early stage in his writing career, amalgamating medical fiction and local legends.

It was about a year back when I first attempted to read ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ but I was mentally lost by the turn of the third or fourth page. These pages were not the usual Amitav Ghosh writing that my brain was wired to. He introduced Antar, an Egyptian, working on data analysis staying in an old apartment in New York set in some futuristic world. Antar’s partner is AVA, a robot. Somehow, Antar chances upon a burnt down piece of an ID card and tread to unveil the reason behind L. Murugan’s disappearance from Calcutta in 1995. Murugan had worked at LifeWatch where Antar was an employee too and had a meeting with the man whom he had found to be eccentric.

So far so good, atleast you are moving ahead in the fictitious trail to unravel the disappearance and in the process learn about Malaria. I really liked Murugan, the satirical, semi-comic character obsessed with Ronald Ross and his breakthrough with malaria. And then, the best part – sketching Ronald Ross, the man who had written a couple of medieval romances, failed at it and was bitten by the science bug during his midlife crisis. A simple Wikipedia search tells he was also an amateur artist and natural mathematician. It was his father who compelled him to join medicine. But destiny had its way and made him one of the stalwarts in the area of medical research. The testimonial to this legendary man stands as the ‘Ronald Ross memorial’ in Kolkata.

In the small laboratory seventy yards to the southeast of this gate Surgeon-Major Ronald Ross I.M.S in 1898 discovered the manner in which malaria is conveyed by mosquitoes.”

Now what Ghosh does, is to fit in a piece of Indian myth and create ‘Mangala-Bibi’, some sort of Goddess with a functional secret society dedicated to her legend. You may have heard of traditional healers or Gurus or quacks but this path is totally different. At times you believe them to be normal human beings and at other junctures, there is an element of supernatural. However, these people link the work of famous Malaria researchers, from Cunningham to Farley to Ross.

There is widespread untreatable syphilis in the 1890s, vouched to be cured by artificially induced malaria. You get a number of Indian novice assistants working with the British medical researchers and just handing over the discoveries to them. There is a trail to unearth ‘Lutchman’ aka Lakshman and create ‘Mangala-Bibi’ holding a pigeon and a microscope.

The book leaves you with a number of unanswered questions and almost laughable sub-plots created to meander around. Okay, I can answer about the fish on the cover; it makes a brief entry into the climax when the book is transformed into the supernatural genre. Second, why ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ is the title? Well, the hullabaloo on Malaria is a lead up to something big, it is an access to eternal life. In the end, I would say, the build-up is great, and let’s just keep it to that.

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