The Calcutta Chromosome
|The Calcutta Chromosome|
|Genre||Thriller, Speculative fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Calcutta Chromosome is a 1995 English-language novel by Indian author Amitav Ghosh. The book, for the most part set in Calcutta at some unspecified time in the future, is a medical thriller that dramatizes the adventures of apparently disconnected people who are brought together by a mysterious turn of events. The book is loosely based on the life and times of Sir Ronald Ross, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who achieved a breakthrough in malaria research in 1898. The novel was the recipient of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997.
The novel begins with the story of Antar, an employee of the LifeWatch organization, who recounts an encounter with L. Murugan, an employee of LifeWatch who has disappeared in Calcutta. The plot is quite complicated and its timelines are deliberately mixed up. Antar starts to track Murugan’s disappearance in Calcutta many years back. Murugan has asked to be transferred to Calcutta because of his fascination with the life of Sir Ronald Ross. The Calcutta of Ronald Ross is well separated in time from the Calcutta that Murugan visits, but the New York of Antar and the Calcutta of Murugan seem to overlap in time, though it is clearly stated in the novel that they are separated by many years. Through his research into old and lost documents and phone messages, Antar figures out that Murugan had systematically unearthed an underground scientific/mystical movement that could grant eternal life. Loosely described, the process is as follows: the disciples of this movement can transfer their chromosomes into another, and gradually become that person or take over that person. In the novel, Ronald Ross did not discover the mysteries of the malaria parasite; it was a group of underground practitioners of a different, mystical "science," natives of India, who helped to guide Ross to the conclusions for which he is famous. These Indians provided Ross with clues in the belief that in the moment Ross made his discovery, the parasite would change its nature. At this point, a new variant of malaria would emerge and the group's research using the chromosome-transfer technique would advance even further.
Fact and fiction in The Calcutta Chromosome
Ghosh employs a factual framework for the invented events in the novel, drawing upon Ross' Memoirs which were published in 1923. Thus, many of the characters in the novel are historical persons drawn from excerpts of letters and other documents incorporated by Ross into this autobiographical work. The novel, however, reflects a post-colonial understanding of the scientific mechanism at work. The Memoirs were designed to buttress Ross' claim of sole credit for the discovery that malaria is carried by the anopheles mosquito (Chambers 60). Chambers explains that it was "common currency" among Bengali intellectuals that Ross exploited native workers in his quest to find the cause of malaria (66).
Silence is a recurrent theme in the novel, originating from the often-stated premise that to say something is to change it. Huttunen notes that the workings of the Indian scientific/mystical movement uncovered by Murugan "constitutes a counter-science to Western scientific discourse" (25). The tenets of the group contain aspects of the Hindu belief in the transmigration of souls as well as of contemporary scientific ideas about genetics and cloning (Huttunen 27). Its native Indian members operate through means kept secret from the more Westernized characters and from the reader, and their activities become progressively clearer as the novel continues until their plan is revealed to the reader. Huttunen explains that the methodology of this group is based on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas about communication by way of silence. In Levinas' view, "the other exists outside the traditional ontology of Western philosophy which conceives of all being as objects that can be internalized by consciousness or grasped by adequate representation ... Consequently silence in this novel represents the kind of unattainable experience that transcends the level of language, or knowing" (30-31). It is this enigma that the novel leaves behind as an abiding theme. The reader is forced to keep thinking about it much after turning the last page. The mystery at the heart of the story is never completely resolved by the author, leaving much to the reader's understanding and interpretation.
- Antar - A man in the future who is about to retire. He is investigating the disappearance of Murugan.
- Murugan - He calls himself Morgan from time to time. He lives in the 1990s and is an authority on Sir Ronald Ross. Much of the novel is about his tracking the life of Ronald Ross.
- Ronald Ross - The Nobel prize winning scientist who found out that malaria is spread through mosquitoes. Much of his research is spoken about. He conducted his experiments on a man called 'Lutchman.' His tale is narrated by Murugan.
- Lutchman - He once lived at Renupur station. His family and whole village had been wiped out by a strange epidemic. He was later picked up by Ross for his experiments and did everything for him. He claimed he was a 'dhooley bearer' or a cleaner. Later in the novel it is revealed that his name was actually 'Laakhan' and he changed his name at every village to sound like a local.
- Mangala - Cleaning woman at Doctor Cunningham's laboratory, but that's her disguise, she is in reality a Demi God who not only discovered the means of treating syphilis with the Malaria parasite but also found a form of asexual reproduction/reincarnation for humans which kept her and Lutchman alive forever.
- Sonali - A writer for Calcutta Magazine, a journalist, and actor who, it is suggested in the novel, transforms herself with the help of Mangala's "science"
- Urmila - A journalist for the same publication as Sonali, she is the one Mangala chooses for her transformation or reincarnation.
- Romen Haldar - Lutchman in his most recent reincarnation.
- Chambers, Claire. "Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh’s the Calcutta Chromosome." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 38 (2003) 57-72.
- Huttunen, Tuoma. "The Calcutta Chromosome: The Ethics of Silence and Knowledge." Seeking the self—encountering the other : diasporic narrative and the ethics of representation Cambridge Scholars: Newcastle upon Tyne, England (2008) 24-38.