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The Calcutta Chromosome

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The Calcutta Chromosome

Book Title: The Calcutta Chromosome

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Approx Leisure Read Time: 280 – 320 min

Review: Okay, I finished this book about two weeks ago and as I write this I am STILL not sure what do I rate it. This book has to be among the unusual novels I have read. The book starts out slow, in an odd setting with strange characters. The plot revolves around an unexpected hypothesis – that the documented history of who cracked the malaria puzzle in 1898 is unconvincing. I was like, do I even wanna know? But then the plot kept getting more interesting, complex and suspenseful. I was hooked. Throughout the book, I kept guessing what’s coming up next. What is he hinting at? I am not sure I can answer that question even after finishing the book! A lot is left incomplete, unsaid, unexplained and open to interpretation. He hints that there is a counter-science whose basic principle is the idea that knowledge is self-contradictory; maybe they believed that to know something is to change it, therefore in knowing something, you’ve already changed what you think you know so you don’t really know it at all: you only know its history. Maybe they thought that knowledge couldn’t begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge.

As far as pure fiction goes, the book is potent. But as science fiction, which usually is an assemblage of new ideas, book disappoints. Ghosh’s tone is more solemn; he seems to be intent on producing a thriller with implicit sense of deeper knowledge not known commonly. For the most part, he succeeds in presenting a finely carved mystery, enthralling, although a bit unyielding.

A multi-layered novel presenting different storylines from different times, it begins in futuristic New York where Antar, an employee of a corporation that is cataloguing, it seems, an inventory of the world – discovers a fragment of an ID card that belonged to a colleague, L. Murugan who was obsessed with Ronald Ross and malaria. Murugan had a belief that Ross’s discovery was manipulated by a shadowy and forbidding Indian ‘counter-science’ group that manipulated the direction of malaria research to suit its own deep purposes. To know more about it, he goes to Calcutta and then disappears. So now Antar (through Ava, a kind of super computer or robot) starts investigating this mysterious disappearance. This leads the reader into the storyline from Murugan’s Calcutta adventures in year 1995 and deeper into the storyline from 1895’s colonial era when malaria discoveries were being made.

Ghosh writes in a pleasing manner, with lots of humour. The protagonist, Murugan, grows on you and you start to sympathise with the poor man’s quest. The drama and adventures that unfolds in Calcutta is quite gripping. In fact it is gripping to the point of making the readers imagine Calcutta to be a place that hides cryptic secrets and legacies. And these are secrets that have origin in the city’s colonial past, its colonial architecture, its literature, intelligentsia and so on (Reminds me of Dan Brown’s Vatican City portrayal and quest for Holy Grail in Da Vinci Code, lol).

Much of the novel and many of the stories are entertaining, and for most of the way it is a quick, compelling read, though his narrative remained elusive all the way. I particularly enjoyed the section where Phulboni experiences the apparition of Laakhan and the station master at the ghost rail station of Renupur. The narrative was so realistic and rich that I almost found myself in the shoes of Phulboni. I was jittery for about an hour after finishing it.

With all the plots and sub plots I was hoping against hope that they would all come to converge at the end. But unfortunately, Ghosh chose to end the book abruptly leaving some strings loose. It’s good to end the book on suspense and let the reader interpret the ending in his own way, but what Ghosh did with this book was more like teasing the reader. I loved reading the book, but I may not re-read it again. I would recommend it only to hard-core sci-fi and medical thriller buffs or for the people who like a bit weird mysteries, but again with some reservation.

Also I think I have been pondering a lot about the significance of Antar as the only boy who escaped a deadly malarial outbreak which wiped out his entire village in Egypt. Is he the one they seek as their perfect discoverer for perfect discovery? Understanding this book is like the “Calcutta Chromosome” itself – knowing it means changing it or mutating it so I only know its history.

This being my first Ghosh novel, I may have been a bit stingy on him. Anyone who has read Ghosh can recommend me something better from him?

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