The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh

I wasn’t sure if The Calcutta Chromosome was science fiction, until I read that it won the Arthur C. Clarke award. It is a fictionalized account of Sir Ronald Ross’s breakthrough in the research regarding the cause and cure of malaria.

Summary: The novel opens in the future and we are introduced to Antar (and Ava, his super high tech computer.) Antar is looking into the disappearance of a certain L. Murugan, whom he had met many years ago ago. And so we are transported many years back, to Calcutta, India, where Murugan has arrived tracking a conspiracy surrounding Ronald Ross and his malaria research. Through Antar’s investigation and Murugan’s travels, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place. Ronald Ross is supposed to have been helped reach his breakthrough by an underground group of natives. But this mystical Indian group was aiming for something even higher and they did achieve it – an eternal life or reincarnation of sorts, using what Murugan calls the Calcutta Chromosome.

My thoughts: This book is so odd and so terribly fascinating. It may be science fiction, but it also belongs to the genres of historical fiction, suspense, horror and fantasy. The book has been called too vague or pretentious, but I don’t agree with that. It is slightly hard to follow the twists and turns in the plot and the varying timelines, but it makes a good point.

“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.”

I like that the entire theme of the book is repeatedly thrown at you in conspiracy buff Murugan’s entirely out of place teenage lingo. I liked his character, it’s just typical enough to be perfect! People don’t surprise you as often as you’d think and Murugan’s characteristic humour in the most inappropriate times (the best kind) has really kept the book fresh. The few other characters are also quite engaging. Ghosh has shown their traits and manners mostly through dialogue and at times put you right into their minds. It hardly takes a few pages before you begin to relate to Urmila and Sonali and are soon wholly involved in their intertwined stories.

I enjoyed the writing as well, though there were moments when it was a bit clumsy. At one point a man mentioned “the-one-who’s-at-home”, and I literally laughed out loud! The word Ghosh had in mind was a Bengali version of “gharwali”, I suppose, and it is a cheesy, villager-like way of saying ‘my wife’. Translating word for word from your language is sort of a rookie mistake, isn’t it? But four words that seemed out of place didn’t really matter to me quite as much, when I considered the whole book. The atmosphere created was fabulous. The descriptions of Calcutta in the late 90s were mesmerizing. I could even picture myself standing right there on the dirty but homey streets of the city with Murugan by my side.

The mystical Indian society and their reluctance, impatience even, when dealing with the British, the secrecy surrounding their strange customs, Murugan’s undying curiousity, the eternal thirst for knowledge, not to mention, that “Eureka!” moment are all portrayed wonderfully realistically. Though I cannot guarantee you’d love it, I do think the book is worth reading!

I didn’t exactly plan this, but I guess this counts as my second read for the 2013 Sci-Fi Experience.

3 thoughts on “The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh”

  1. Your reviews, this one included, are so well written. I really look forward to reading what you have to say. The premise of this book is fascinating, especially in the light of how devastating malaria is. Seriously, when you think that today it is huge news that Bill Gates donates millions to getting malaria nets to the poor people afflicted in the world…malaria in any story is a strong draw for me. Thanks for your always interesting and great reviews.


  2. Hi, I saw this comment six months late, I don't know why. Thanks for saying that, it means a lot. Hope you get around to reading this book.


  3. I just completed it…to be frank it has left me high and dry…it stated bit slow but once it gained the momentum it was Unputdownable. The ending is of which I complain it has left many things unexplained and vague IMO…


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