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.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

I never thought I’d call a science fiction book… beautiful. But that was just me being judgmental, because this collection was really just beautiful. I can’t think of any other word to describe it. Actually I can, it was very original, every story was unique and every story was more than just ‘robots and space and stuff’, which someone like the aforementioned judgmental me would have expected. The stories were more about people and how they have become in the future, how they react to situations that seem other-worldly to us: each of the stories was just a short insight into people from the sometimes typical, sometimes entirely new sci-fi-ey scenarios.

A story that left a strong impression on me was The Last Night of the World. A couple, like people all over the world, wakes up knowing that the world is going to end that evening, having dreamt it. They are completely sure of it, as is everyone, and with their fates sealed, they live their last day with a calm acceptance that chilled me to the bone. “What would you do if it were your last day on this earth?” – it is a pet question of any of your typical ‘fun’ surveys. I would never have thought it, but after reading this, I know we would all just live, the way we do.

The Rocket Man was my favourite. The story was about an astronaut who goes off into space for three months at a time, only to return to his wife and son for never more than three consecutive days. It was utterly tragic and haunting.

The collection started with another great one: The Veldt. It is about a family (mom, dad and two kids) who live in an automated house (called a happy house or something like that). All the descriptions of the fabulous machines that coo and comfort you let you know that the house is about to become very grim very soon. So there I was, reading, sure that something that taught me machines are bad was about to happen, but I could never have thought it could be so… gruesome. It sends a shock through you and a thrill and the writing is still, somehow, beautiful.

Being lost in space – there were a few stories about that, as well. They all talked about people reacting to that in their own special and similar ways – giving up or actually looking for that silver lining, some drift off into happy hallucinations and some just go insane.

And what a fascinating frame device! An illustrated man, with eighteen incredibly realistic tattoos on his body, that come alive at night to tell eighteen stories. Wow.

I read this book two nights ago and I still haven’t been able to get out of my head the thoughts of the world coming to an absolute end, authors and characters coming to life through belief like gods, robots falling in love, superior beings incapable of sin, meeting God and people of the future seeking shelter on other planets. You know how some books leave you with ‘no words’? This collection has left me with too many: words, thoughts, haunting recollections and it feels much better that being left speechless.

This was quite the perfect start to The 2013 Sci-Fi Experience.