You have no idea what you are missing till you have read Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’. The main theme of the novel is about secrecy, which is of paramount importance to a sect of people in search of a chromosome that helps people discard their failing bodies, and migrate into another body. This is a “technology that helps you improve on yourself in your next reincarnation”. Each character in the book is searching for something. Antar is searching for Murugan, Murugan is in search of the mysteries involving the discovery of the life cycle of malaria, and Mangala is in search of the Calcutta Chromosome.
Ghosh travels, effortlessly, across time, borders, history, and civilizations to bring a novel that meshes together the quest for discovering the mysteries of malaria, the theory of counter science, colonialism, knowing and not knowing, and ancient philosophies.
The novel opens in an unspecified time in the future where Antar, an Egyptian begins his search for Murugan, the only person who knows everything there is to know about Ronald Ross, who was last seen in Calcutta. The novel becomes like a time machine, and marginal characters in the future become the central characters pushing the story forward, and vice versa. This aspect really took me by surprise because the side characters, whom you would generally dismiss as unimportant, grow in size and take the lead. The past and the future are intertwined, and I love the parallels and connections that Ghosh establishes in each chapter. This was a major reason to turn the page because you are constantly left asking, ‘Why?’
Mangala, a low-caste, sweeper woman is a demi god, and Laakhan are mysterious figures, and present in the past as well as in the future under different names, and guises. They are there to aid Ronald Ross in his discovery of the life cycle of mosquito, which is just a tiny part in the grad scheme of plans for Mangala. The supporting characters of Phulboni, a poet, who grieves for attempting to uncover a secret, Urmila, a journalist and Sonali Das, an actress are fascinating as they slowly grow in depth, and occupy the main stage.
While the plot surrounding the chromosome seem a bit far-fetched, the action surrounding it is certainly not. Ghosh juxtaposes western science, and Indian myths, he places together the arrogance of colonialism, and the caste-ridden Indian society. The novel, aptly, gives you a dose of fever and delirium while you are drawn into their secrets and discoveries.
The book, towards the end, turns into a bit of horror story, and this is where I could hear my heart thudding. Ghosts enter here, trains vanish into thin air, and tracks change. I read this part in the middle of the night. One part of me was disbelieving of the ghosts, and yet the another part left me chilled to the bone. The author, by his strong narrative, made me leave rationality behind, and really, really frightened me for a bit. The novel races towards the end, and I had to pause several times to make the connections, and just let it all sink in and revel in its brilliance.
Long after you turn the last page, you are still left with so many questions. The novel comes together in the future, and what happens next is left for you to decipher. The mark of a good book is that it stays with you, and Ghosh really excels in this art.
What Phulboni say about silence: “Mistaken are those who imagine that silence is without life; that it is inanimate, without either spirit or voice. It is not: indeed the Word is to this silence what the shadow is to the foreshadowed, what the veil is to the eyes, what the mind is to truth, what language is to life.”