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The Calcutta Chromosome
by Prof.Shubha Tiwari Bookmark and Share

Continued from "In An Antique Land ... "
The Calcutta Chromosome’, like almost all other works of Amitav Ghosh, is an experimental work. Except ‘The Shadow Lines’ and ‘The Glass Palace’, none of what Ghosh has done clearly qualifies as fiction or history, fantasy or thriller. It is such an amalgamated body of work. It is so confusing, so alluring, and so gripping. ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ is a lovely piece of work. It has science, religion, myth, nihilism, transcendental philosophy, Indian superstitions, logic, rationality and what not. In the boiling cauldron of his brain, Ghosh has cooked a mixed dish for us. But it is certainly tasty. For the commentator, however, the problem remains-where to begin, where to end. The best approach would be to begin straight away express the ideas as they come.

This book evokes responses. So, let me first record my responses to ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’. Ghosh digs into one event, one pinpointed occurance of the past. He keeps probing it till he finds patterns, and parallels. It is wonderful to watch this artist work. He selects an event that he feels is relevant to present times. He establishes connections. He says what he wants to say using symbols of past only as tools for the communication of his overall message or messages. On the face of it, this book is about malaria. It is an attempt to rewrite the story of Ronald Ross's discovery of the life cycle of malaria mosquito and how it causes the disease to human beings. As such, this story is very much available in the annals of medical history. Ross is not new to Indians. Almost every student of Indian schools has gone through a lesson on Ronald Ross, his discovery and his winning the Nobel Prize for it. This British bacteriologist is more close to people of Calcutta as he did his path breaking research in this city only. His memorial arch at the entrance of the P.G. Hospital is part and parcel of Calcutta. The fact that despite the sensational research, the disease still goes unabated, taking its annual toll of human lives, generates regret. We feel, 'It's not so great after all.' From generating this sense initially, Ghosh begins his work of undoing the aura around Ross. He seems to say, 'Okay, he found out anopheles, so what?'

Ross discovered the deadly female mosquito on 20th August 1897. Except for this fact, Ghosh has totally deviated from the known accounts of this event. It is his own story. He has divided the book into two parts, (i) August, 20: Mosquito Day and (ii) The Day After. L. Murugan is a science freak. He is obsessed with the idea of finding all the facts (known or less known) about the malaria story. On World Mosquito Day 20th Aug., 1995, he arrives in Calcutta. He is in search of the enigmatic Calcutta Chromosome. This Calcutta Chromosome, as we shall see later in detail, is a freak chromosome. It is unusual because it cannot be isolated and detected by standard techniques. Unlike our regular chromosomes, it is not present in every cell. It is not even symmetrically paired. It does not run from one generation to the other. Ghosh fantasizes that this chromosome develops out of a process of recombination, which is unique to every individual. It is found only in the non-regenerating tissue, the brain. It can be transmitted through malaria. It is this stray DNA carrier that Murugan calls ‘The Calcutta Chromosome'-a unique ,biological expression of human tracts that is neither inherited from the immediate gene-pool, nor transmitted into it (207).

But as Murugan arrives at Calcutta, the very next day he mysteriously disappears. At the heart of the narrative lie the events of these days. All other strands of narrative are connected to this main event. The medical history of malaria, Ross's progress in his research, experiences of Antar, Murugan's former colleague at New York and some scattered incidents at Calcutta are woven into a fictional fabric.

The major part of the story takes place in Calcutta in 1995. The novel follows Murugan and his adventures closely. The laboratory of the P.G. Hospital of Calcutta is the place where Ronald Ross made the final breakthrough in his research. The fact that Ross discovered the cause of malaria in Calcutta, (India) has deeper connotations for those who are conscious of colonization. In the whole world it was India with all its filth, garbage, and puddles that nurtured sufficient number of mosquitoes to make the research possible. Since mosquito cannot be taken as a symbol for cleanliness, the place where it resides is naturally dirty. Ghosh, in fact, uncovers the whole power politics of the West.

This book is an attempt to deconstruct Western aura. It shows that the Western sense of confidence and patronage is misplaced. It is a false notion that that it guides the destiny of the post colonial nations. The narrative covers over a hundred years. The cinematic devices of flash forward or flashback come handy to Ghosh. As is clear, he mingles fact with fiction unobtrusively. At one level the reader is willingly taken on a journey into time and at the same time to different countries like America, England, Egypt and India. Ghosh compresses or expands according to his convenience the actual time period of an event. This highlights the parallels between two events that took place at two different periods of time. This technique also constructs contrasts between two events of different periods. Apart from this, we can visually cement the gap between seemingly distant actions.

The most unique feature operating in the text of the novel is its questioning of the past. Our historical fixities are questioned. Ghosh is obviously skeptical towards the towering altitude given to a certain period or event. Murugan is the voice of rationality. He senses certain discrepancies in Ronald Ross’s account of ‘Plasmodium B.’ Murugan is unable to free himself from the idea of something being foul in the medical history of malaria. He is preparing an article, 'An Alternative Interpretation of Late 19th Century Malaria Research. Is There A Secret History?'

Long back when Murugan was in New York he had written a summery of his research in an article entitled, ‘Certain systematic Discrepancies in Ronald Ross's Account of Plasmodium B.' To his shock Murugan received a very hostile response from the scientific community. All scientific journals rejected the paper. The fact that he doubted Ross's greatness costs him the membership of the science society. He was called a crank and an eccentric. Naturally all this did not help Murugan. He became more and more obsessed and erratic. He began to publicize his ideas about ‘the other mind’ behind Ross's discovery. His theory is that some persons systematically interfered with Ross's experiment and pushed Malaria research into the right direction. He believes that Ronald Ross who was awarded the Noble Prize in 1906 for his work on the life cycle of the Malaria vector had been handed the information on a plate. It was not his discovery at all. Someone else had planted the idea in his head that Malaria parasite could be found in one of the species of mosquitoes. Murugan is convinced that a big conspiracy was played in 1895. Originally Ross was on a completely wrong track. Even Ross's mentor Patrick Manson, the noted Scottish bacteriologist who had written a book on Filaria was on a wrong track. Both Manson and Ross thought that Malaria parasite was transmitted from mosquitoes to human beings orally, probably through drinking water. But almost overnight Ross changed his track and on August 20th, 1897 he found the connection between Plasmodium Zygotes and Anopheles, Stephensil. Murugan finds it hard to swallow that Ross could be successful in such a short span of time. Keeping the complexities of the research in mind it ought to have taken longer period of time. His curiosity and rationality force him to pursue his search of what actually happened and how it happened. Ghosh goes on to suggest that Ronald Ross had two assistants, Mangala a sweeper woman and Laakhan (Lutchman), who is a 'Dhooley-bearer.'

But before going deeper let us first decipher three different levels of the narrative. In one strand of the story-line we have Antar, an Egyptian computer clerk. Antar works day and night all alone on his super intelligent computer named Ava. He is working in the early part of the 21st century. He tries to relocate the adventures of an India born American scientist L. Murugan. Antar tries to find out the reason behind the incomprehensible fact that Murugan disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. The second level of the story-line is historically true and it revolves around the British Scientist Ronald Ross, who discovered the manner in which Malaria is conveyed by the mosquito in 1902. The third level describes the super human powers of Mangala and Laakhan. At this level Ross's result is reduced to a mere, subordinate activity  which, is controlled by more potent power of Mangala and Laakhan. The story begins in a New York apartment where Antar is working. In fact Antar works for the International Water Council, a global organization that explores and examines the depletion of the world's water supplies. One morning the computer Ava jeeringly produces an I.D. Card with a small mettle chain attached to it. The card is badly damaged, symbolizing for us the bruised ego of the card owner. When Antar gives the necessary commands, Ava with its astounding resourcefulness, recreates the card. It becomes clear that the card had originated in Calcutta. It also creates a holographic projection of the man to whom the card once belonged. Antar comes to know that the man was L. Murugan, who had worked for a non-profit organization that served as a global public health consultancy and epidemiological data bank. Actually Antar had also worked there once. Murugan has thin and discolored hairs. His eyes are bright black. He has a moon like face. His nose is that of a boxer, and he has an aggressively jutting chin. Overall Murugan makes for a combative, obstinate and unstoppable man. Murugan happens to be the most entertaining character of the novel as well. He claims to be the only expert on the Ronald Ross story in the world. The great love of his life is uncovering the medical history of Malaria. We can easily see that Ghosh wants to give recognition to the less known, less fortunate people. The world worships success. Many times the deserving go unnoticed. Murugan's only crime is that he has dared to disagree. He doubts the set beliefs.

Murugan gets convinced that there was a conspiracy behind malaria research. He leaves for Calcutta in search of all missing links, which could enlighten him and the world about the century old puzzle. His friends and well wishers try to dissuade him but Murugan is determined. He reaches Calcutta on 20th August 1995 and the very next day vanishes. With use of cinematic techniques, on one hand, Ross is shown making the final breakthrough and on the other hand Murugan is trying to prove his hypothesis that Ross had been literally led by the nose to the discovery by forces beyond his comprehension. The fuelling agencies of the novel are Antar's curiosity and Murugan's skepticism. Howsoever imaginative it may sound; Ghosh seems to believe in marginality or alternative reality. In Calcutta Murugan spots all the missing links as well as the conspirators. The conspirators are the well-established people of the society-writers, journalists, film stars and businessmen. Smoothly floating through past, present and future Murugan weaves the narrative into a coherent whole. The conspiracy seems to be eternal. It is the conspiracy of a mediocre society against those who deserve, and are original and genuine. The conspirators try to confuse Murugan and trap him into their experiment. By the end of the story even Antar is dragged into their fold. This team of people has its own aims. They desire a journey to the unknown. Their quest is for immortality. Ghosh believes that the purpose of science is not only to reveal but also to create. Awareness is the key. Whatever is known is knowledge. At the other end of the scientific knowledge lies the unknown, unarticulated truth. That truth may be unknown but the point is that it is very much there. Keeping all the mess in scientific research in mind, Ghosh creates a group of bright researchers whose ultimate aim is to keep their research a secret. They try to conceal their inventions. The source of their strength is silence.

Pholboni is the greatest living writer of Bengal. He has also won the national award. He is the chief exponent of this cult of silence. This team consists of marginalized people. Some of these people were picked up by Dr. D.D. Cunningham from the railway station to serve him as research assistants. Incidentally it was at Cunningham's laboratory only, Ross discovered the Malaria bug. Ghosh seems to have taken the beliefs of these people directly from Derrida. Their idea is that 'knowledge is self contradictory [...] they believed that to know something is to change it, therefore in knowing something, you have already changed what you think you know so you don't really know it at all. You only know its history [...] they thought that knowledge couldn't begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge [...] if it's true that to know something is to change it, then it follows that one way of changing something, of effecting a mutation, [...] is to attempt to know it, or aspects of it'(88).

Thus the fantasy goes on that in counter-science; secrecy is used as a technique of procedure. For this group of bright researchers, silence is the only religion. Ghosh also suggests that an Austrian clinician Julius Von Wagner Jauregg was actually ahead of Ronald Ross on malaria research. He was working on the clue that artificially induced malaria could cure or at least mitigate syphilitic paresis. But even before the Austrian in the 1890s, Mangala, a sweeper woman had achieved remarkable success in this field. Mangala herself suffered from syphilis, whom Dr. Cunningham had found at Sealdah station and trained her as a laboratory assistant. Murugan believes that Mangala was a genius. She had a strong intuition. She was going in the right direction in malaria research due to her instinctive understanding. Murugan also guesses that Mangala was using a variation of Wagner process. She had perhaps noticed that Malaria works on paresis through a different route, the brain. Like syphilis, Malaria can cause irreparable damage to the brain, it can even cause hallucination. Perhaps that is why primitive people thought of Malaria as spirit possession.

India has a very deep and long tradition of the occult. People are highly superstitious. In fact spirits (Bhutapret) are considered to be as real as the human beings by the uneducated rural masses of India. The bhutapret are said to exist in a half way house between the human world and the world of ancestral spirits (pitri-lok). Until they have been judged, have paid their 'karmic' debts and are allowed into the world of ancestral spirits, the 'bhutapret' continue to yearn for a human body which they can enter and contrive to make sick through their nefarious activity. These spirits, occupying the lowest rungs in the Hindu hierarchy of supernatural beings, are closest to human state. Whatever the reason' both the 'bhuta-pret' and the 'pitri' are a tangible, living presence for most people. They seem to populate a mental region that is contiguous and has open borders with the land of ordinary consciousness in which normal everyday life takes place.

Interestingly Ghosh deconstructs and dismantles Western sense of superiority by Indian irrationality. These beliefs are said to have no scientific basis, yet their strong presence in India can easily be felt. Deconstruction, in the Derridian context is a nihilistic activity. And yet to perform this nihilistic activity Ghosh uses the tool of blind religious beliefs. This is indeed an interesting contradiction of this book.

Mangala had developed a particular kind of Malaria that could be induced in pigeons. Here we may remember that Mangala is the other name of the great mother Kali who comes in various forms in Indian mythology. She is the archetypal nurturer as well as the terrible mother figure. She is the life giver as well as the annihilator. We may also remember that pigeons are an inseparable part of the famous witchcraft of Bengal. Even today at Kamakhyan temple in Assam, the highest seat of Indian black magic, pigeons are regularly used in various rituals. Murugan who is unearthing Mangala's story also has a significant name. Murugan is the other name of Kartih the son of the goddess who is reputed for swift movements in Indian mythology. So approximately speaking, here is a son figure trying to get credit for the mother figure, which she richly deserves. Now Mangala had also developed the technique of transferring malaria from a pigeon to a patient of syphilis. Secretly she started treating patients in Cunningham's laboratory. Her treatment produced strange side effects. The patients often developed weird personality disorders. These symptoms in the patients were actually 'randomly assorted personality traits' which the patient imbibed from the Malaria donor i.e., the pigeon. Actually this process hinted at the freak chromosome, which had earlier been described as the unique Calcutta Chromosome. The special contribution that the Calcutta Chromosome makes is that it suggests transference of personality traits. In this way it suggests immortality. As Murugan excitedly tells his researcher Antar. 'Just think, a fresh start: when your body fails you, you leave it, you migrate-you or at lest a matching symptom logy of yourself. You begin all over again, another body, another beginning (...) a technology that lets you improve on yourself in your next incarnation' (91-92).

Murugan has spent many years on his extensive research. His clues indicate that Ross's discovery was only a small part of the overall project of Mangala to attain immortality through the Calcutta Chromosome. By 1897 Mangala had run into a dead end. She tried again and again to stabilize and catch the chromosome in the process of transmission. But she failed. She needed more information on the Malaria bug. That is why she needed Ross's help, 'She actually believed that the link between the bug and the human mind was so close that once its life-cycle had been figured out, it would spontaneously mutate in directions that would take her work to the next step' (208). But to know something is to create it. Breaking the law of silence she planted crucial clues in Ross's head and took the research in the right direction. Ross was just a tool. Murugan also believes that Mangala and Laakhan did succeed in transplantation of the Calcutta chromosome. In fact Laakhan himself is a living example of interpersonal transference of the Calcutta Chromosome. This malevolent character with a deformed hand is 'all over the map, changing names, switching identities' (74).

Both Laakhan and Mangala are characters who change identities. Ghosh has underlined the value of secrecy in matters of intellectual property. The whole atmosphere of the book suggests that there is much theft and deceit in this field. There is one Elijah Monroe who comes to Cunningham's Laboratory to detect the ongoing experiments. Laakhan stages a train accident and finishes Elijah Monroe. Similarly another friend of Ross J.W.D. Grigson also faces a near fatal accident in Secundarabad when he senses that something crucial is going on. Laakhan also meets Phulboni thirty-six years after Grigson episode. It clearly means that it is not exactly Laakhan who meets Phulboni but his spirit or his spirit in some other body. Phulboni is writing a set of stories on Laakhan. The real name of Phulboni is Saiyad Murad Hussain. He is an eminent writer. He has taken the tribal name, Phulboni. This character is designed to convey the author's viewpoint from time to time. The two names are there to emphasize the confusion and duality of self. Everyone is like that. The mythological references of names at times make the characters archetypes. Mangala, the sweeper woman also appears in different forms. When Murugan comes to Calcutta in 1995 to find about the Malaria story, he discovers an esoteric cult of image worshippers. Murugan comes to know that the image is that of Mangala. She is called 'Mangalabibi'. People worship to commemorate her reincarnation. Phulboni does a comprehensive story on this image and its advent into the world. Through this Goddess metaphor, Ghosh insists on the necessity of coming back to life. No one dies. Nothing ends. Resurrection is a must. The journey of the soul independent of any particular body is an established Hindu concept. The body dies but the soul travels into another body and lives on. The soul is imperishable. The movement of soul from one body to another and its final merger with the super soul is controlled by God. God is the supreme power. But Mangala, a human being, attempts to master the art of transferring souls. She wants to be the controlling consciousness, the mind that sets things in motion. It hardly needs an explanation now that Mangala also symbolizes the ultimate desire of a human being to become God. In polite terms, it can be described as the wish of a human being to merge in the womb of the supreme mother. As we know in 'Bhakti marg', where poet/devotee/mystic cries in anguish to become one with the mother. Mangala belongs to this path. The other path is that of 'Tarka' or logic and science. Ross follows this path. The two paths may seem contradictory but in reality are not so. They are complementary. In fact, in this book, Ghosh ratifies and endorses Mangala's path. Logic without intuition is incomplete. Ross's research has been attributed a secondary place while Mangala's methods have been hailed as perfect. As has been pointed out earlier, Western aura has been undone. 

The Indian myth of Ganesh has also been used to explain Indian concept of changing identities. A child with an elephant head is a clear sign of possibility and acceptance of duality of personality. Ghosh with a strong nationalist vein tries to establish Indian supremacy in the world of knowledge and science. 

Coming back to Mangala and Laakhan, we cannot ignore the fact that both of them are from the very lowest rung of Hindu caste system. Here is a desired reversal of roles. Mangala of the sweeper caste is worshipped in blood and flesh as well as years after as an image. Farley, a Western scientist watches this scene where Mangala is deified despite her social class, '[...] the woman Mangala was seated at the far end of the room, on a low divan, but alone and in an attitude of command, as though enthroned. By her side at the far end of the room were several bamboo cages, each containing a pigeon. They were all slumped on the floor of death [...] on the floor by the divan, clustered around the woman's feet, were some half dozen people in various attitudes of supplication, some touching her feet, others lying prostrate. Two or three others were huddled against the wall, wrapped in blankets [...] they were syphilitics, in final stages of the terrible disease' (125-26).

Ghosh seems adamant that the repositories of truth, science and higher knowledge can be a 'dhooley bearer' Laakhan and a sweeper woman Mangala. He demolishes the false concept that class superiority and right to knowledge go together. Here is wishful undoing of Indian caste system and an assertion of the right to knowledge irrespective of class, caste, creed, culture or color. Twice in the course of the novel, Laakhan is shown as a torch bearer; metaphorically a bearer of knowledge. Ghosh further universalizes the theory by making people of all religious background accepting the entire drama. Hindus (Murugan, Sonali, Urmila), Muslims (Saiyad Murad Hussain alias Phulboni, Antar) and Christians (Mrs. Aratounian and Countess Pongracz)-all accept the transmigration of souls. 

By bringing the underprivileged to the focus of attention, Ghosh is hinting at the current justified trend in the field of scientific research where the rights of 'subjects' are fervently advocated, especially in the field of social medicine, health, hygiene and control of epidemics. Human or animal subjects who are experimented upon, are perhaps more important than the researcher. We may recall it was Laakhan who offered to drink Ronnie's (Ross's) medicine first. Ghosh tries to bring recognition to those who do the spade work for all the grand discoveries. Another recent trend suggests that health and bioresearch can be conducted more economically and efficiently if local people are given principal place in it. They know their soil better than those sitting in saniticized laboratories and working on fanciful hypothesis. 

Ghosh writes about a vanished era. He is interested in past. Yet he is a modern writer because modernity is not about the surface details of a story. It hardly matters into which period the actual fable is cast. What matters is the manner, depth and quality of the author's response. This is exactly what makes Ghosh relevant to us. I see this novel as a statement on the necessary isolation of an individual and the role of introspection and silence in it. We are social beings-true!  But we are equally individual beings. The separation of the individual's entity is essential for any creative or genuine work or for life, for that matter. At the heart of existence lies a still point, silence and isolation. And this need not be taken in post-modern sense of alienation, communication-less-ness or absurdism. No, not at all. It is what the psychologists call the individuation process where a human being realizes that she/he is separate from others. It is only after this realization that the merger into the whole, the next stage comes.
I am reminded of what T.S. Eliot wrote in the first part of Four Quartets, Burnt Norton:

'At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
At the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and Future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards;
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,...'

This is pure Vedanta. It will not be far-fetched in my opinion to bring this idea directly to this book. Let us have a look at principal characters of this novel. Antar is a widower. His neighbors have a shadow existence for him. Ava, the supercomputer is his only companion. He is connected to other human beings only through his machine. Murugan is a divorcee. He is companionless except for the ghosts from the past. Antar, Urmila, Sonali and Mrs. Aratounian are his acquaintances; but none are his friends. Urmila may have a family theoretically but practically she is an alien. Her vulnerability due to loneliness is obvious. Sonali is an illegitimate child of Phulboni. She is an actress and lives all by herself. Mrs. Aratounian does not seem to have any family or friend. Phulboni is a typical loner, roaming in the streets of Calcutta all by himself. Mangaia and Laakhan are above their community. They are revered but are never befriended. They are not treated as close associates. Ronald Ross has a family but only in the background. He is emotionally estranged from all co-creatures. He is deep into the bug. Antar, as we see, is frightened at this drama of isolation at the end of the novel. But as I said, this loneliness is not the loneliness of O'Neill, or Beckett, or Amis, or Miller and the like. Antar is coming from an assembly of people. Suddenly, he is alone. Yet he feels their presence in his New York apartment, '[...] they were saying 'we're with you. You are alone; we'll help you across.' He sat back, and sighed as he hadn't sighed in years' (Ghosh: 256). I take sighing to be a sure sigh of emotions and emotions take us to community and positivism. 

But the point is that realization of individuality is a must. The one who works has an inner life separate from the lives of others. And silence is the only companion here. Language becomes useless, at least insufficient. As Byron said and I vaguely remember, 'There's much company when none speaks.' Let me quote the beautiful words of Ghosh himself, ‘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 eye, what the mind is to truth, what language is to life' (40). 

Ghosh, Amitav. 1966. ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher.

Continued to "Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma


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Comments on this Article

Comment I came across this review while i had completed my reading of " Calcutta Chromosome". What could have been a pure narrative brilliance by the renowned Ghosh, ended up in a literary mishap. Sometimes the plot even failed to erase the most simplest of Doubt in a reader's mind. Might be a thriller travelling through the medieval Calcuttan backdrop, but the interweaving of the science with the psy trance was actually a mishap.

7th Son
10/03/2013 13:31 PM

Comment I came across this review when I was looking for more on the malaria /Ronald Ross topics just after reading Calcutta Chormosome. I found Gosh's craft complex and it often leaves the reader in the lurch when the author changes tracks.He has made a dish which is a combination of science fiction, horror story and history of scientific research. The book doesn't offer an insight into the author's reasoning behind the interweaving of these three aspects. A plot lost in complex narrative.

11/24/2012 09:23 AM

Comment The book review (my personal opinion) - synopsis - warns - of intrigue perhaps in the mind of the author... is it a satire or self persecution by the writer Ghosh Amitabh? Sounds like high-brow jargon - please pardon my low intellectual capacity! Maybe I'm being narrow minded and jumping into a conclusion with 'just a mere gist' of an otherwise worthy book!

Jayati Gupta
05/17/2012 18:37 PM

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