The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery
By Amitav Ghosh
Perennial, New York, 2001
Borrowed from the library.
I am an admirer of Amitav Ghosh, but when I learned he had written some kind of sci-fi, speculative fiction novel I wasn’t all that interested. Until I learned that The Calcutta Chromosome had won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
This book is a wild ride between the past and the future. Antar, a researcher for the giant International Water Council, works from home using their AVA computer system. His job? To sit in front of a monitor and look at every item entered into the IWC inventory from all over the world. Why? Just in case there might be something unusual. It’s like sifting through sand on an archeological dig, you never know what you might find. His identification of an object leads him to India, the impact of British colonialism and the study of malaria.
Antar uncovers the stories of people from his past, the struggle between India’s ancient wisdom and Western science and a vast medical conspiracy. The novel flashes back and forth in time and between characters. At times it feels like the shards of a broken mirror. Ghosh’s characteristic use of detail, myth and storytelling hold it all together.
It was mid-July. The monsoons had set in and the whole of eastern India was awash in rain. Several of the famously restless rivers of the region had burst their banks and swept across the broad, flat plains. Those waters, so full of menace to those they nourished, presented and entirely different aspect to a casual spectator in a train, watching from the safety of a tall embankment. The still waters, lying in great silver sheets under the lowering monsoon skies, presented an enchanting, bewitching spectacle. Phulboni, raised amidst the hills and forests of Orissa, had never seen anything like this before: this majestic, endless plain mirroring the turbulent heavens. From page 257.
Just the fact that Antar works for something called the International Water Council is intriguing, fresh water being a finite resource that we are running out of, much like oil. This alone drew me into reading the book. It is interesting and challenging, I very much enjoyed it.
I admit it, I love Amitav Ghosh’s writing and his story-telling. I can not wait for the follow-up to A Sea of Poppies.