The Calcutta Chromosome

by Amitav Ghosh

Hardcover, 1997




William Morrow, (1997)


A computer operator in New York stumbles on information regarding an experiment in 1895 Calcutta to change people. In the experiment, mosquitos were used to transfer chromosomes from one person to another.

User reviews

LibraryThing member keremist
I am not sure if the ending is weak, or I missed something while reading..
Nevertheless, the plot does not fill its potential.

edit: after reading some comments on amazon, i've seen that i am not the only one finding the ending horrible.. i recommend you not to read this book.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Why I Read This

I loved The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, and thus eagerly picked up this other novel by him. Unfortunately, it did not win me over in the same way. This book – part fantasy, part horror story, and part a tale of science-gone-bad – lacks the strong development of character and place that is so appealing in The Glass Palace. Instead, it is plot driven, and the plot can most succinctly be described as “weird.”

Believe It Or Not, This Is The Plot

The "Calcutta Chromosome" of the title concerns a chromosome that can be transmitted via malaria injected into syphilitics which is then transformed with a little help from decapitated pigeon heads into a gene conferring a bit of immortality to new recipients, who will reveal to you what they're up to, but if they tell you they have to kill you. Black magic is also a part of the transference process, as you might expect....


I was very disappointed. The plot is annoyingly opaque and dare I say stupid, and the characters seem only to have been included to move it along. In the end, I felt the story lacked significance and gravitas. Ghosh is a good writer. Maybe he was bitten by one too many mosquitoes when he wrote this.
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LibraryThing member AsYouKnow_Bob
I'm somewhat confused just how or why this won the Clarke Award - any of the other five finalists are at least as plausible. Modestly entertaining, a bit anti-scientific in its outlook, not particularly experimental....
LibraryThing member milti
I could say I've finished this novel but the fact is, I've hardly understood it, and the sad part is I don't think multiple reads of this will make it any clearer.This is my third Amitav Ghosh novel. The other two were Shadowlines and In An Antique Land. While Shadowlines bugged me with its back-and-forth narrative, hopping through various periods on the timeline and from various caharcters' perspectives, it was blessed by the virtue of brilliant characterisation. In An Antique Land, to me, was pure joy to read. Historical fiction is always fun, and the more accurate that history is, the more one can appreciate the author/compiler, and the lack of strong characterisation may be sacrificed for the sake of fact in fiction. But though The Calcutta Chromosome incorporates the above qualities, it fails to deliver either strong characters or a plausible storyline.There is a reason I took 4 days to read this relatively small and easy-to-skim book. I zoomed through the first 200 pages in almost a day and then stopped merely 20 pages before the end and tossed it aside. It was out of duty rather than curiosity that I finally got through the last couple of chapters. The reasons are not hard to find: the ending was in sight but the story kept getting more convoluted and fantastical, and with the addition of so many new characters, it started looking like one of those badly made Hindi serials and just exasperated me. I think it was JK Rowling that once said something like, "Readers like to be surprised, not conned." This book unfortunately does not give the reader a chance to understand what is happening, and more than lack of a believable or apparently traceable thread, I believe it all boils down to terrible characterisation.First you have this guy Antar, from Egypt, whose complete social life seems to consist of interactions with his robot-like device, Ava. She can sense his moods, respond appropriately, and seems fond of talking in languages he does not know and projecting lifesize holograms into his room that scare the crap out of him. He is quiet, relatively modest, and does not seem thrilled at the prospect of meeting up with anyone human (his neighbour Tara, for instance, an impending meeting that was dwelt upon for the first fifty pages at least.) When he does come across Murugan's record, he seems to have no recollection of who this guy is, despite the fact that his file is fat with information that he has input himself regarding this man. Then there is Murugan himself. He is described by the author as loud, unpleasant, etc. but the reader is not given a chance to see those qualities for him/herself. All the reader comes to know through the portrayal of this man is that he is self-centered and annoyingly condescending to everyone regarding what he is studying and what he knows about Ronald Ross. Towards the end of the novel he is shown to have a mutual attraction to the mousey Urmila, although she has her own deal altogether and is somewhat in love with the equally self-absorbed Sonali 'di'. When the reader is introduced to Sonali, she is going to attend a talk by a famous man, Phulboni, with whom there is no discernible connection. But at the end of the book the reader learns that this man is Sonali's father! See what I mean when I say 'conned'?Of course then there are all the characters that switch places (or chromosomes or whatever) because they are all mired in this intricate malaria-cure conspiracy - Phulboni, Romen, Laakhan etc..Murugan, from the way he talks, sounds as if he has great derision for Ronald Ross in spite of the fact that he spent his whole adult life studying him and tracing the line of his thought. The premise of this science fiction is that Ronald Ross did not know as much about malaria and mosquitoes as other scientists who were working on it long before he thought of it. He has an assistant called Lutchman (Laakhan) who is sort of like a spy, or hired by, the 'other' camp to give him the evidence he requires in blood samples that will lead him onto the next discovery (or off the track? I really couldn't figure out from just one reading). The 'other' camp is not a scientist of established repute or anything, it's a black magic woman who beheads pigeons in her attempt to breed a strain of malaria (that she has found out is a cure for syphilis) into them. While they allow poor 'Ronnie' to imagine he has understood the life cycle of the mosquito and has unearthed the secrets of malaria, this woman and her cronies are merrily transferring bits of their personality into other people, thus ensuring that a part of themselves lives on (or something). I should not even attempt to explain this plot, in fact, as it was totally lost on me. Suffice it to say that I thought this book, though an exciting and fast read, was a complete failure when it comes to resolutions and conclusions. It is one thing to leave questions unanswered, but to expect the reader to infer these answers without sufficient evidence is too much to ask. Conclusion: I liked it but only because it was Ghosh. This is still sloppy story-telling at best.… (more)
LibraryThing member mausergem
This is a medical mystery, suspense, thriller, horror all in one novel.

It starts with Antar, a computer operator who is archiving stuff for a company, when he stumbles across a burnt ID card of Murugan, a lost acquaintance, who is interested in the history of malaria. Murugan had disappeared suddenly on a visit to Calcutta and Antar's company gives him permission to investigate the matter further. Antar stumbles upon a conspiracy theory about the discovery of the life cycle of malaria bug done by Dr. Ronald Ross in 1898. Further investigation leads to a bizarre story of connection of terminal syphilis and malaria and a secret sect!… (more)
LibraryThing member abhidd1687
nothing as of have barely read jst a page or two
LibraryThing member mcdenis
The intrepid Antar through his exceptional computer seeks the history of malarial research in British Colonial India in an out of the way station in Northern India. He continues his search, makes some unusual acquaintances, discovers ghosts and run- away trains and finally in the end an answer to his quest. The author fills in the background with an exotic India, mysterious characters, smells and delicacies and science. A short read with an eye-catching book jacket.… (more)
LibraryThing member bluepigeon
The Calcutta Chromosome is certainly a page turner. The supernatural, fictional science, and historical facts regarding malaria research are interwoven to create a complicated story that takes place in three different times: the late 1800s in Calcutta and other places in India where malaria research was going on, the 90s when a man becomes obsessed with finding out the real story of how malaria was researched, and a futuristic today, when another man is investigating the disappearance of the previous man (or the re-appearance of this man's ID card from Calcutta). Ghosh does a great job of bringing his characters to life. Malaria and Calcutta also appear prominently as characters in the novel.

As a molecular biologist, I was lost in one or two places, when some histological observation or explanation of it was described as copulation. I am not sure what this is suppose to invoke, or what fake science Ghosh was trying to create. I am familiar with the life cycle of malaria in the female mosquito as well as in the vertebrate system (blood, liver, etc.), so to me it seemed that the observations were of the bacteria reproducing in blood cells, but I fail to see how this is (paraphrasing here:) "what men do to women." So this was a bit confusing to me. I wasn't sure if Ghosh was trying to truthfully describe the situation, as he does about other aspects of the disease, or he was elaborating on his fake science stuff; but neither seemed to fit the bill.

Nevertheless, The Calcutta Chromosome is a great, fast-paced read full of parallel happenings and mysteries that unfold to yield more mysteries. In the end, knowing something is changing it (a variation on the philosophical implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which at its simplest states that observing something without changing/affecting it is impossible, and alas, observing and knowing are usually linked, though not always simply or directly), and perhaps that's why we cannot really know just how exactly the counterscience in the book works. If we knew, it would cease to be what we knew, but something else entirely different or changed. There is a lot of wishy washy explanations like this in the book, meaning, if you are a scientist, you have to let go of what you know and use your imagination.

What's interesting to me as a scientist is the idea that all science is hypothesis driven. It seems that Ghosh sets up two camps: science vs. counterscience. Science, as it is defined as the opposite of this other thing like religion or cult, and seems strictly to be what the general public would think of science: a hypothesis-driven effort. As much as hypothesis-driven science is what we, scientist, always promote to the public face of science, as otherwise, it seems that we are wasting our time and faculties on luck or coincidences, much of science relies on luck, coincidence, randomness. In fact many breakthroughs in science have come about by pure luck; meaning, one would work as hard or set up as many experiments to ask the same questions, but without that one lucky break or coincidence that has nothing to do with the experiments, the thing that was discovered would not have been discovered. Sure, it could have been discovered somewhere else, by someone else, in another way, but that particular discovery would not have happened. So to read this novel where coincidences are interpreted as a part of an intelligent conspiracy plot (or counterscience project) is a bit funny for me. In this respect, science and counterscience are not that far apart. In fact, many prominent scientist have expressed their opinions about the fact that if science were to be done only in a hypothesis-driven manner, we not get anywhere (we don't get far as it is...)

Lastly, I cannot help but comment on the cover (the neon red and green one with the mosquito on it): wow, someone actually designed this and thought it was a good idea? Can color blind people see anything? I will nominate this cover for one of the worst covers of any book that I have seen or read (I am sure there is a list on GR for this...)

I recommend that people read this book only in cooler seasons, otherwise one might start itching just by reading about mosquitos biting people... Recommended for those who are interested in conspiracies, Indian food, ethics, and colonial history.
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