Review: The Calcutta Chromosome

Rating: 3 / 5

Amitav Ghosh's mind-boggling The Calcutta Chromosome is an engrossing medley of science fiction, medical thriller, supernaturalism, eastern mysticism and colonial Indian stories. Set in an alternative vision of a run down New York in the 21st century, the protagonist Antar finds an old ID tag of a former colleague, Murugan, a self-proclaimed expert on Sir Ronald Ross. Murugan, was last seen in Calcutta in 1995 and has hence disappeared. Retracing Murugan's steps, Antar as well as the reader is taken on a journey through colonial India in the 1850s, specifically the steps leading to Ross's discovery of the malarian vector. Murugan is convinced that Ross had help with making the discovery, help from someone who already knew everything there was to know about malaria and was pushing Ross in the hopes of unravelling a greater mystery. A secret so secret, that it existed only in the medium that gave it birth, in Silence.

When I first read the book, I was extremely dissatisfied with it. Dissatisfied with the ending Ghosh gives it and with the ultimate failure of my own comprehension. Mostly because I hated feeling dumb.

I knew I had to re-read it, but never got around to it until Avdi's review got me interested all over again. And this time, not being bogged down by where the story was heading I was able to appreciate the book much more. So, I enjoyed Murugan's delightful politically incorrect banter, the malaria research lore, snapshots of contemporary Bengali culture and Ghosh's deft story-telling skills, especially a very RK Narayanesque ghost story of an uninhabited railway station and his subtly evocative narrative style

... morning commuters with the smell of dhal still buried deep in their finger nails ...

I did make a couple more connections I missed the first time around, but if put to the test, I cannot say I still 'get' it. All I know is there's not going to be a third time ....

To figure out how you as a reader will respond to the book, the closest analogy I can think of is putting together a complicated jigsaw puzzle and ending up with a murky outcome, unsure if you put the pieces in the right way around. If you are the type who anticipates a challenge and believe most of the fun was in putting it together, the book will be a rewarding experience. If you are the type focussed on the end goal and are displeased because there's nothing concrete, you might end up feeling cheated.


avdi said...

ahha Papaya.. so you re-read it. Amitav Ghosh is a master story teller and the book is quite Alice-esque. But the ending was such a simplistic one. There were no secrets left by the time you got to the end.. just a tangle of several threads.

However the concepts of malaria and the thought of the wise and sly natives feeding the puffed up firang doctors clues was priceless...

However, I wish my posting on Sea of Poppies had inspired you to read it. Its magnificent.

samir said...

Interesting review, I think I am the 2nd type (focussed on the end goal); but sometimes I do enjoy puzzles. Will try to read this book someday, right now I still have all your Gabaldon books in queue. Did start reading Outlander but got sidetracked, although your Drambuie review certainly helped.
Went thru' some of your other reviews, all good ones; of course I liked that chocolate pudding recipe.

Smita said...

Hmmm...I have Sea of Poppies n The Hungry Tide, I guess will finish them first and then will pick anything else...Medical books always remind me of Robin Cook :)

But it has happened with me a lot many times that I enjoy a book in the 2nd read.

So which book next? Am reading Immigrant by Manju Kapur

Avionic Spanker said...

I guess I am a mix of both types u mentioned - too much to ask for?

I just finished reading 'Barbarians at the gate'. I don't know if you enjoy such books, but I would recommend you give this a shot

couchpapaya said...

avdi - yes i loved ur alice in wonderland analogy :) and i am getting sea of poppies even tho i know i'll regret it when part deux comes out. only problem, it's from the library and i'm in a queue :(

samir - wow, thanks for going through ... that recipe is my fav, v. easy, can dress it up a million ways and have yet to find someone who doesnt like choc pudding :D i'm v. curious abt how u'll like the gabaldon books, so do let me know when u read them. also have u picked up more than outlander ?

couchpapaya said...

smita - what happened to those 2 books u were reading ? not reviewing them ?? i'm just finishing a thriller by richard north patterson and i have this book called another roadside attraction by tom robbins (?) ... let's see how they go :)

spanker - i am too, but it hits me on different days. thx for the recco, on my queue now, will pick it up when i'm in the mood !!

Mama - Mia said...

oh well!

i just want a book that makes me read till the end! if it leaves me dissastisfied post that, its okie! if it doesnt, well i am happy! :D

someday i shall read this!! right now i am reading my first Terry Prachett and loving it! :D



couchpapaya said...

abha - it's so funny... people gen mention terry pratchett and tom robbins in the same breath ... i;m reading a robbins right now :) have fun !!

Smita said...

I have finished quite many books.

Finished the 5 book shopahloic series...wanna review it but have so many things to write on.

And then there is this new author who has written "Sepia Leaves" will review it in a day or two :)

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