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  The Calcutta Chromosome  

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Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher:Avon Books, New York ,2005
Price:$23
Pages:311
Reviewer:Shobha Hiatt, shofre@norcov.com
What does a petulant state-of-the-art computer named Ava in New York have to do with transmigration of souls, ghostly railway stations or malaria research in India? A lot, as you will discover after reading writer Amitav Ghosh's latest offering "The Calcutta Chromosome". In this book, the talented author of "The Circle of Reason" and "Shadow Lines" tries his hand at what can loosely be described as science fiction, though some might categorize it as a thriller. Twisting and weaving like Calcutta streets and packed as densely with seemingly random events, the book proceeds at a pace that will leave the reader a little breathless and, I might add, driven to distraction wondering how the author could possibly bring all the disparate elements of this novel to a satisfactory conclusion within a mere 311 pages.

The story opens in New York with the Egyptian computer programmer/data analyst Antar discovering an ID card of a missing acquaintance through his Ava/IIse, a computer with an attitude. Ava, who is frighteningly human at times, can speak every language on earth and does not hesitate to show off or throw a tantrum on occasion. Through her, Antar enters an intriguing, timeless world, so compelling that he can scarcely keep himself from becoming involved with the adventures of his fellow programmer, the missing Murugan, or from believing Murugan's theory of a secret, powerful group operating in complete silence that controls the destiny of mankind. As Antar is drawn in by Murugan's tale, he is transported to a Calcutta hundred years in the past, into the laboratory of Ronald Ross and Ross's experiments in malaria research. Here he sees how several fortuitous (yet in Murugan's mind, suspicious,) circumstances leads Ross to discover the method of transmittal of malaria to human beings. Drifting in and out of events, like the insubstantial morning mist, are a pair of mysterious figures, the untouchable Mangala and her companion Lakhan. Antar sees them resurfacing again and again but in different time periods, ranging from Ross's 19th century Calcutta to the Calcutta of the 1990s. Antar discovers too that in its modern avatar, the city can still hold many dangerous secrets. He meets (through Murugan) fascinating characters like Urmila, a journalist with a chip on her shoulder, Phulboni, a poet with a mission, and the beautiful, dramatic ex-actress Sonali Das. As Murugan seeks to find the logic in this seemingly chaotic scenario, Antar follows in his enthusiastic wake till events loop back to New York and Antar finds himself in the eye of the storm.

Like most South Asian writers, Ghosh has strong and dramatic storytelling skills. Every Indian who grew up listening in wide-eyed wonder to ghost stories will identify with his ominous description of stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Renupur station "a length of beaten earth, its surface covered in weeds...two creaking boards..each bearing the barely legible legend 'Renupur'". You just know something supernatural is going to happen there to Phulboni. And you won't be disappointed. The old, abandoned mansion in Calcutta, owned by the charismatic builder Roman Haldar, forms the backdrop to a blood-letting cult ritual so bizarre that Sonali Das, upon secretly witnessing it, loses consciousness. There are seances and unexplainable half-dreams and little boys who follow Murugan around for no apparent reason. And then there is Calcutta, with its decaying present and historic past, brought alive through Ghosh's sparse, evocative prose. Against it's singular backdrop, some of the bizarre incidents that unfold begin to look almost normal.

In Murugan, Ghosh creates an unlikely hero. This boastful individual with his crude Americanisms is not easy to relate to. "Take it from me," he says to Antar at the beginning of the book " as far as the subject of Ronnie (Ronald) Ross goes, I'm the only show in town." But as things get increasingly complicated and dangerous, one cannot help but admire Murugan for his willingness to go to the very edge in order to discover the truth.

The concept of time plays a critical part in "The Calcutta Chromosome." At one level, it seemed to me, that all events described in the book were taking place simultaneously. At another, it appeared to be linear as one event follows the other chronologically. Ghosh's skillful manipulation of time keeps the reader slightly disoriented and on edge. Perhaps this is what he was aiming at. After all, the jacket of the book describes it as "A novel of fevers, delirium and discovery."

Like all good science fiction, "The Calcutta Chromosome" makes you think. What is the nature of time? Can souls transmigrate through genetic tampering? Can the history of mankind be pre-written by a few? Amitav Ghosh has written a fascinating book with its sly and humorous mingling of science with myth. Capable of being read at several levels, it is the sort of story that remains with you long after you've shut the final page.

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