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book cover of amitav ghosh's the calcutta chromosome

The Calcutta Chromosome

If you’re looking for an intelligent novel in which a fascinating subject has been made into a memorable story by way of excellent research, you probably can’t go wrong with Amitav Ghosh. I’ve previously read The Hungry Tide with great enjoyment, a book which cleverly combines environmentalism and social issues. The Calcutta Chromosome is completely different, but equally worth reading: this extremely suspenseful medical thriller takes as its subject the malaria research of the English scientist Sir Ronald Ross, questioning the methods of Western science.

The Calcutta Chromosome offers up different temporal plains and a whole variety of characters. But everything hinges on a fateful encounter between Antar and Murugan. The two men, who work for an international data processing company, meet in a New York of the near future. Murugan talks about his hobby research on Ronald Ross, who won the Nobel Prize in 1898 for his work on preventative measures against the tropical disease malaria. Shortly after meeting Antar, Murugan travels to Calcutta on the trail of Ross, who had a laboratory there, and then mysteriously disappears without a trace. By coincidence – or is it even one? – Antar begins to search for Murugan in digital archives, and learns more and more about a curious Indian research group. This group seems to have come together in Ross’s time, and there is even evidence that, as laboratory assistants, they provided Ross with crucial tips for his research. Here, the colonial, Western self-image of superior progressiveness is cleverly challenged. But instead of trying to cure malaria, the Indian research group seems to be aiming for eternal life – via a kind of chromosome transfer that allows them to take over the body of another person.

The plot of the novel is quite complex and the timelines are deliberately confused. All this makes it difficult to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of Murugan and, as it turns out, other people – or to fully understand the research. In fact, it is frequently expressed in the novel that speaking out loud changes things. Silence and secrecy are central themes of the novel and apparently all those in the know are in danger, which gave me goosebumps several times while reading. The book is exciting right up to the last page. What I found particularly charming, apart from the lonely old Antar, were the ideas of what the future might look like, which are outdated from today’s perspective – The Calcutta Chromosome was first published in 1995.

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