The Calcutta Chromosome is a 1996 sci-fi novel by Amitav Ghosh, a Calcutta-born British writer. The novel speaks of the secret society that influences the development of epidemiology and genetic sciences since the late nineteenth century in order to discover the secret of immortality through a complicated ‘reincarnation’ process of assimilating an external body with one’s chromosomes. Despite its complex futuristic and even theological themes, the novel presents a remarkable case of a post-colonial novel. Ghosh presents the future of cultural identity that resists being blended in a high-tech society of the near future, and, through making it interact with topics of mortality and negative theology of silence, provides a remarkably unique take on the traditional motifs of colonial legacy and cultural heritage.
The function of ‘post-’ in Amitav Ghosh’s version of the post-colonialism motif is rather subtle. Even though the significant part of the novel of a Calcutta-born writer takes place in his home town of Calcutta and in Colonial India in general, the fact that the protagonist of the novel is an Egyptian who speaks Arab makes the reader quickly forget about any assumed background knowledge on the author’s personality. Antar, a data scientist for an organization named the International Water Association (obviously, a very loaded name without any particular explication of its content in the novel itself), has a background of education in the Patrice Lumumba University of Moscow (a real institution found by the Communist Party to promote solidarity of scientists across the world), an experience of working in an international corporation known as LifeWatch and dwells in the New York City. The very first chapter of the novel provides a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, languages, and cultures that almost makes the reader believe in the truly post-national nature of the world presented in the novel. Antar talks with families from all across the Middle East makes an acquaintance with a Guyanese shopkeeper and faces a wide diversity of cultures at the streets of New York. The only details that may prevent a reader from believing in a post-national nature of the described world up until this point are that each of the mentioned labels is still relevant.
Nevertheless, even in the opening chapter, the tension surrounding the issues of colonial heritage and the specifics of the post-colonial order are subtly noticeable, providing the highlight towards the further exploration of the topics throughout the novel. Antar works on a daily basis with Ava, a global search engine with the human-like interactive system and human-like emotions and preferences who engage with Antar, tuning her personality for the ease of conversation yet trying to persuade him to work the way she likes the most. The nudging of habits and time management by artificial intelligence evidently bothers Antar. Avi speaks in the specific Nile dialect of Arab language Antar grew up with, yet, instead of speaking with the shallow simulation his own language, Antar prefers to visit the local Egyptian shop. Despite the successful yet somehow mundane career, the homesickness prevails: “For years he’d been dreaming of leaving New York and going back to Egypt: of getting out of this musty apartment where all he could see when he looked down the street were boarded-up windows stretching across the fronts of buildings that were almost as empty as his own” (Ghosh). The shallowness of multicultural and inclusive order where the elements of ethnic culture were simulated, whereas others, while exported, cannot substitute the authenticity of belonging to the places one was born. As a result, Antar’s rejection of New York is based both in the longing of authenticity and in rejection of the shallowness alike.
As it later reveals, Antar is a protagonist of the novel only in a somehow secondary sense. He is a person who investigates a series of events that happened way down in the past, in our past, during the Colonial era in India. The second protagonist of the novel is the one whose works Antar decided to investigate: Sir Ronald Ross, a Nobel-prize winning medicine doctor who discovered the world’s first vaccine from malaria. A well-established yet still somehow sudden transition to Colonial India reminds the reader of the author’s personal background, through the perspective of a colonialist, especially a stereotypical bringer of enlightenment and relief to the exotic realms that suffer from exotic diseases, reveal another twist in a post-colonial motif. The reason why Ghosh seemingly decides to dedicate The Calcutta Chromosome to a British medician and scientists quickly reveals the central plot of the novel: the clash and the twisting of Eastern knowledge and Western science. The Calcutta Chromosome misses both Watson and Creek period when genetic sciences became placed on the strong scientific foundation in its main story, as well as the period of late twentieth century rapid growth of the said sciences (which continues up until this day, way beyond the publication of the novel) to the distant future. As a result, the topic of chromosomes intentionally brought
The general topic of The Calcutta Chromosome relates to the mystical clash between the Western medical science and the Eastern theology that manipulates the progress in the first in order to progress the reincarnation program executed by injection of one’s chromosomes in the body of other human beings. However, despite the title of the novel and the central topic being linked to the mystical and oriental aspects of Eastern cultures, the final twist of the novel is that it functions as an internal critique of the West. The arrogance and ignorance of the bold and self-confident attitude Dr. Ross takes in the fictionalized version of his discovery of cure from malaria make him a puppet of the ancient Eastern plots – a mirror image of Amitav, who, in his best intentions, became a puppet of the metaphysical West that regulates and drives people from their local cultures using reasoning that is inaccessible from the perspective of people unengaged with the Western civilization. The incentives of self-developing technological progress and the invisible hand of the market appear as untransparent as the motives of Eastern mystics, yet every Western person becomes an object in the plot of the latter, just like it is the case with non-Westerners in the former.
To conclude, the ways in which Ghosh casually manipulates with perspectives and presumptions of a post-colonialist novel is remarkable and resembles an intellectual rollercoaster ride. I hope that, without disclosing many crucial plot points, I managed to convince your that Ghosh’s novel is worth reading, if solely because of his unconventional and unusual approaches towards the problems that remain relevant even nowadays, twenty-five years after the novel was first published.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery. Harper Perennial, 2001.