The Calcutta Chromosomeby Amitav Ghosh
From Victorian lndia to near-future New York, The Calcutta Chromosome takes readers on a wondrous journey through time as a computer programmer trapped in a mind-numbing job hits upon a curious item that will forever change his life. When Antar discovers the battered I.D. card of a long-lost acquaintance, he is suddenly drawn into a spellbinding adventure/b>
From Victorian lndia to near-future New York, The Calcutta Chromosome takes readers on a wondrous journey through time as a computer programmer trapped in a mind-numbing job hits upon a curious item that will forever change his life. When Antar discovers the battered I.D. card of a long-lost acquaintance, he is suddenly drawn into a spellbinding adventure across centuries and around the globe, into the strange life of L. Murugan, a man obsessed with the medical history of malaria, and into a magnificently complex world where conspiracy hangs in the air like mosquitoes on a summer night.
When AVA/IIe, a nearly omniscient global computer system of the LifeWatch department in the densely bureaucratic International Water Council, discovers a fragment of an ID lost in the sea of information, Antar, a lonely, widower Egyptian who crunches numbers on the system in his drab Manhattan apartment, innocently directs the computer to reconstruct it, simultaneously activating hidden resources within the system while also jogging Antar's memory of the manic L. Murugan. Murugan (also known, with a cross-cultural wink, as Mr. Morgan) is a fastidious Indian and former LifeWatch employee whose obsession with malaria research compelled him to transfer to Calcutta in 1995, after which he abruptly vanished. As he did in "The Shadow Lines", Ghosh jumbles chronology here, hopping restively from Murugan's feverishly surrealistic Calcutta to a chatty luncheon in which Murugan lectures interminably about malaria, then back to 1895, where Victorian scientists stumble on a Calcutta cabal in which individuals biologically transfer their personalities to achieve a kind of genetic reincarnation. At the heart of this dizzy mess is a comic examination of identity in an evolving multicultural milieu, but Ghosh's trademark touch for absurdist magical realism ("The Circle of Reason") and ironic cultural clashes (the nonfiction "In an Antique Land", 1993) renders the story this time both unreasonable and unbelievable.
Densely intricate, logorrheic spoof of commercial suspense fiction from a skilled writer who should know better.
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If the system hadn't stalled Antar would never have guessed that the scrap of paper on his screen was the remnant of an ID card. It looked as though it had been rescued from a fire: its plastic laminate had warped and melted along the edges. The lettering was mostly illegible and the photograph had vanished under a smudge of soot. But a four-inch metal chain had somehow stayed attached: it hung down in a rusty loop from a perforation in the top left-hand corner, like a drooping tail. It was the chain that tripped the system, not the card.
The card turned up in one of those routine inventories that went flashing around the globe with metronomic regularity, for no reason that Antar could understand, except that it was what the system did best. Once it got started it would keep them coming, hour after hour, an endless succession of documents and objects, stopping only when it stumbled on some thing it couldn't file: the most trivial things usually.
Once it was a glass paperweight, of the kind that rain snow flakes if you turn them upside down; another time it was a bottle of correcting fluid, from an irrigation overseer's office just south of the Aral Sea. Both times the machine went into a controlled frenzy, firing off questions, one after another.
Antar had met children who were like that: why? what? when? where? how? But children asked because they were curious; with these AVA/IIe systems it was something else-- something that he could only think of as a simulated urge for self-improvement. He'd been using his Ava for a couple of years now and he was still awed by her eagerness to better herself. Anything she didn'trecognize she'd take apart on screen, producing microscopic structural analyses, spinning the images around and around, tumbling them over, resting them on their side, producing ever greater refinements of detail.
She wouldn't stop until Antar had told her everything he knew about whatever it was that she was playing with on her screen. He'd tried routing her to her own encyclopedias, but that wasn't good enough. Somewhere along the line she had been programmed to hunt out real-time information, and that was what she was determined to get. Once she'd wrung the last, meaningless detail out of him, she'd give the object on her screen a final spin, with a bizarrely human smugness, before propelling it into the horizonless limbo of her memory.
That time with the paperweight it had taken him a full minute to notice what was going on. He was reading: he had been lent a gadget that could project pages from a magazine or a book on the far wall of the room. So long as he didn't move his head too much and hit the right key in a steady rhythm, Ava couldn't tell that she didn't exactly have his full attention. The device was illegal of course, precisely because it was meant for people like him, who worked alone, at home.
Ava didn't notice the first time but it happened again with the correcting fluid: he was reading, staring at the wall when she went deadly quiet. Then suddenly warnings began to flash on his screen. He whisked the book away but she already knew something was up. At the end of the week, he received a notice from his employer, the International Water Council, telling him that his pay had been docked because of "declining productivity," warning him that a further decline could entail a reduction in his retirement benefits.
He didn't dare take any more chances after that. He took the gadget with him that evening, when he went on his hour long daily walk to Penn Station. He carried it to the franchise doughnut shop where he was a regular, down by the Long Island Railroad ticket counters, and handed it back to the Sudanese bank-teller who had lent it to him. Antar's retirement was only a year away and if his pension rates went down now he knew he wouldn't be able to work them up again. 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.
He stopped trying to get the better of Ava after that. He went back to his job, staring patiently at those endless inventories, wondering what it was all for.
Years ago, when Antar was a boy, in Egypt, an archaeologist had turned up at the little hamlet where his family lived-on a strip of land reclaimed from the desert, on the western edge of the Nile Delta. The archaeologist was a woman, a very old Hungarian émigré with skin that was as brittle and closely veined as a dried eucalyptus leaf. No one could pronounce her name so the village children named her al-Magari, the Hungarian.
The Hungarian visited the village several times over a period of a few months. On the first few occasions she brought along a small team of assistants and workers. She'd sit in a canvas-backed chair, under an enormous hat, and direct the excavations with a silver-tipped cane. Sometimes she would pay Antar and his cousins to help, after school, or when their fathers let them off from the fields. Afterwards the boys would sit around in a circle and watch as she sifted through the sand and earth with brushes and tweezers, examining the dirt with magnifying glasses.
"What is she doing?" they'd ask each other. "What's it all for?" The questions were usually directed at Antar, for he was the one who always had the answers at school.The Calcutta Chromosome. Copyright © by Amitav Ghosh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Writer and anthropologist Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and spent his childhood in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and northern India. He studied in Delhi, Oxford and Egypt, and has taught in various Indian and American universities. He is the author of three books: The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines and In An Antique Land and has written for The New Yorker, Granta, The New Republic and The New York Times. Mr. Ghosh and his wife, Deborah Baker, live in New York with their two children.
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The Calcutta Chromosome is the third novel by Indian author, Amitav Ghosh. Egyptian-born Antar, an employee of the International Water Council sits working from home in his New York flat, monitoring his computer’s processing of a mind-numbingly boring inventory, thinking about a walk to Penn Station and dinner later with his neighbour, Tara. Suddenly, his attention is drawn to a charred ID card with the LifeWatch logo, and he begins to remember an encounter with an eccentric colleague, a man obsessed with a certain malaria pioneer, and intent on going to Calcutta, one L. Murugan. So begins Ghosh’s tale of fevers, delirium and discovery, a tale that spans centuries and continents. The story careens back and forth between some unspecified future time in New York, 1995 in Calcutta, 1950 in Alexandria, 1933 in Renupur and the 1890s in Calcutta. The cast of characters includes an archivist, an Armenian nursery owner, an Indian movie star, a revered Indian writer, a journalist, a computer analyst, a Hungarian Countess, a property developer, a syphilitic lab assistant, a babysitter, an American missionary, a Finnish spiritualist and a British Surgeon-Colonel in the India Medical Service. Syphilis, malaria, mosquitos, pigeons and clay images all play a part. This novel has elements of mystery, sci-fi, thriller, history, fantasy and there’s even a little ghost story in there. And somehow it all connects up to result in a very different page-turner. Ghosh’s characters, especially Murugan, are engaging and readers will find themselves involved in his quest, eager to go along for the ride. Quite extraordinary.