The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Let’s admit that the railroad incident was the creepiest thing I ever read. The lumps of clay shaped like rudimentary pigeons were also bizarre, and the rituals and secret worshippers of colonial India were entirely, chillingly, plausible. Yet that alone does not a great novel make, and how this book won the Arthur C Clarke award for SF is beyond me.

Sure, it has a great start, some interesting ideas, is fast paced, has a shadowy secret society, a conspiracy – but it is convoluted and confusing. By the last page, you have run smack into a brick wall.

Antar, a low-level data analyst comes upon the lost and battered I.D. card of a man he once knew, a man who vanished without a trace somewhere in the teeming excess of Calcutta. Strangely compelled, Antar initiates a search into the facts behind the disappearance of L. Murugan, and is drawn into a bizarre alternate history of medical science.

Leaping backward in time we join Murugan in Calcutta as he follows the twisted threads of science, counter-science and ritual, back a hundred years further to the laboratory of Ronald Ross, the British scientist who discovered how malaria is transmitted to humans. It seems the real-life Ross wasn’t trained in medicine, yet his independent research led to a Nobel prize.

Obsessed with the weird, fortuitous coincidences that led to Ross’ groundbreaking discovery, Murugan has stumbled upon evidence of an impossible ongoing experiment in controlled destiny, protected by a powerful unseen society that moves the world in secret and in silence. This shadowy cabal seeks to use the malaria virus in their schemes – to what end?

The atmosphere is surreal and Ghosh is a good writer, but The Calcutta Chromosome ends up as a mishmash of fever, delirium and some discovery, but I am not entirely certain of what.

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