13 Jun 2013

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery

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"In the small laboratory seventy yards to the Southeast of this gate, Surgeon-Major Ronald Ross I.M.S. in 1898, discovered the manner in which Malaria is conveyed by the mosquitoes." 

Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

Amitav GhoshThe Calcutta Chromosome, published in 1996, is Amitav Ghosh's fourth novel. The events of this novel unfolds along three timelines spanning three centuries 1890s, 1995 & the twenty-first century. This novel can be considered as a historical novel, science fiction or a medical thriller. The major part of the story takes place in Calcutta in 1995. The book is based on Malaria; Surgeon Major Ronald Ross had discovered the mode of transmission of the malarial parasite through the female anopheles mosquitoes. For this path breaking discovery, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902.

The story begins when Antar, a computer programmer in New York, comes across a damaged ID card on his computer Ava. The card belongs to one of his co-workers, L. Murugan, who had been missing since Aug 21, 1995. He was last seen in Calcutta, India. With help of his super computer Ava, Antar investigates the disappearance of Murugan.

An Alternative Interpretation of Late 19th Century Malaria Research. Is There A Secret History?

As Antar's investigation moves further and further back into the past, we learn more about Murugan and his interest in the medical history of Malaria. He claims to be the greatest living authority on Ronald Ross. He believed that some secret group in Calcutta has interfered with Ross's research and pushed him from behind in a particular direction. Whenever Ross went wrong, they directed him to the right path. This group was lead by Mangala, a sweeper woman in Dr. D.D. Cunningham's laboratory at the P.G. Hospital, Calcutta and her assistant Laakhan or Lutchman. Silence and secrecy were the main principles of this group.

It was at Dr. D.D. Cunningham's laboratory, Ross discovered the Malaria bug. An Austrian clinician Julius Von Wagner Jauregg was actually ahead of Ronald Ross on the Malaria research. He was working on the clue that artificially induced malaria could cure Syphilitic paresis. But even before the Austrian in the 1890s, Mangala had achieved remarkable success in this field. Mangala herself suffered from Syphilis, whom Dr. Cunningham had found at Sealdah station and trained her as a laboratory assistant. Murugan believes that Mangala was a genius. She also knew that the anopheles mosquito was the vector of the malaria parasite long before Ross 'discovered' it. She had perhaps noticed that Malaria works on paresis through the brain. Like Syphilis, Malaria can cause irreparable damage to the brain, it can even cause hallucination. Mangala had developed a particular kind of Malaria that could be induced in pigeons. She had also developed the technique of transferring Malaria from a pigeon to a patient of Syphilis. Secretly she started treating patients in Cunningham's laboratory. In the course of her treatment, she noticed some side effects on her patients like strange personalty disorders. Gradually she discovered that she could transfer the personality traits of Malaria donor to the recipient via the bird. But after a certain stage, she had to find a conventional scientist to continue her work. Mangala chose Ross for the work. They gave him all assistance including patients, mosquitoes and volunteers.

Thus Mangala succeeded in transferring the personal characteristics from one person to another. It was something that ensured immortality for the donor and she was after this 'elixir of life'. Murugan called it the Calcutta Chromosome. The Calcutta Chromosome is unusual because it cannot be isolated and detected by standard techniques. Unlike our regular chromosomes, it is not present in every cell; it is found only in the brain. This mysterious chromosome resides in the malarial parasite. In 1995, Mangala chooses the body of Mrs Aratounian and later in the twenty first century, she has chosen Antar's neighbour Tara, that is Urmila Roy. Laakhan, for his part, was reincarnated as Romen Halder in 1995 and again as Tara's helper Lucky.

The laboratory of the P.G. Hospital of Calcutta is the place where Ronald Ross made the final breakthrough in his research. Murugan comes to Calcutta to investigate the 'secret history' behind Ronald Ross' discovery of Malaria's mode of transmission. On World Mosquito Day 20th Aug. 1995, he arrives in Calcutta. What happened to Murugan? 

Start reading ...

"WALKING PAST St Paul's Cathedral, on his first day in Calcutta, August 20, 1995, ...

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