THE CALCUTTA CHROMOSOME by Amitav Ghosh (Avon Books, 1995)
I really don’t know what to make of this novel. It’s as if the Indian author had an idea for four books and decided to cut his losses by batching them all together into one package. The result is that there’s a bit of Sci-Fi, a mix of historical fact and fiction, strands of ghost stories and a convoluted mystery tale spanning two centuries.
I pressed on hoping that the end would bring all these disparate elements together in an illuminating climax but sadly this was not to be. Instead, Ghosh seems to take perverse pleasure in adding numerous shaggy dog stories, each of which is sporadically interesting until you realise they lead the reader down a series of blind alleys.
The pursuit of the truth surrounding real life Nobel Prize winner Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) lies at the heart of the novel. A man named Murugan is obsessed by the medical history of malaria and with Ross in particular as he’s the man credited with discovering the vital link between the killer disease and mosquitoes. Murugan believes that other people lay actually behind this medical breakthrough and goes to Calcutta to try to piece together the circumstances behind the discovery. This brings him into contact with a wide range of characters.
By the end I confess I was none the wiser as to whether Ross deserves the acclaim or not and am at a loss to explain exactly what Ghosh was trying to achieve. I suspect part of my confusion is down to the fact that I am not in tune with the Indian mindset. Perhaps more of a familiarity with the settings would have helped understanding. As it is, I just found this a frustrating read.