Mosquito Bites and Computer Bytes: Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome
by Martin Kich
[This article originally appeared in Notes on Contemporary Literature.]
The Calcutta Chromosome is a "serious" novel written in the manner of a thriller. It is set in the near future but reaches back into the Victorian world. The protagonist, Antar, is a cyber researcher/file clerk who works at a terminal in his apartment in a marginal New York neighborhood. From this unremarkable station, he helps to sort through a virtual rubbish heap of international bureaucracy–including not only documents but also all sorts of other detritus of "official" life–which is incessantly inventoried by a super-computer called Ava.
By chance, or so at first it seems, Antar comes across the identity card of Murugan, a former co-worker who had disappeared in Calcutta while seeking to substantiate the theory that had consumed him and had made him a target of ridicule in the scientific community. Murugan had become convinced that Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery of the mechanism by which mosquitoes transmit malaria was in fact the singular evidence of a conspiracy of "counter scientists" who had transcended Western science in their recognition of its obverse. And so the seemingly simple accident in Antar’s coming across one of Murugan’s old identity cards provokes his dogged investigation of the incredibly convoluted complexities of Murugan’s theory and of his disappearance.
In Ghosh’s fictive world, a simple cause can have extraordinarily complex effects and a simple fact can contain the essence of extraordinarily complex truths. The pattern that underlies all of the diverse historical periods, geographical settings, characters, situations, and themes of this dense but gripping novel is analogous to the principle of phrase-structure rules in generative grammar: that is, an infinite number of variations can be generated from a very finite set of variables.
This principle is, of course, evident in the very simple binary coding that has remained the basis of computer programing despite incredibly rapid advancements in hardware, operating systems, specialized software, networking, and multimedia applications.
Likewise, this principle is evident in the mutability of the protozoic parasite that the mosquito transfers into the bloodstream of the malaria sufferer. Though cellularly it is no more complex than the amoeba, this protozoan has the ability not only to enter into the blood cell that it then consumes but also to adopt the genetic characteristics of that cell, making it extremely difficult to eradicate the parasite without further compromising its host. In the fictional science of Ghosh’s novel, this mutability can be traced to the so-called Calcutta chromosome.
Thus, the ancient metaphysics of reincarnation and the futuristic possibilities of genetic engineering become fictionally linked in a secret Indian cult that has discovered how to use the Calcutta chromosome to transfer their genetic essence through a succession of host bodies. (They have, ironically, discovered the mechanism for this process by analogy from successfully treating some patients suffering from end-stage syphilis by exposing them to malarial mosquitoes.) Ultimately, Antar’s connection to Ava, the super-computer, becomes itself a mechanism for this sort of transference of identity. This eventuality pushes us well past cybernetics into a reality in which encoded data is served by, rather than serves, cellular biology.
In The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh provides a multi-leveled exploration of issues of identity. As in his other books, Ghosh is concerned here with the contrasts between Western and Eastern mindsets, with the cultural ramifications of the diaspora of nonwestern peoples, and with the economic and political vulnerability of women, minorities populations, and other marginalized peoples.
But, more than anything else, Ghosh is concerned here with what defines identity at its most basic level. If we can imagine an entire individual being replicated or regenerated from a single sample of DNA, how are we now to define the "soul" or the "self"? Or, in corollary terms, if this is truly an information age, how do we define ourselves if not as information, if not as data? That is, how can we continue to separate ourselves from the world outside of our selves? If we can imagine a thought being transmitted or accessed like any other electronic transmission, how are we to separate the private and public aspects of our selves? Is the concept of "privacy" to become as outdated as, say, the belief in guardian angels? If data can be copied to us much as viruses enter our bloodstreams, how are we to know exactly who or what we are? And, finally, if we can achieve immortality but only at the expense of our familiar physical selves, how can we measure our losses against our rejection of death?
The malarial protozoan is self-replicating. When it has exhausted its food source, when it has devoured a blood cell from the inside out, it dies and its offspring flood out into the bloodstream. Most of them also die in a brief, frantic search for new hosts, but a few do manage to insert themselves into other blood cells. Of course, when an individual dies of malaria, all of those protozoa perish with their host. The only survivors are those that have been carried to new hosts by mosquitoes. Thus, the model that this cycle provides is that of an arbitrary process by which expendable individuals insure the proliferation of the species.
To recognize the cyber equivalent of this phenomenon, one has only to visit a computer recycling center. How much data exists in silicon chips that appear to be nothing more than mere bits of junk? How many millions of megabytes of data have been entered and lost–or, more precisely, abandoned–in the pursuit of ever more efficient and ever more voluminous data entry? Or one has only to wander electronically among Internet sites that have not been updated for several years to gain a profound sense of the hopeless open-endedness of the World Wide Web.
And, of course, the broader human equivalent of these phenomena–the tens of millions of human beings arbitrarily sacrificed in just this century to the promulgation of various -isms–fills the hole between the novel’s framing events in the 19th and the 21st centuries. As Joseph Stalin once callously observed, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics."
The personal computer and the Internet have been acclaimed for providing the means to self-fulfillment, even as they have been denounced for promoting self-involvement. They have been acclaimed for providing unprecedented access to information and unprecedented opportunities for communication, even as they have been denounced for permitting unprecedented invasions of our privacy. In The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh has confronted issues that will be with us for a long while and has produced a thriller invested with all of the resonance of myth created very close to its source.