Book Review: The Calcutta Chromosome

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There are stories which live a life even after the book is finished.  The tale of The Calcutta Chromosome surely lives that way.  Not because it is profound, not because it is life changing but because it has a great plot and an even greater build up to the finishing line but an unresolved and unsettled ending.  But despite its ending, which may disappoint and leave the reader craving for few answers, The Calcutta chromosome is a mesmerizing narration of a unique tale, the tale which cuts across the times and the places and the persons.

Let me analyse the book on few parameters:

1) The Scope:  It is difficult to classify this book under a particular genre, perhaps it is a Sci-fi medical thriller. The book has a flavor of science, of superstition, of medical, of religious cult and of some astonishing characters, all being enmeshed and encrusted in a nice recipe.

Those who have read Amitav Ghosh’s other works can say that this is an experimental piece of writing.  And for the major part of the experiment (almost its entire span) the book lives a captivating life.  (Read my other review of Amitav Ghosh’s work – https://enlightenedsid.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/review-the-shadow-lines/)

Rating: 3.5/5

2) The Theme:  The protagonist, L Murugan, is obsessed with Ronald Ross who had received the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work on malaria.  The Protagonist believes that Ross had serendipitously discovered the cure for malaria and there is much more to his discovery which is yet unresolved and that is the Calcutta Chromosome.  In his quest to unravel the chromosome he travels to Calcutta. On the way to solve the mystery, he unearths several interesting anecdotes and meets range of characters.

To write on an established technical subject and then to question it, requires a skillful handling and a deep research. And, Amitav Ghosh, once again, as he has done in his other works, has shown his prowess in research.

Rating: 4/5

3) The Characters: As always, Amitav Ghosh has presented a delicious range of characters.  Besides the intriguing and obsessive Murugan, there is Antar who has a supercomputer AVA at his disposal.  There is Mangala, a cleaning woman at the laboratory who becomes an immortal Demi God through her brilliance. There is four fingered assistant of Ross, Laakhan.  And then there are two women journalists, one of them with an aura of celebrity around her.   And there is a writer, Phulboni and the story which narrates his involvement in the chromosome puzzle is simply breathtaking; the best I have read in recent times.

Amitav Ghosh has been brilliant in describing the humdrums of the characters.   For the magical way in which he has woven different characters in the story, I rate him high on this parameter.

Rating: 4/5

4) The Flow of the plot:  The story navigates through different timelines and places and genres.  From the past(about Ronald Ross’s work) to the present  (about Murugan and his disappearance),  and from New York – (where Antar is trying to trace the disappeared Murugan) to Calcutta (where Murugan along with a woman journalist is trying to unearth the Chromosome mystery).

The navigation of the story is often confusing, perhaps Ghosh has choosen too many dimensions – time, place, people, the complex subject and of course the genre – to cover.   There are some parts which while reading may make you feel as if you have missed a chapter or two, and there are parts where you might have to re read the previous parts to understand the flow.

Considering the multiple dimensions covered, the overall flow of the story has been built superbly. The build up leads to the adrenaline rush and high expectation towards the end. But towards the end, Amitav Ghosh has been disappointing.

Just because the book has left many questions unsettled, I give it one rating less.

Rating: 3/5

5) The Language and The Tone:  Language is Brilliant and Tone is Earnest!!  I have always admired Amitav Ghosh for the way he describes the simple stories using compelling language.  I admire the writers who are able to use pinpoint verbs to describe even a mundane action.  I believe that it is difficult to use appropriate adjectives, a bit more difficult to draw persuasive analogies and perhaps most difficult to describe the everyday feelings and actions in an earnest tone.  And when it comes to that description, Ghosh definitely ranks among the best.

Examples:  Look at the usage of verbs in the bold:

  • WALKING PAST the pavement stalls on Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road, Urmila caught a whiff of the irresistible smell of fish cutlets and dhakai parotha wafting through the doors of the Dilkhusha Cabin.
  • There was a window above the sink, and by craning his neck he could just about see the back of Tara’s apartment, on the far side of the building’s air-shaft.
  • His sense of well-being returned now, as he sat in the gentle breeze, listening to the  chorus of frogs and crickets that came welling up from the flooded fields below
  • The journey took eight hours, but to the young writer it seemed to pass in a matter of minutes. Long before he had slaked his appetite for the landscape, the guard appeared to tell him that they were almost at Renupur.
  • Sonali gave him a nod and a distant smile. He swallowed convulsively, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a fisherman’s float.

 Rating 5/5

Overall Suggestion: A definite recommendation. Yes, if one reads books only for the stories then one will not like it.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Suggested Book Reads for a Beginner (Fiction): | Enlightened Sid

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