The Calcutta Chromosome, Science, and Time

The Calcutta Chromosome, Science, and Time


Scientific hypotheses generally come in the form of “if . . . then . . .” statements, and thus they predict a specific chronology: first one thing happens, then another. But what happens when you lose track of this neat chronology? Amitav Ghosh’s science fiction novel The Calcutta Chromosome challenges the idea that scientific research is a tidy, linear process. In a similar challenge to the temporal structure of science, in his book Science, the Very Idea, sociologist Steve Woolgar argues that what we consider scientific knowledge is not some objective, omniscient truth, and that “representation,” or scientific explanations, in fact precede and constitute “objects,” or the natural phenomena themselves. One of The Calcutta Chromosome’s protagonists, the doomed Murugan, states that “to know something is to change it,”1 and embarks on a convoluted journey to discover the mystery of the Calcutta chromosome, piecing together bits of knowledge from all over the past century. The Calcutta Chromosome’s nonlinear, and at times confusing, narrative alongside Woolgar’s claims present scientific inquiry as a constant back-and-forth, which proceeds and recedes at the same time. Scientific knowledge is thus presented as something elusive and fluid rather than totally concrete, and time plays a much more complicated role in scientific advancement than just the simple chronology implied by “if . . .then . . .” statements.

One of Woolgar’s boldest claims on the nature of scientific knowledge is that there is no “antecedent objective status”2 of the scientific discoveries we make. Scientific knowledge is only our attempted representation of the natural world; Woolgar refutes “the antecedent existence of a fact or thing independent of some representative practice.”3 The representations we know as the laws of science and of nature arise from our “different social networks . . . the beliefs, knowledge, expectations, the array of arguments and resources, equipment, allies and supporters.”4 Woolgar thus implies that the chronology of scientific knowledge begins with the ideas formed by these social networks, then the subsequent representations made, and finally the “discovered objects” themselves, which differ based on the “constituency of different social networks.”5 Thus, if objects succeed their representations, science does not involve the consistently linear progression of time we typically assume it does. The cause and effect relationship is inverted as the effect, our knowledge, seemingly leads to the cause, natural world phenomena itself. While this claim is certainly controversial, for a nonlinear novel like The Calcutta Chromosome, it can help make sense of the ways in which Ghosh plays with temporality and causality. 

The “object” in the novel that is in sharpest focus is malaria, whose various representations are at the core of the mystery surrounding Murugan’s obsession with the Victorian-era scientist Ronald Ross and Murugan’s subsequent disappearance. Deciphering the mystery takes Murugan, and later Antar, his colleague at LifeWatch (a defunct public health nonprofit), on a time-bending journey where they must individually face the unfamiliar new chronology of representations, then objects. 

Roughly speaking, the novel moves from the present-day where Antar finds a digital copy of Murugan’s ID and is reminded of his former colleague’s disappearance, to his and Murugan’s conversations about malaria and Ross the year he disappeared, then back and forth between the work of different scientists studying malaria in the late nineteenth century, then again to the year of Murugan’s disappearance, and finally to the present day; within these periods there are even more smaller shifts. 

Murugan was at one point a successful, boisterous scientist, whose once normal work and home life was upended by his manic fascination with Ross. For decades, up until his disappearance in Calcutta, Murugan’s research had focused on “the medical history of malaria,” studying this topic “to the detriment of his own career”; his dedication eventually led to his “ostracism from the scholarly community.”6 Murugan’s work and the intensity with which he pursued it was considered bizarre, particularly since no one understood what his true objective was—harnessing the power of the consciousness-transferring Calcutta chromosome. To accomplish this goal Murugan has to abandon the normal “if . . .then . . .” structure of scientific inquiry and reconcile malaria with its various representations from the nineteenth century onwards. If malaria as a scientific object has, as Woolgar states, no “antecedent objective status,” its existence is different based on who is representing it, which proves a major issue in Murugan’s quest for the Calcutta chromosome. While it’s never directly stated where he began his research, it can be assumed that it was from the Western perspective, specifically working with Ronald Ross’s findings, who had received the Nobel Prize for uncovering the mechanism behind malaria’s transmission in 1902. Murugan later uncovers the work of a fringe Indian scientific group who pushed Ross toward his discovery, out of their belief that “to know something is to change it.”7 By subtly guiding Ross’s research in a new direction, they believe they are “effecting a mutation” in this knowledge. To the fringe scientific group, Ross’s discovery is a pesky “dead end” they need to find a way around; to Ross, it was the greatest achievement of his life, a long-awaited answer to one of history’s most mysterious diseases.8 Ross views malaria as a disease that impeded Western imperialism while the group of Indian scientists see it as a stepping stone to immortality. These varying representations of malaria have no cause rooted in the natural world, as Woolgar indeed says is impossible, and thus the concept of “malaria” is fluid and ever changing. 

When dealing with the Western interpretation of malaria, seemingly divorced from that of the Indian group, Murugan has to recreate their representation of the disease by scouring archives from all different years, moving back and forth between different times. A letter from 1894, written by the unknown scientist Elijah Farley, detailed the sexual reproduction of malaria, which one of his superiors, W.G. McCallum only realized in 1897; as Murugan states, Farley “already knew what MacCallum hadn’t yet discovered.”9 Murugan has to note which scientists knew what, and at what times; like how the concept of Laveranity, first developed in 1880 and which revealed the existence of malaria parasites, was all but shunned for nearly two decades. Ross was “on the anti-Laveran bench” himself, until convinced otherwise by his superior, researcher Patrick Manson, in 1895.10 Prior to his disappearance, Murugan had explained this and similar turns in medical malaria research in a nonsequential order to his coworker Antar, reflecting the amorphousness of the knowledge itself. The scientists’ various representations of malaria followed no simple “if…then” timeline as they struggled to reconcile one to the other.

Murugan describes the fringe Indian scientific group as “counter-scientific,” which, as he explains it to Antar, is a response to traditional science done outside the bounds of traditional research.11 The ringleader of the novel’s “counter-science” group is an Indian woman, Mangala, who Farley refers to as “untrained and uneducated.”12 Interestingly, her research is done in the anteroom to her employer’s, Western scientist D.D. Cunningham’s, laboratory (where Farley and Ross worked as well). The prefix “counter” is used to “express the doing of a thing or performance of an action in the opposite direction or sense,” while the prefix “ante” is used to describe something “preceding in place or position.” A temporality can be inferred from these definitions: something that is “counter” is done in reaction to another preexisting thing, which could be considered the “ante,” as it “precedes” the “counter.” Mangala accomplishes her counter-scientific (or otherwise “post-scientific”) research in the room that precedes where the initial scientific research is accomplished. This irony points to a symbiotic relationship between science and counter-science; without one, the other cannot exist (or at least, advance). Mangala’s form of counter-science develops thanks to the resources she accessed at the laboratory, with the equipment and techniques a result of years of Western scientific work. Before entering the lab it is likely she focused more on the spiritual aspect of her work, but after becoming Cunningham’s rather unassuming laboratory assistant, she is able to build upon existing scientific understandings of malaria and learn far more about the disease than her Western counterparts. Then, in turn, she can manipulate further scientific research, particularly that of Ronald Ross; Murugan goes so far as to say that Ross became himself “the experiment on the malaria parasite.”13 To “speed up the process” in Mangala’s research of the Calcutta chromosome, she begins redirecting Ross’s research by sending him one of her followers, Lutchman, who helps Ross disprove existing Western theories of malaria and instead uncover the Plasmodium malaria parasites. Mangala and her counter-scientific group’s idea that “to know something is to change it” aligns with Woolgar’s idea that objects are constantly shifting representations; once Ross is made aware of a new representation of malaria, he can further effect a new change in it, one that proves beneficial to Mangala’s purposes.14 The counter-scientific research in the anteroom permanently changes the traditional scientific research in the laboratory, and vice versa. 

Ghosh additionally weaves in issues of the political with the temporal. The discord between Western science and delegitimized knowledge of those like Mangala is tied to the relationship present by “ante” and “counter.” The anteroom is supposed to be a mere transitional area before the lab, not a room of discovery on its own—the “ante” suggests it is lesser, an addendum rather than the center. If the practice of science itself followed a simple timeline, then that means the science practiced by Ross and his Western contemporaries would have developed from the rather crude techniques of those like Mangala. But this is untrue, as counter-science sprung from legitimized science, a fact that would certainly bristle Western scientists; Cunningham refers to Mangala as “just the sweeper-woman” with “no harm in her,”  and Farley was stunned that she “had come to exercise such authority” in the laboratory and astounded as to why “she had chosen to deny” showing him the malaria slides with Laveran’s parasite.15 Mangala possessed the power to both stunt and progress regular science, depending upon the representations of malaria she chose to divulge.

The Calcutta Chromosome not only details Murugan’s complicated account of medical malaria history and its ties to spirituality, but also Antar’s discovery of the Calcutta chromosome and the facts behind Murugan’s disappearance through an artificial intelligence system, Ava (provided by Antar’s employer).  At the very end of the novel, with the help of  documents and recordings of Murugan’s uncovered by Ava, Antar learns that his next-door neighbor Tara and friend Maria are in fact results of Mangala’s experimentation with the Calcutta chromosome. This is the final foundation for the novel’s musings on the spiritual ramifications of scientific inquiries into malaria. Tara is presumably a transplantation of the character Urmila’s chromosomes, who herself is partially a transplantation of those of Mangala and Mrs. Aratounian (whose apartment Murugan had stayed in during his fateful trip to India). The line between these three separate characters is blurred practically beyond recognition; where one person begins and the other starts is impossible to pinpoint, the timeline of three different people–with all of their experiences, memories, and existences–morphs into one. Antar is chosen for this process presumably because Tara/Mangala/Urmila/Mrs. Aratounian is interested in the fact he had a “freak case” of malaria as a child in Egypt, where “rates are pretty low.”16 The crisscrossing of all these different timelines and the fluidity of their identities creates a new representation of each person involved, further complicating the science behind malaria.

The Calcutta Chromosome is certainly a difficult novel to follow as it details the history of malaria, made even more complex by its disregard for linear structure. But this isn’t to its detriment; Ghosh presents a new way of considering natural world phenomena, not only malaria but also identity, as he separates them from their “antecedent objective status.” Woolgar’s idea of representations and scientific knowledge leading to the objects and phenomena themselves provides a framework for the subverted temporality in both scientific and “counter-scientific” work, and the overlap in time, rather than its simple linear progression. Both Ghosh and Woolgar present scientific knowledge as fickle and constantly evolving, further out of our control than is comfortable.

  1. Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery (Picador, 1997).
  2. Steve Woolgar, Science, the Very Idea (University of Michigan Press, 1988).
  3. Woolgar, Science, the Very Idea.
  4. Woolgar, Science, the Very Idea.
  5. Woolgar, Science, the Very Idea.
  6. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  7. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  8. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  9. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  10. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  11. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  12. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  13. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  14. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  15. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
  16. Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome.
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