Academic journal article MELUS

On Machines and Mosquitoes: Neuroscience, Bodies, and Cyborgs in Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

Academic journal article MELUS

On Machines and Mosquitoes: Neuroscience, Bodies, and Cyborgs in Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

Article excerpt

Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery (1995) traces the hidden dangers of modern science, exposing the constant threats that surround a futuristic world of new technology and postcolonial cybernetic warfare. The book magnifies concerns about the power of advanced technology to absorb into its fateful design all the nightmarish horrors that surround the spread of global terrorism, crime, disease, war, and empires. Suspicion about the Internet's potential to do massive harm increased during the mid-to-late 1990s, causing many to be concerned that, as James Saynor observes in his review of the book, the World Wide Web would "swallow us up--minds, personal identities, credit-card numbers and all--in a manner more scary than anything the electric brains managed in 'Nineteen Eighty-four' or '2001.'" (1)

Reminiscent of the experimental writings of Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, The Calcutta Chromosome defies easy categorization, being equal parts medical mystery, historical novel, ghost story, and postcolonial thriller. (2) In this cosmopolitan narrative, Ghosh tells the story of a displaced Egyptian immigrant, Antar, who remains secluded in a rent-controlled apartment building that conceals everyday violence and murder in the New York metropolis. (3) Behind the closed doors of each lonely apartment, many uprooted Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants are hidden and marginalized by a world of transitory existence, where they live in quiet desperation and die in relative obscurity. Antar spends his days working for and being monitored by a global mega-corporation, the International Water Council, where his pay has "been docked because of 'declining productivity'" (5).

The International Water Council attempts to make world history in much the same way that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe as epitomizing globalization's resurgent forms of empire: structural hegemonies perpetuate the neo-imperialist ambitions of multinational corporations, turning the so-called natives into docile, subservient laborers. The International Water Council aims to privatize access to the world's water supplies, advancing a broader corporatist vision to control all life. However, since the nineteenth century a secret society of Indian mystics led by the shadowy, slightly deranged, syphilitic figure of Mangala has been quietly pursuing its own experiments in the science of immortality. Mangala and her Indian subjects operate through secrecy, rumor, and silence; denied access to official lines of communication, they continue to advance their own politically insurgent ends. Ghosh suggests that British bacteriologist Ronald Ross, whose scientific experiments in malarial research garnered the Nobel Prize in 1902, was prompted by Mangala and her followers. Ghosh further depicts Mangala and her followers using the results of scientific experiments in the West to perform their own tests, building on science and counter-science to perfect a more sophisticated technology in "interpersonal transference" (107).

The key to the technology of transference--that is, to a scientific investigation into Hindu reincarnation--resides in the function of the host, which evolves in the novel from past carriers such as the mosquito or the pigeon to the present-day locus of the computer. As Claire Chambers explains, the host transports the "soul" from body to body (58). The "soul" has been isolated and named by scientific analogy as the "Calcutta Chromosome." L. Murugan, one of Antar's former coworkers in the International Water Council, comprehends just how global Mangala and her followers have become as they look for new chosen carriers and hosts to develop ongoing experiments. Murugan disappears, yet he reappears to Antar in his New York apartment as a startling holographic projection, informing Antar that he will be called to participate in the next and perhaps final experiment. …

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