Academic journal article ARIEL

Networks of Stories: Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

Academic journal article ARIEL

Networks of Stories: Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

Article excerpt

  "[K]nowledge [can]'t begin without acknowledging the impossibility of
  knowledge." (Calcutta 104)

Amitav Ghosh's fourth novel, The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) is a complex, quasi-science fiction narrative set in the near future. It centres on the Egyptian-born Antar's attempt to find out why his former colleague in a New York-based conglomerate, Murugan, disappeared while on leave in Calcutta. Using computer-mediated communication and holographs, Antar discovers that while researching the real-life scientist, Ronald Ross (1857-1932), Murugan had uncovered the workings of an Indian "counter-science" group. This cult was apparently the driving force behind Ross's Nobel prize-winning discovery that malaria is transmitted by anopheles mosquitoes. The group comprises shape-shifting subaltern figures, including the scavenger woman Mangala and Ross's favourite servant sometimes known as Laakhan. The group experiments with pigeon sacrifice and religious rituals in an ultimate quest to achieve immortality.

Beneath the novel's multiple layers of narrative lies a debate about knowledge and power relations. (1) This paper's epigraph, "knowledge [can]'t begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge," is taken from a pivotal, if paradoxical speech by Murugan, and wittily encapsulates one of Ghosh's most compelling dilemmas as a writer. How can one challenge the totalizing impetus of the knowledge that has been imposed by the West on its former colonies, without reproducing its claims to universal applicability? Murugan's identification of a knowledge that recognizes its own "impossibility" draws both on postmodernist thought (2) and on a strain of Hindu thought which indicates that recognizing that one does not know everything is the first step towards knowledge. This philosophy is illustrated in the Upanishads, in which it is stated:

  One thing, they say, is obtained from real knowledge; another, they
  say, from what is not knowledge. [...] He who knows at the same time
  both knowledge and not-knowledge, overcomes death through
  not-knowledge, and obtains immortality through knowledge, (qtd. in
  Sen 128)

This interesting quotation cannot but resonate for the reader of The Calcutta Chromosome, both in its creation of a space for the coexistence of conventional knowledge and its mysterious antithesis, "not-knowledge," and in the connection it makes between knowledge and immortality. The implication given both by this passage from the Upanishads and Ghosh's novel is that conventional knowledge is useful, but only when its limitations are recognized.

What are the types of knowledge that are interrogated in The Calcutta Chromosome? I contend that the computer-aided research of Ghosh's protagonists, Antar and Murugan, reveals fissures in the claims of Western science to autonomy and universal applicability. Ghosh makes allusions to Indian, Egyptian, American, and British texts on subjects as varied as malariology and Gnosticism. In doing so, he challenges the artificial frontiers drawn up to separate academic disciplines and texts in a style that recalls the following statement by Michel Foucault:

  [t]he frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the
  first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal
  configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of
  references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node
  within a network. (23)

My way into this novel is to examine specific instances of its diverse use of intertextuality and to analyse the way in which Ghosh's creation of an encompassing network of references impacts upon the novel's debate about the indeterminacy of knowledge. Ghosh's allusions to a wealth of stories from different cultural traditions represent, I suggest, an attempt to challenge the "claim to know" (Calcutta 103) of Western scientists such as Ross. Ghosh countervails the rigidity of scientific discourse with complex layers of stories. …

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