Poking around in a lavender-scented, air-conditioned, bookstore in a shiny mall, on the outskirts of New Delhi, the kind frequented by India’s rich pseudo-intellectuals, I’d seen a copy of “The Calcutta Chromosome,” by Amitav Ghosh, neatly stacked on a display island.
I picked it up, skimmed the first page and then, put it down. A purchasing decision dictated by the perverse logic of why buy a book by an Indian writer in India, made me choose another, by a Western author.
Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was all the rage at the time. So, I ended up buying that.
Thinking back now, I wonder, why I didn’t purchase the former, or both. As I see it, at the heart of both these novels is a secret society.
Brown’s work centers on “The Priory of Scion,” an European military-religious organization founded in 1099, and the “Opus Dei,” a deeply devout Catholic sect, a prelature of the Vatican.
Its members, it’s believed, are people with access to power, monetary, intellectual, or governmental. Its $47 million headquarter, located at 243 Lexington Avenue, in New York City, bears testimony to its exalted status.
But the underground cult that “The Calcutta Chromosome” delves into is nothing like what Tom Cruise’s character in the film, “Eyes Wide Shut” encounters.
There are no masked elites, no elaborate sex rites, no chandelier-lit mansions. It has none of the attributes usually associated with secret societies of the West.
Its followers are a bunch of ordinary, invisible folks, who serve the privileged. Yet, they’re the custodians of powerful knowledge whose revelation—unlike in the Da Vinci Code—won’t deal a shattering blow to a religious belief, but will profoundly impact humanity in a benign manner.
“A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery,” it’s a historical fiction that tells the story behind one of the epochal discoveries of the 20th century: the field of malarial research.
It begins in New York City, at an undisclosed time in the future. Ava, a gee-whiz polyglot computer that can generate holographic images, comes across a frayed ID card.
The action kicks off when its master, a semi-retired employee of a hush-hush non-profit health agency, attempts to track its roots.
A rummage through a stack of old office files reveals it to be that of a former co-worker’s, believed to have disappeared several years ago, in 1995.
Further, the records indicate, it was his obsessive interest in the medical history of malaria that took him to Calcutta, the city where the British bacteriologist Ronald Ross, did groundbreaking studies that bagged him the Nobel Prize in 1902.
That took place on the grounds of the Presidency General Hospital, which housed one of Asia’s finest laboratories of its time.
The reader is transported to 1895, the year that Ross, a doctor in the British-Indian Army, began laying the groundwork for his monumental work.
The plot’s central plinth is that Ross’ findings weren’t accidental, but were part of another’s grand scheme. All along (and unbeknown to him), intelligent forces conspired to nudge him in the proper direction.
Seemingly inconsequential menials—a fish-seller, a servant, a sweeper—who pop up unexpectedly in several settings, appear to be the real masterminds, who’re on the verge of developing a cutting-edge technology.
But they aren’t in it for either fame or fortune. Their modus operandi isn’t based on scientific principles. If anything, it’s “counter-science.” Guided by the belief that the act of knowing alters a phenomenon, they operate covertly and silently.
[Ross] thinks he’s doing experiments on the malaria parasite. And all the time it’s him, who is the experiment on the malaria parasite.
Just suppose, you believed that to know something is to change it, it would follow, wouldn’t it, that to make something known, would be one way of effecting a change. Or, creating a mutation, if you like.
Now, let’s say there was something like science and counter-science. Thinking of it in the abstract, wouldn’t you say that the first principle of a functioning counter-science would have to be secrecy?
The way I see it, it wouldn’t just have to be secretive about what it is (it couldn’t hope to beat the scientists at that game anyway); it would also have to secretive in what it did. It would have to use secrecy as a technique or procedure.
It would in principle have to refuse all direct communication, straight off the bat, because to communicate, to put ideas into language, would be to establish a claim to know—which is the first thing that a counter-science would dispute.
Fact is that we are dealing with a crowd for whom silence is religion. We don’t even know what we don’t know.
Till the last page, one is left with an uncertainty as to who’s in the driving seat. But, by the end of this intricate storyline that straddles two continents and three time zones, one realizes that “The Calcutta Chromosome” isn’t really a “chromosome” in the genetic sense.
And hence, it’s neither hereditarily acquired nor transmitted. Which is why, it would escape detection by hard-nosed scientists.
It’s an element—one doesn’t quite know what—that would enable the transplantation of one’s mind and soul onto another body—something along the lines of mental cloning.
The employee, who’s believed to have “disappeared” early on in the book, hasn’t really. He’s only reappeared in another physical form.
What these guys were developing is the most revolutionary medical technology of all time … What these guys were after was much bigger, they were after the biggest prize of all … I’m talking about a technology for interpersonal transference.
Just think, a fresh start: when your body fails, you leave it, you migrate … You begin all over again, another body, another beginning … a technology that lets you improve yourself in your next incarnation.