Spirituality in The Calcutta Chromosome

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Gosh is a thrilling postcolonial science fiction set between the present, past and future.  Set in India yet with a touch of Western identity, the novel involves a computer programmer who comes across some valuable information that takes him back to the cure for Malaria.  He goes on a hunt to find out what happen to the missing L. Murugan, which takes him back to all of Murugan’s discoveries that he had so long been obsessed with.  The novel is a whirlwind of excitement with tales of mosquito’s, malaria, and cures for syphilis and at the same time there is something very spiritual going on between the native people.  Religion and spiritualism is a pressing theme in the novel as there is some sort of spiritual connection present during the ritual like gatherings where syphilis is “cured” by the Malaria disease.

Ronald Ross, the scientist who claimed to have discovered the manner in which malaria is conveyed by mosquitoes, was widely remembered and has a memorial in Calcutta.  On page 41 Murugan discovers a poem to the left of a marble figure of Ronald Ross.  The poem refers to God saying,

“This day relenting God

Hath placed within my hand

A wondrous thing; and God

Be praised.  At his command…” (Gosh 41).

Murugan, in his adventures, finds that Ronald Ross was used as a tool to help Mangala and her people become immortal even though he did not know it, “how do they speed up the process?  The answer is: they’ve got to find a conventional scientist who’ll give it a push… They can’t tell him what they know because of their religion” (Gosh 106).  The religion is very secretive.  From what we do know about it, it seems very spiritual with séances and Mangala has power over the people because of her knowledge, “clustered around the woman’s feet, were some half-dozen people… some touching her feet” (Gosh 150).  She uses her scientific knowledge during the religious meetings, “She folded her hands over it [bird] and her mouth began to move as though muttering a prayer.  Then suddenly a scalpel appeared in her right hand” (Gosh 152).  Sonali snuck into the house and accidently came across these spiritual worshipers, “They were chanting something and some were keeping time with drums…” (Gosh 154).  These little bits about religion make the novel a little eerie because we are never really sure what is going to happen.  The locals to Calcutta are the ones that are involved with the secret meetings held by Mme Salminem.  They were committed to keeping the secrecy between themselves and never share it with outsiders such as any westerners, “It ought to be noted that in general the Spiritualists, Theosophists and their fellow-travelers looked upon British civilian and military officialdom with undisguised loathing” (Gosh 209).  The mixing of science and religion occurred because they looked at Malaria as something more spiritual than just a disease, “it can be more hallucinogenic than any mind-bending drug.  That’s why primitive people sometimes though of malaria as a kind of spirit-possession” (Gosh 249).

There is a spiritual presence throughout the novel which is what made the story so intriguing.  The natives were not falling an ordinary sort of religion.  They were vowed to secrecy which created a barrier from the westerners that they despised so much.

Gosh, Amitav.  The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery.

Harper Collins: New York, 1995.

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