EN 4262 Calcutta Chromosome Seminar Notes

Amitav Ghosh’s 1995 novel The Calcutta Chromosome (CC) is unusual in several respects.  Firstly, it is one of very few South Asian texts to use a science fiction premise.  Social realism has been the dominant mode of Indian Anglophone writing, with some surrealist/mythic/magic realist elements (most notably in Rushdie’s writing, but also more recently in Vikram Chandra (especially Red Earth and Pouring Rain) Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis), and some others.   Arguably CC is not strictly “science” – the more inclusive term “speculative fiction” (used by theorists who note that there is often a thin line between science fiction and fantasy) might fit a bit better.  But CC is not only science fiction + fantasy, but also has elements of the supernatural/gothic, plus a strong native knowledge/magic element that of course does not usually crop up in the Western-dominated genre of speculative fiction.  It is as much a version of Dracula as it is an anti-colonial novel, or a historical novel, or a collection of folklore/mythology tales, or a fictional account of a topic in the history of science.  In terms of genre, as well as because of the chronological and spatial spread of the novel, the absence of a true protagonist or central narrator, CC is a difficult novel to read.

            Ghosh’s other novels run through quite a range: from historical epics (Glass Palace, the “Ibis” trilogy’s 2 existing novels to date, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) to family dramas (Shadow Lines, and elements in his other novels), social dramas with magic realist elements (of which Circle of Reason is probably the best example), romances with environmental themes (Hungry Tide).  However, if there is an underlying theme in common in all these novels, it is border crossings and displaced peoples.  The refugees across the India-Myanmar border in Glass Palace, the unsettled fisher-people and migrants living in the tidal flats of the Sundarbans in Hungry Tide, the migrant workers trying to make a living in the Middle East in Circle of Reason, all indicate Ghosh’s underlying concern with persons displaced by exigent circumstances, the abject migrants of globalization and the world’s history of socio-political upheavals. 

            This quasi-“Marxist” sensibility in Ghosh applies to CC as well, and gives us a clue to read this tricky novel.  We can see it as an undoubtedly experimental novel, but one that is centrally concerned with the condition of the underclass (whether historically, in colonial times, or in the global present).  The novel is in many ways a fantasy of empowerment, but one that perhaps also contains a cautionary tale about the cost of empowerment within transnational existence.


History, Science, the Anti-Colonial Novel

One possible reason there has been a relative dearth of science (or speculative) fiction novels (per se – not including magic realist elements) in Asian writing (including Asian Anglophone writing) is that there is an instinctual alignment of science/technology with the West – with the project of 18th C Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the system of global trade (“political economy”) and the colonial system that are all aligned with Western Europe (and to a lesser extent, the U.S.) from the 18th century until (arguably) today.  This is certainly not to say that Asian countries haven’t had long scientific traditions – in areas like agricultural sciences, geosciences, astronomy, biosciences (herbal remedies, ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture), countries like China, India, Korea, Japan and others have traditions of knowledge that are millennia old.

            However, in the popular consciousness “science” is associated with the West and with the industrial revolution.  This is due to a number of reasons: the narrowed definition of “science” to mean practical and mass-produced technology of the modern era (spread through modern branding, advertising and global trade), so that things like the steam engine (translated into trains, the railway system, steamboat travel), mass household conveniences like electric lighting and the telephone), the mass-market motorcar, get prioritized.  This has partly meant the appropriation of folk knowledge by big companies which then “own” (legally or in popular consciousness) the knowledge (e.g. aspirin, based on traditional herbal remedies like willow bark, before it became mass produced, synthesized and rebranded; or Red Bull, based on a Thai drink Krating Daeng before it was “discovered,” modified and rebranded by an Austrian company).  The power system of the era of European colonialism meant that control of property (including intellectual property) tended to flow into the hands of the colonial masters, while native knowledge was either appropriated and transformed, or else conclusively repudiated as “superstition” or unverifiable “belief.”  Western institutions like the scientific academy, academic journals, and also popular presses, ensured that Western discourses and narratives of (Western) knowledge were prioritized (including among natives, who in the colonial era were inducted selectively into such Western institutions, either in the colonial capitals like Calcutta and Singapore, or else in the metropolitan centres of London, Paris).  The net result is that “science” becomes ideological, deeply inflected with the rationality, scientific methods, verifiability, laboratory premises and control/dissemination established by the West, and everything else becomes defined as non-science, “nonsense.”  For the native mind, science then becomes either an ideological trap (an induction into Western assumptions and methods, to the denial of any alternative including native knowledge), or a thing that excludes the native and is to be feared.  (If interested, see Gyan Prakash’s excellent book on “science” in India, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India).

            Ghosh’s CC works from this starting point, re-creating a colonial milieu in which English scientists and the academy ride on native knowledge before appropriating it, translating it into fame and property (the Nobel Prize), and in the process abandoning and deriding the native knowledge that helped enable this scientific discovery.  At one level, CC is an anti-colonial exposé of the exploitative power bases of Western science.  This exploitative power base is depicted, not only in turn of century India, but also in the modern day, starting with Anwar effectively chained to his desk by technology (the “Big Brother,” or “Big Sister” of the AVA/IIe computer system which detects his efforts at bricolage and relaxation, and reports him within a punitive system that may dock his pay or benefits).  Anwar’s employer the International Water Council is the model of a huge faceless MNC that has already “absorbed” his former employer LifeWatch.  Anwar lives in a New York City that also exhibits the economic effects of global capitalism: his building is initially a ghetto of migrant labourers, but any sense of real community that might have been built up there over the years is killed off by the dehumanizing (abstracting?) effects of commerce:

They were all gone now, all those noisy, festive families that had so attracted Tayseer.  They had been syphoned slowly away into small towns and suburbs by the demands of their expanding businesses and their ever-growing families….

At first he had expected that the building would fill up around him after his old neighbors left – just as it had in earlier generations, with one wave of migrants moving out and another moving in.  But somewhere down the line the pattern had changed: an alteration in the zoning regulations had prompted the building’s owners to start converting empty apartments into commercial properties….

Every year the building grew emptier of people, while the storage spaces expanded. (p. 16)

The ideological and consequential links between past and present in CC show a process of intellectual, cultural and economic exploitation that has been continuing from at least the 19th C until the present, and one in which the White European position is dominant over those of various coloured peoples (Egyptians, Indians and others). 

            The critique/indictment comes in several forms: the characterization of the colonial scientists, with their incompetences and arrogance, their pride in their achievements and methodologies while actually being reliant on (and manipulated by) their own native servants and assistants.  CC also shows the various forms of dehumanization and abstraction that the colonial/capitalist system entails: the kind of racial dehumanization in which White colonial rule just cannot recognize the possibility of native intelligence and power; the socio-economic disregard of the powerful for the abject (because the exploitative power of the powerful is dependent upon disregarding the inequality of the system and the misery of the worker); the obstructive, faceless and bureaucratic power of the modern-day global corporation; and the relentless and inescapable tyranny of technological surveillance (the Anwar-Ava pairing).

However, CC is not merely a kind of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist critique, but also a

fantasy of the empire/native “striking back”: a fantasy of power reversals, secret and shadowy native cults that escape the power mesh of the global West/North and actually constitute an alternative (because unrecognized) power base.  The storyline is partly a kind of quasi-“Marxist,” left-leaning romance of the underdog/abject, in which s/he finally attains ascendancy and an equitable (if not superior) position.  It’s also partly conspiracy-theory narrative (think X-Files), positing the existence of a shadowy alternate reality and cult society the “proof” of whose existence is precisely the secrecy and lack of proof.  Thus it’s also partly detective novel, Murugan as detective trying to uncover the mystery of Ross’s secret manipulators in 1895 (and incidentally falling into the path of those same manipulators, still at it in 1995); but also Antar as detective in the present time (200x?) trying to uncover the mystery of what happened to Murugan in 1995 (and incidentally also falling into the path of the same shadowy group).  There is thus also a gothic novel element, since this native “counter science” offers a kind of non-rational, almost supernatural alternative that challenges and subverts conventional science and rationality – i.e. there is something “monstrous” in the novel (in the gothic sense of the word), revealing that which has long been concealed (and would be less threatening if still concealed), uncovering the “unheimlich” (literally “unhomely,” but more broadly “uncanny,” profoundly unsettling) of an immortal, transcendent group masquerading as servants and abject cosmopolitans in our midst.


CC, Dracula, Science and Supernaturalism

Parallels with Dracula abound, more in spirit and structure than in explicit allusions. 

·         Roughly same time period (at least for the historical part of CC) – fin de siècle, last decade of 19th C.  Same context of the age of science, Western empiricism and technology overcoming “Eastern” irrationality (but meeting unheimlich resistances along the way).

·         Blood: Not just a common focus on blood, but also a common (colonial/postcolonial) concept, of blood as the socio-political unheimlich, because it is that which is most intimately oneself (DNA, procreation and genetic legacy, health, sexuality), yet also that which is so difficult to police and regulate (the various invisible/minute disease vectors such as air, drinking water, insects and animals, sexual).  In Dracula, blood infection highlights the possibility of the East striking back against and infiltrating the colonial West; in CC, it goes one step further, revealing the impossibility of even identifying and becoming aware of infiltration within a globally-mobile world.

·         The monstrous (immortal) Easterner: Both novels are novels of West-East interaction, in which the power bias towards the West is obvious.  Both novels (Dracula more implicitly/unconsciously, CC more deliberately) undercut that power bias by depicting an Eastern figure(s) who is powerful and also threatening, thus conferring power without reversing existing biases in any overt or simplistic way – i.e. the monstrous Easterner is a powerful figure who at the same time (by virtue of being monstrous) is also threatening and destabilizing, not just to the West.  Monstrosity, it is suggested, may be the only way for subalterns/empires to “strike back,” but it is a way that is at best ambivalent.

·         Narrative Structure: both novels use fragmentary narratives (cp. also TWT).  CC uses multiple detectives/narrators (Antar, Murugan, Urmila primarily – but also to a certain extent Sonali, colonial figures like Farley and Grigson who are intrigued by Lutchman or Mangala).  It also uses fragments of different types of documents, from Murugan’s missing ID card to Farley’s letter to Eugene Opie in Baltimore (which goes missing from the archives right after M first sees it, which he then reconstructions from memory, which he emails to Antar and Antar deletes without reading, which Ava then reconstructs imperfectly) to Phulboni’s stories to the fragments of newspaper Urmila finds with her purchased fish, etc.

This Dracula-like narrative (the parallels are so numerous and significant that the term is warranted) seems to arise, as much (or more) from the socio-political realities that the two novels have in common, despite their 100-year or so gap in publication (colonialism, neo-colonialism, abjects, subtalterns, transnationalism, capitalism), as from any deliberate or intentional mimicry on the part of Ghosh.  In other words, the instructive similarities (while not denying the differences between the two novels) points us to the enduring problematics of racial-political power and capitalist abstraction from the late 19th C until now.

            We haven’t talked much about capital, and it doesn’t seem to loom as large in CC as themes like blood, race, science vs supernaturalism etc.  But as in Dracula, capitalism and its cognates are ubiquitous.  Often we are looking at capitalism through the lenses of the abject laboring class, and through the abstraction of labour which is the other side of capitalism’s coin.  i.e. the fact that all these workers lose jobs, are threatening with loss of jobs, move around willy-nilly, are powerless in the face of the machinery (whether colonial capitalism or contemporary global capitalism), points to the ubiquitousness of the machine.  If Mangala’s counter-science offers a kind of corrective (albeit an ambivalent and monstrous one) to colonial/Western science, the question is whether it offers a corrective to global capitalism?  Can these native immortals live outside of the capitalism system, let alone propound an alternative system?


The Female and/as Goddess

CC obviously offers very different possibilities for the role of women in Indian society as compared to TWT, GST or indeed most if not all of the other novels on this course.   A big part of the reason is of course the speculative fiction element – if you’re going to posit a shadowy native cult based on arcane knowledge rather than the real conditions of colonialism and Indian caste/gender biases, then of course you can get away with making the head of that counter-element a woman rather than a man.  To do so in any kind of social realist narrative tends face criticism of being unrealistic.

            But speculative fiction is not entirely free from existing social conditions (which are often the implicit or explicit starting-point for speculative worlds, and are often touched upon as periodic “reality checks”).  If Mangala is a figure beyond real social conditions, other women characters (particularly Urmila) are not.  In Urmila’s life, especially, we see a poignant glimpse of how constraining Indian familial/social conditions are on women. 

            And at any rate even Mangala, despite being a fantasy figure, is not entirely free from real social constraints.  The very fact that she has to work in the shadows (manipulating colonial scientists without being seen to do so; moving in the alternate society/economy of migrant workers) already shows one limitation of a “shadowy” leader.  Another problem is created by the depiction of Mangala as a monstrous figure, as much a consumer of identities as a preserver. 

            Derived in some ways from the equally ambivalent figure of Kali, the patron goddess of Calcutta?  If Hinduism allows some scope for female power in the figure of goddesses (the shrine that Murugan discovers in the hospital grounds gestures towards the many localized shrines which do permit goddess worship all around India), and if fantasy narratives allow us to imagine alternative power to that in real society, this does not necessarily remove ambivalences and problems.


Time, Space, Transnationalism: The Dislocation of Identity

All in all, CC is a problematic novel when it comes to questions of identity.  Firstly, there are the narratological problems: unlike more conventional social novels which tend to follow the POV or interior mindscape of 1 or at most several characters (e.g. TWT – for all its textual playfulness, we pretty much follow only Balram’s narrative and perspective, even if it’s not fully trustworthy).  In CC, we don’t really know which character or narrator to follow, which one forms (as it were) the central perspective of the novel.  Antar is probably the best bet, but the narrative shifts so frequently to Murugan, and also is further diluted in the perspectives of people like Urmila and Sonali, then briefly but significantly into the sub-narratives of a whole range of people like Grigson, Farley, Phulboni etc., that Antar’s position as the narrative/protagonistic centre is destabilized.  

Added to this is the disorienting time-space movement of the novel: from 1895 (Ross’ time) to 1995 (Murugan’s trip to Calcutta) to “present time” (Antar’s recovery of the past – presumably in the year 2000-something).  Spatially, we move from Secunderabad to Calcutta to New York, with minor points (Madras where the séance circle meets, Renupur where Phulboni has his supernatural experience, Baltimore etc).

In a way, these unsettling time-space transitions help convey something of the equally unsettling (or more so) time-space transitions that the immortals must go through.  i.e. we seem to be asked to put aside the unities of time and space that we as rational citizens (and readers of realist fiction) always expect.  i.e. narrative in CC might be a way of trying to break readers out of the hegemonies of Western scientific expectation, cause-and-effect, etc. 

That’s what we might say if we were trying to find and justify a parallelism between form and content, between Ghosh’s core theme of abject transnationals and the narrative form he has chosen.  But what if we want to ask questions, not about narrative conventions and rational expectations of cause-effect etc, but rather about more basic humanistic things like “identity”?  What gets conveyed by the Calcutta chromosome (memory?  Personality?  Voice?  Affections?  All, part, or none of the above), and what doesn’t?  Who does “Mangala” become – Mrs Aratounian (presumably/possibly) – but in the present, is it Tara or Maria?  What happened to the personality-group known as “Urmila,” or “Sonali,” then?  Why is Murugan still disembodied, a kind of virtual or digital identity in Ava rather than occupying a physical body?  If Lutchman’s manual handicap seems to be transmitted from body to body, why not other impairments – do impairments then form part of our persistent identity?  What happens to Antar at the end of the novel (or past the last page, as it were)?

Are readers permitted to ask these questions, without being accused of falling into the trap of conventional knowledge-models, conventional narrative forms?  Put another way, we might ask: what exactly is the value of a “shadowy,” “counter-science” world and society, if some of the basic human conceptions of the unity and persistence of identity don’t hold true?  Would Antar actually want to “cross over” – what if he ceases to be “Antar”?  Isn’t the unsettling dislocating effect of the counter-science’s crossing over essentially the same as the dehumanizing effect of transnational capitalism?