The one good thing that's come out of my having sat through this is, I now know a thing or two about mosquitoes, parasites and Ronald Ross. That's a pThe one good thing that's come out of my having sat through this is, I now know a thing or two about mosquitoes, parasites and Ronald Ross. That's a point in favour of Mr.Ghosh. The man is clearly a human encyclopaedia. Everything I've read of his, which admittedly isn't a great deal, has been packed with technical detail about whatever subject it is that he's taken upon himself to write about.
In The Sea of Poppies, he manages to build a powerful, thrusting narrative on the foundations of his trademarked academic rigour, making it, in the process, the towering achievement it is; in The Hungry Tide, on the other hand, there's a sense of the facts dominating the somewhat rickety plot, but the book works nevertheless, because the facts themselves command interest.
The Calcutta Chromosome is, of all things, an attempt at science fiction, which falls flat because there's almost nothing to chew on except the occasional monologue about the history and science of early tropical medicine. Fascinating as the subject is, it isn't substantial enough to hold an entire novel up on its own merits, and the lesson in all of this is, books mustn't be written for reasons of vanity alone; there's a point to stories that hold one's attention and tie up in the end.
Quite apart from that, and this comes as a surprise, the book is poorly written. The dialogue is weak - in what seems like an attempt to give the story's Mr.Murugan a little character, Ghosh saddles the poor man with cod-American speech, a move which has the opposite effect, and instantly cuts the poor man down to a caricature. What makes me even more uneasy are the translations of Bengali figures of speech, done tactlessly and literally - this bothers me a little in The Hungry Tide, and it bothers me a lot more with this book, appearing as it does amidst already leaden prose - chatar matha may fit seamlessly into Bengali; "umbrella head" sounds horrible and meaningless in English, and you'd think any author with an ear for dialogue would notice.
But the real crime is the plot. The entire story reads like something Ghosh made up as he went along - carroming wildly from era to era and sub-plot to sub-plot, all in aid of the thoroughly flimsy premise which has practically the entire city of Calcutta in on a senseless, unprofitable, untenable conspiracy, one which is neither interesting nor scary, merely... odd, lacking a point.
On top of this, each time the narrative paints itself into a corner, along comes a bizarre and unworldly coincidence or digression which sorts it all out. Now, I'm as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next man, but there's a limit, and this "Lutchman was actually Laakhan!!" and "Tara was really Urmila!" and "Mrs.Ana-whatever-it-was was actually the goddess of mosquitoes!" stuff is a cop-out which has very nearly succeeded in convincing me that when Amitav Ghosh started writing this novel, he had no idea where he wanted it to end.
In the meanwhile, the devices used to build up tension - the ghost train, the ritual that one of the women stumbles upon in the abandoned house - are arbitrary and simplistic; they come across as sort of thing one may try to scare kids with, but won't wash when you've paid money to read an award-winning novelist.
It's hard to think of the book as anything more than an academic's conceit, a little fantasy too obscure to engage the lay reader. The Calcutta Chromosomoe finds Amitav Ghosh floundering out of his depth, plays to almost none of his strengths, revealing instead all his shortcomings as a writer.