The Calcutta Chromosome
by Amitav Ghosh
[hardcover, $23.00, 311 pages. Avon Books]

reviewed by William P. Meyers

Antar is a water bureaucrat who spends his life glued to a computer screen in New York City. Malaria is a disease caused by a parasitic protozoa; it is one of the commonest and deadliest diseases in the world even today. Antar leads a very dull life, but a minor matter has arisen, via his computer, that reconnects his life with one Murugan, who was a fanatic about malaria. Years before Antar had a long talk with Murugan, who also worked for the water bureaucracy, and who was about to depart for India. Murugan disappeared not long afterwards. Now the computer has presented Antar with the image of an almost destroyed ID card, that of Murugan.

Malaria is not your run of the mill disease. It causes both chills and fever, usually delirium, and possibly alters the very relationships of the brain’s neurons. Reality and imagination melt and congeal in the heat. Murugan had suffered from malaria, and was obsessed with its history. An Englishman, one Ronald Ross, of no prior accomplishments, discovered in a few years the disease vector for malaria (a particular type of mosquito, genus Anopheles), when some of the greatest scientists in the world had been looking for decades, without finding. But for those who get involved in the story of malaria, dying of malaria itself is not their only concern.

Murder appears to be on the menu, and stranger still, people who should have died long, long ago are lurking around. There appears to be a religious cult of some sort in India centered around malaria, and the members appear and disappear into the plot, like hallucinations from the tropical fever. The deeper into the history and science you go, the weirder The Calcutta Chromosome gets. This is a story of a quest for a Hellish Grail. It is deeply involving, wonderfully constructed, and certainly the best horror story I have read in years. Thank Nature I am already an occasional drinker of gin and tonic (which contains quinine, the old cure for malaria). Otherwise the story would be just too creepy to bear.

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