Primitiveness, uncanniness and the sacred occultism of the inhuman -- pairing with the human chromosome and the scientific enquiry

Sarika Goyal

Human advancement from the irrational, primitive and crude to the refined, logical and technical has been a gradual process that saw its acceleration in the heathen world during colonialism. These power structures centred on dissemination of knowledge had ambiguous character—one of charity under Christian religion and second of establishing supremacy over other races. Europe sent its youth with scientific temper, ability for military exploits and expert tradesmen to the other continents to plunder the wealth enshrined in those lands and wrote a discourse eulogising its sons and their motives. They remained oblivious of the fact that there are some counter currents of thought and belief detrimental to their progress or at least potent enough to erect walls of resistance.

The present paper analyses the continuity of this discourse in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Calcutta Chromosome and its effect on the larger schema of world anthropological trends and belief systems. Though the novel is much debated upon by critics yet it explores the occultism in the work in a novel way. The paper is limited in its scope as being centred on just one work of the prestigious author.

Keywords: Chromosome, uncanny, silence, postcolonial, non-human

The Calcutta Chromosome is a novel beyond the narrow confines of a science thriller1. Whereas most of the thrillers unravel the mysteries they weave up, this one actually lulls all attempts to enquire into the nature of primitive and occult to a deep slumber or better silence. Every human attempt at breaking the ice or deciphering the secret codes will be punished by the deity of the silence.
During the release of his latest novel, Gun Island2, Amitav Ghosh points out that all his obsessions and passions exist in continuity in his works. It is this commune with some traumatic events in his life, hallucinations he has dreamt or encounters he had with the surrounding non-human forces that manifest in his works and will continue in the same fashion till he achieves his moment of epiphany which he terms as an attempt in fiction to record the ecological danger or by letting ‘the non-human speak in the literature’ (The Hindu).
On the surface level, the novel appears to be a postcolonial study that mocks at the manner, agency and the reasons behind the discovery of malaria. The failure of significant authorities to decode the occultism establishes the supremacy of the primitive, uncanny and the occult over the advancement and nobility of scientific enquiry and enlightenment respectively.
Grigson3, who was familiar with the ‘phonetic structures of the languages and dialects of Eastern India’ leaves Secunderabad in a hurry unable to decode the eerie presence of some non-human agency that demanded silence. His epistemic command over the local dialects pose a serious comparison to the supercomputer programmed to stimulate localization of the rural dialect of the Nile Delta. This shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism of the superpower faces a dramatic turn when Antar, in a bout of malarial fever, notices Murugan, all naked and tied, in his room and is directed to meet his funeral if he makes further attempts to gain knowledge. Grigson, the linguist, realizes that Lutchman takes time to respond to his name and asks him, ‘So your name is really Laakhan isn’t it? Isn’t that how they say it where you are from?’ (The Calcutta Chromosome, 79) In his attempt to get to the mystery, he lands at two images – one of a railway signal lamp with red glass and the other of a man whose ‘left hand’s only got four fingers and no thumb.’ He gets a nightmarish experience in return when he’s chased between the railway tracks by some weird presence with a lantern leading him to a fatal accident that he manages to escape. Phulboni bows to the agency of silence after a similar experience in the early years of his career.
The colonial masters brought the network of railways into India, trained local men in shunting and signalling activities but failed to deploy a station master at weird places like Renupur where people are drawn and murdered. The hunger to invade the interiors of the country is met with silence of an uncanny presence that evades attempts to tame it. It is interesting to point out that the English brought non-human creatures, the animals from the forests into the Zoo. D. D. Cunningham was attached to such a zoo in Calcutta. Though animals have not been projected as an agency in The Calcutta Chromosome, he talks about the tigers of Sunderbans as possessing that greater intelligence deprived to humans (The Great Derangement5) yet in a recent interview he discusses how Pre-modernist Bengali literature had no barriers between the human and the non-human.
Renupur was a small station with a board, side track and a signal room. Phulboni was told that here the ‘forests offer good hunting’ (212). The gun powder, the instrument of tyranny and power, fails before the uncanny and the eerie. Phulboni fired at the lantern but could not damage it; instead the non-human lantern throws him before an invisibly approaching train and brings him to the temple of silence.
Plundering of natural resources, altering the normal course of life, discovery of destructive weapons and expansion of markets for English products are the themes recurrent with postcolonial writers. Whereas Ngugi6 talks about linguistic colonisation, Mo Yan7 about the reduction of agriculture to produce for British Industry, Ghosh has a larger vision. He criticises and lays bare the derangement that began with opium trade, establishment of harbours to obstruct the flow of water in and out of deltas, discovery of colonial medicine to end epidemic, use of gun powder, end of local royalty and their humanitarian concerns and destruction of ecosystems all in the pursuit of wealth and not for any Christian ideal. Amitav Ghosh knew that gunpowder hunted tigers of the Sunderbans and his interconnecting chains of thoughts brought him to the publication of ‘Gun Island’.
R.K. Narayan in his novel ‘Waiting for Mahatma8’ also emphasises how jungles were cleared to make wooden ships for the world war and local men were engaged to bear the burden of planks and large trunks. The ‘ship’ therefore, is a recurring metaphor in Ghosh. It dominates and steers his Ibis trilogy, it becomes the agency that brings about migration of people to and from colonial nations, it stands as a badge of power over the vast seas sitting as a monarch with its large sails, initiates petrifiction with steamers and is the real monster or the weird non-human object that haunts Deeti9 (Sea of Poppies) – a theme that will be explored elsewhere. The ships built by deforestation may have succeeded in advancing colonial dreams but are ultimately rewarded by ‘the furious floods’ and ‘the hungry tides’. Renupur is also flooded and hides tracks- the colonial scratches on its land. Its inhuman voice that shrieks out ‘Laakhan’ takes vengeance on those who attempt to master it. Though ‘a train that connected Calcutta to the cotton market of Barich passed through it every day’ yet no one had descended there for years. In a similar vein, Ghosh remarks for the Sunderbans Delta-
 ‘the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist’ (The Great Derangement, 9).
The ‘ship’- the powerful agent forcing human migrations could not regulate or suppress the migration of non-human vectors as is evident from futile attempts of imposing quarantine over the ship-borne visitors from India (D D Cunningham, Wikipedia, over his research on cholera in Calcutta).
 The floods and tides forcing people for ‘an ecological refuge10’ and thereby bringing newer chromosomal combinations to the extent that purity of genetic code appears to be a myth is again a recurrent motif. The Calcutta Chromosome adds another link to these hereditary connections where mosquito is the vector and malarial fever is the agency that carries the information of malarial fever over the world connecting India, Egypt, Britain and America sweeping a hand over other lands that fall beneath. As per Nayar, this chromosome has nothing to do with the gene code; rather it is the soul that transmigrates (Nayar, Kunapipi, 53).
Ghosh articulates that whereas man keeps on recording his limited knowledge that he takes as great discovery, nature keeps on erasing it over other planes of time and space and at times wipes out the footprints of human history in entirety. The secrets that human beings keep submerged or hidden from their annals lie exposed and eroded with tumultuous winds and volcanic eruptions. It’s hilarious that the learned botanist D. D. Cunningham who performs an extensive entomological research on wasps, bees, ants, mosquitoes, butterflies and moths suggesting their structure, habits, stings and the ways to avoid getting stung  knows little about his human subjects. The ‘Plagues and Pleasures of Life in Bengal’ ( may celebrate his scientific discovery of non-human creatures and water-borne disease, it fails him to comprehend the occultism of his trained people—Mangala11 and Lutchman (The Calcutta Chromosome). These human subjects are mechanical assistants in his study of human vectors in the laboratory. He remarks, ‘Oh, she’s just the sweeper-woman . . . She’s a bit of a dragon,’ and She’s a little touched’. . . ‘And this chhokra-boy here is a bearer who I’ve trained to help with my slides’ (119).
This intermingling of fact and fiction is a deliberate attempt to underline what Ghosh wanted to project that the western system of information recorded things as per their interests and ambitions and second there writings are one-sided and ignore the other. Their habit of making copious notes, sometimes truck loads of it are in sharp contrast to the illiterate locals who could pass that information through the collective memory or the package of protein coats transferring through their DNA. Pramod K. Nayar quotes Hayles that there is ‘a cross between the materiality of informatics and the immateriality of information’ and reiterates that ‘Ghosh traces the multiple, complicated and messy traversals of information’ (Kunapipi, 54). He also highlights the western hegemony that thrives on creation, packaging and dissemination of information. Chambers also finds that the Ross archives have 30,000 catalogued items saved carefully for posterity and there is complete silence in his Memoirs about Indian laboratory workers. It is further argued by her that ‘scientific knowledge and the ideology of science [. . .] can be “actively redefined in the milieu of a recipient culture” where the receiving society “subverts, contaminates and reorganises the ideology of science as introduced by Europe” (Postcolonial Science Fiction). How far has this ideology of counter-science of native cultures been subverted, underestimated, partially incorporated or made to hibernate for an indefinite time period is an open question.
Remarkably, Cunningham suffered from worst attack under the influence of Mme Salminen, “There is nothing I can do: the Silence has come to claim him” (The Calcutta Chromosome, 176). Farley had a similar fate. He was crushed onto death in Renupur. Herein Ghosh makes reference to ‘the most sacred site of the ancient Valentinian cult: the lost shrine of Silence’ (177). This silence is the primitive, sacred occult of the orient and it leaves uncanny experiences for those who seek to rupture it. These uncanny experiences are no less than traumatic disorders that do not leave you the same and bring about certain kind of transmigration of souls12. Phulboni, the writer remarks that silence is not inanimate, “indeed that word is to this silence what the shadow is to the foreshadowed, what the veil is to the eyes, what the mind is to truth, what language is to life’ (24). The silence is the mediator between the human and the non-human, it is contradictory to scientific discovery as it ‘creates a single perfect moment of discovery when the person who discovers is also that which is discovered’ (253).  Phulboni, Murugan, Antar, Farley all fall a prey to her.
Curtiss13 of ‘The Order of the Christian Mystics’ describes it as ‘the reservoir of the Divine Life-Force’ whose ‘steady pressure is back of all evolution’ (The Temple of Silence, 25). She believes that it ‘sets the limits to which inharmony or rebellion against the great law can go” (26). For her, human consciousness is transcended with the last sense of personality once you reach this ecstatic state. Ghosh with a touch of magical realism converts this ecstasy into occultism where this force changes bodies to materialize its plan—to preserve its secrets from all forms of human knowledge. He reverses the process of knowledge acquisition. “Our historical fixities are questioned” (Tiwari, boloji). The novel satirises the colonial powers with their assumed supremacy over knowledge and its discovery. Ross aimed to serve only queen and her throne and wanted to earn fame and was nostalgic for lack of humdrum over his Nobel (Ross, The Anniversary14). The Christian mystics, on the other hand, want human beings to share the food of Egypt among all and help others in famine. It reminds them to lose their individual personalities and forget that “I am of the West and they are of the East” (The Temple of Silence, 19). It orders them to love humanity as “no longer are they of foreign lands or different tongues.”
Ronald Ross makes a fervent plea to God in the poem “Indian Fevers”: ‘O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure/The unseen small, but million-murdering cause’ (Poetry of War). Ghosh creates the whole fictional web around the discovery of malaria by Ronald Ross that made him win a Nobel. Ross worked in Indian Medical Service. Like other servants of the empire during the First World War, he was worried about the safety of the soldiers who were sent to places where tropical diseases were virulent. He talks at length about the presence of crescents in pigmented cells found in the mosquitoes fed on malarial blood in a medical journal ( Ghosh discredits him of all discoveries where a secret force manifests things in the most uncanny and occult fashion. It was half witted Mangala, a syphilitic who fed mosquitoes on pigeon blood the specimen slides of which could show asexual zygotic reproduction in malaria parasite. According to Ghosh, Ronald Ross wanted to earn fame by this discovery and he ‘offered money for samples of malarial blood- real money, one rupee per prick!’ (60). He got services of a dhooley-bearer for this as no one else would agree to his witchcraft little realising that the sweeper boy was just an agent of the great occult that made this discovery possible. Whereas Ross succeeded in discovering the parasite and its mode of reproduction, the occult woman succeeded in deciphering the Calcutta Chromosome where malarial bug cuts and pastes its DNA onto the host and keeps on travelling to other patients by altering its coat-proteins.
Unbelievable it may seem, but it holds key to one of the most celebrated opinions of the author- passage of genetic traits/information to other individuals across nations apart from standard gene pool formed by mating of people from different races and cultures with mosquito as the vector. This uncanny belief helps Ghosh to achieve with remarkable success a fiction rooted in history yet far removed from it. This is as Groot notes that ‘the popular historical text is both nationally specific and nationless . . . It is both colonized and colonizer, playing out a fantasy of control over the otherness of the past, while being the representational product of the past’ (Remaking History, 50). What Ghosh wrote is not historiography but pure fiction that raises doubt over European intentions of controlling disease by experimenting over human subjects. The historicity of the story lays in Ross memorial, locale and time of discovery only - shreds of information that are blown to various degrees to achieve the required fantastical effect.
R C Lewontin talks at length about the basis of racism that started with European colonialism and has reached its culmination in America where racism was supported with ‘the grosser physical difference of hair, skin and bone’ and every attempt was made through the doctrine of DNA so ‘that the blood stay pure’ (Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test). There are modern instances of artificially replicating genome of animals15 for the newer economic benefits. In the backdrop of such genetic purity16 a fictional narrative of inheritance of DNA code via a non-human and occult vector ridicules scientific advance and discovery.
On the whole, Ghosh constructs a retrogressive desire to primitivism and occultism. The highly analytical systems of US, for him are magnifying and reconstructing dust from Egypt, Calcutta and other places but they fail to incorporate the hallucinations, the phantasmagorical encounters with imagines of the past that reveal truth in most incredible ways. Mangala’s image with a microscope in hand laughs at this tool of scientific adventure that fails to decipher from numerous slides until it’s ordained by the occult agency. Ghosh succeeds in projecting the ‘epistemic violence of the modern forms of knowledge’ and ‘resists Eurocentrism by diminishing the centrality of colonialism as an explanatory historical phenomenon’ (Mondal, 12). The critic argues that ‘Ross is shown to be the unwitting pawn of a secretive cult of subalterns whose own knowledge of malaria is far in advance of Ross and the Western Establishment’ (13). He further reiterates that colonial forces tried to erase and debunk non-western epistemologies under the rubrics of religion, mysticism, superstition and myth. This is a validation of the fact that ‘science is not a politically inert category’ (Singh, 2011).
The author has done extensive research on anthropology, archives of Calcutta and other available Eurocentric documents which fused with personal experiences and memory offer thrilling and chilling narratives like The Calcutta Chromosome. Calcutta is vividly alive in his imagination and its locale, fumes, noises and inhabitants seem so real even in the colonial settings that the reader wonders where fact ends and where fiction begins. The uncanniness of the occult haunts every casual reader with the occult reigning supreme till the end. Ghosh will certainly shock us with his non-fictional accounts and magical stories in the future that lay bare the intersections of colonial forces with the native.

Works Cited
Chambers, Claire. Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome.
Cunningham, D. D. Plagues and Pleasures of Life in Bengal. London: John Murray, 1907.
Curtiss, Harriette Augusta and F. Homer Curtiss. The Temple of Silence. California, 1920.
David Douglas Cunningham”.
“Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test and the Difficult History of looking for answers in Blood.
Finn, Frank. The Calcutta Zoo in the Nineties. Hamlyn’s Menageria Magazine.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Calcutta Chromosome. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1996. rpt. 2005
-  -, Sea of Poppies. New Delhi: Penguin, 2008.
- -, The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable. New Delhi: Penguin, 2016.
Indian Fevers”. Poetry of War: Sir Ronald Ross and the first world war. Web.
Kapoor, Mini. “For me storytelling is very closely tied to uncanniness: Amitav Ghosh.” 14 June, 2019. 17 June, 2019.
Mondal, Anshuman A. Amitav Ghosh- Contemporary World Writers. New Delhi: Viva, 2010. Rpt. 2011.
Nayar, Pramod K. The Informational Economy and Its body in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome. Kunapipi. Vol. XXXI, No.2, 2009.
Ross, Ronald. “On some peculiar pigmented cells found in two mosquitoes fed on malarial blood.”
Scientific Memoirs by Medical Officers of the Army of India.” Ed. B. Simpson. Calcutta, 1885.
Singh, Sakoon N. Science and Empire in the works of Amitav Ghosh with special reference to The Calcutta Chromosome. Dialog, 2011.
Sir Ronald Ross and malaria in the first world war”. Web.
Tiwari, Shubha. The Calcutta Chromosome.

Notes and References
1. Claire Chambers in her paper delineates the essential requirements of a science thriller and goes on to argue the fitness of the novel under this category.
2. Gun Island traces human and non-human movements from Suderbans to Venice and back.
3. An oblique reference to Grierson, the Irish administrator and linguist who studied languages and folklore of India in Bengal and Bihar but his work is not limited to these two states only. Along with the dialects, he underlines some features and characteristics of various communities and tribes in India.
4. One strange revelation about Cunningham was that he spent some time in Jallandhar, Punjab and was familiar with Punjabi and Sikh tradition.
5. Ghosh remarks about the non-human that these things have intelligence and moods e.g. glaciers, tigers etc. And form an agency in the narrative of novel. Yet that dream of silencing the non-human has never been completely realized, not even within the very heart of contemporary modernity; indeed, it would seem that one aspect of the agency of non-humans is their uncanny ability to stay abreast of technology, The Great Derangement, 47.
6. In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o remarks: “I would like to see Kenya peoples’ mother-tongues carry a literature reflecting not only the rhythms of a child’s spoken expression but also struggle with nature and his social nature.
7. Mo Yan merges folk tales, history and the contemporary with his hallucinatory realism in his works like Red Sorghum and The Republic of Wine.
8. A novel of colonial India about Gandhian ideals and his assassination.
9. She had seen a big ship in her imagination long before her advent.
10. Ghosh terms his own parents as ecological refugees in The Great Derangement.
11. Shubha Tiwari points out the connection between Mangala and Murugan based on their names. The first one for Goddess Parvati and other for her elder son Kartikeyan. But when Urmila and Murugan go in search of clay figurine, they could find those of Ganesha, Goddess Kali, Saraswati and Lakshmi. It’s only in the end that they land upon the figure of a woman holding a tiny microscope. Probably Ghosh wanted to separate the mainland dominant religion from the occult and uncanny he wanted to project by providing a parallel, potent form.
12. Mondal and Chambers talk about reincarnation but changing bodies or transmigration is different from rebirth or reincarnation as guided by Indian religious texts. The former is magical and hallucinatory in the text.
13. Curtiss in her work talks about mantras and karma. She even proposes a thought similar to one propounded by Swami Vivekananda. “Your mind must be like a still mountain lake, without a ripple.” (The Temple of Silence, 54).
14. Ross in his poem ‘Anniversary’ writes: “They fight and bite and bawl, These larval angels!”
15. Animal genomes carry certain genetic traits but the humanoids or the robotic humans are possible of an altogether different level of information processing.

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