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Once Bitten

THE CALCUTTA CHROMOSOME: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery. By Amitav Ghosh . Avon Books: 312 pp., $23

September 21, 1997|CLAIRE PANOSIAN | Claire Panosian is a professor of medicine and an infectious diseases and tropical medicine specialist at UCLA

"Murugan sat suddenly upright, the sweat pounding off his face, not sure whether he was still dreaming or awake. The net was buzzing with mosquitoes; he could see them dancing like motes, in the finger of light that bisected his bed. His whole body was aflame, covered with bites. He had been scratching himself furiously in his sleep; he could see blood on his fingernails, and on the sheets."

Blood, mosquitoes and malaria are all talismans imbued with mystical powers in "The Calcutta Chromosome," Amitav Ghosh's latest book, deliciously subtitled "A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery." Ghosh, a Bengal-born anthropologist living in New York City, ought to know. In his native Calcutta, malaria is a malady as familiar as the common cold, albeit more sinister. Even today, this tropical invasion of red corpuscles claims 1 million to 2 million human lives every year.

Malaria's not the only microbial scourge featured in "The Calcutta Chromosome." Syphilis too rears its ugly head, and for good reason. Here's a clue. In the pre-penicillin era, dementia paralytica was sometimes treated by artificially induced malarial fever, in hopes that it might reverse the late syphilitic meltdown of the brain and other tissues. If the practice seems primitive in the 1990s, remember that it earned its creator, Julius Wagner von Jauregg, a Nobel Prize in 1927.

Back to Ghosh. His thriller opens in near-future Manhattan with Antar, a depressed Egyptian emigre relegated to spending his pre-retirement years as an at-home systems analyst for LifeWatch, a nonprofit consultancy to the International Water Council. Antar's sole companion, AVA, is a computer who performs two functions: It helps him work and monitors his every move. But one day AVA's holographic imagery delivers up something special, a seductive relic of the 1990s. It is a metal chain and an attached scrap of identity badge bearing the name of Murugan, LifeWatch's onetime principal archivist. Murugan, Antar recalls, was a "cocky little rooster of a man" who considered himself the supreme authority on Surgeon Maj. Ronald Ross, the real-life pukka sahib of the Indian Medical Service who was awarded the 1902 Nobel Prize for decrypting the malaria life cycle in the Anopheles mosquito. Antar, who lunched with Murugan just before the latter left New York to pursue further research on Ross, also knows that Murugan has been missing since Aug. 21, 1995, the day after the Ross commemorative World Mosquito Day.

With the introduction of Ross as a character (admittedly, he has a nonspeaking part), readers of "The Calcutta Chromosome" receive a foreshadowing of what is to follow, namely, a rollicking ride between the past and the future, real and imagined history, science and counter-science. Along the way they meet a baroque cast, from dhooley bearers, street urchins, spiritualists and journalists to Phulboni, an eminent bellettrist; Soldani Das, a retired film star; and Mrs. Aratounian, the elderly proprietress of the guest house where Murugan has his psychedelic malaria dream.

Ghosh teases readers by peeling away--like layers of the proverbial onion--the subplots and characters that ultimately unveil the secret force in "The Calcutta Chromosome." It is Mangala, an illiterate (and fictitious) sweeper-woman who, in the late 1890s, cleaned Ross's bungalow laboratory on the grounds of the (real) Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta. Ghosh wickedly presents Mangala as the true discoverer of malaria in mosquitoes, and Ross as a somewhat undeserving genius whom she manipulates into a partial understanding of the protozoan's life cycle. Why partial? Because in Ghosh's chimera of fact and fantasy, Mangala has stumbled on a far greater wonder, one that she can conceal only by distracting Ross with a few tidbits of truth.

Mangala, it emerges, has been secretly treating advanced syphilitics with blood containing avian malaria obtained by slitting the throats of pigeons that flock on the hospital grounds. In the process, she inadvertently perfects a genetic technique for transposing personality traits from one human being to another. Because her clandestine experiments yield a measure of immortality, Mangala is deified by cult followers.

There's much more, delivered in fast-paced chapters that ultimately bring us back to Antar, but at least you can begin to fathom some of the intricate connections of Ghosh's characters from mid-Victorian times through 21st century cyberspace.

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