Magazine 2015
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
Annabel Rebello  
Divya Yogeshwar  
Edward Said discusses ‘Orientalism’ as a discourse of the West on the East and having authority over the  
Orient (the colonized)”. The focus of this paper will be on the hegemonic notion of the West over the East.  
Ghosh through the novel wants to consume this supremacy that the West has over the East, the colonizers  
over the colonized, science over counter-science. The nature of knowledge is questioned in the novel with  
the complex mingling of science and religion. Religion and mysticism is a pressing theme in the novel. On  
one hand we have Ronald Ross the winner of the Nobel Prize for his discovery on the life-cycle of malaria  
parasite. What draws our attention is a poem to the left of a marble figure of Ronald Ross at his laboratory  
which Murugan discovers,  
“This day relenting God  
Hath placed within my hand  
A wondrous thing; and God  
Be praised. At his command…” (41).  
The presence of an undercurrent is what sets Murugan on his search for the mysterious group. Ghosh seeks  
to question the hegemonic struggles of the power of the West over the East in his Post –colonial work. The  
Calcutta Chromosome in a way tries to give recognition to the less known, the less recognized epistemology.  
Key Words : Epistemology, hegemony, post colonial, Knowledge, secret, East, West  
He thinks he is doing experiments... And all the time it’s he who is the experiment… But Ronnie never  
gets it; not to the end of his life”. (69)  
L. Murugan, deuteragonist in the novel comments on the research findings of Sir Ronald Ross winner of  
the Nobel Prize for Medicine 1906. The novel The Calcutta Chromosome winner of the Arthur C. Clarke  
award is a fusion of fact and fiction by Amitav Ghosh who seeks to question the hegemonic struggles of  
the power of the West over the East in his Post –colonial work.  
Edward Said, eminent Orientalist scholar in his 1978 essay ‘Crisis [in Orientalism]’ discusses ‘Orientalism’  
as a discourse of the West on the East as  
Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient-  
dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it,  
settling it, ruling over it: in short Orientalism is a western style of dominating, restructuring and having  
authority over the Orient”.(Said 3)  
This reflected a certain kind of way of looking at the Orient, also called the colonized. They were  
represented “as something one judges, something one disciplines, something one studies and depicts,  
something one illustrates”. (Said, 1978: 40) In the process of judging, disciplining depicting, the Orient  
begins accepting this as the true experience and is led to forget their own experience placing them at a  
lower level. Ganesh Devy, renowned literary critic terms this as a state of ‘amnesia’ caused primarily due  
to heavy influence of the West. Devy argues here that the colonized have been subjected so strongly and  
have forgotten their native experiences. Hence an attempt, he says must be made to revert back to the  
roots of the native, to reverse and de-colonize this way of life. “The Oxford English Dictionary defines  
decolonization” as “the withdrawal from its colonies of a colonial power; the acquisition of political or  
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economic independence by such colonies.” (Allen 2013) It is a process of trying to revive the forgotten  
structures through re-living one’s forgotten experience that was lost through amnesia.  
In The Calcutta Chromosome Amitav Ghosh presents to the readers the supremacy of the West over the  
East. He makes an attempt to explicate that the East or the colonized too has control over the West or  
the colonizers. He wants to demolish this supremacy that the West has over the East by giving recognition  
to the unrecognized, that it is the Orient who is in control but is unnoticed as they would prefer to remain  
so. Through the character of the scientist and Nobel Prize winner Ronald Ross who is barely active in the  
novel, Murugan unravels some mysterious findings that Ross’ research was directed by an uneducated  
dhooley bearer’ Lutchman and Mangala a sweeper woman who were secretly up to something.  
Commenting on Colonialism, G.N. Devy in his 1992 essay After Amnesia argues that “colonialism gave  
rise to an equally false image of the West in India, an image that is larger than life, static and apparently  
invincible. Accordingly, the Indian view of the West has remained fraught with idealization, arbitrary  
fragmentation and unhistorical reductions. This disfiguring colonial epistemology has created false  
frameworks of cultural values and has stratified knowledge into superior (Western) and inferior (Indian)  
categories.” (Devy 2-3) Therefore there exists an artificial hierarchy of knowledge, imposed upon the  
colonized, that is, whatever was of western discourse is considered as ‘good Knowledge’ and Indian  
culture was considered as ‘non-knowledge’. In all, western knowledge was considered superior and all  
Indian forms of Knowledge were considered as having low value, points out Devy.  
The Calcutta Chromosome is a 1995 novel by Amitav Ghosh. A novel of fevers, delirium and discovery.  
Packed with science, religion, myth and mystery, the characters are on a constant search for the mysterious  
and the unsolved. It is a complex, science fiction narrative in three time zones partly set in the 1990s and  
in the last years of the 19 – earlier and part of the 20 century. ‘Presenting a blend of fact and fiction,  
Ghosh meticulously weaves the plot of The Calcutta Chromo some around some of the historical events  
that led to the discovery of Malaria and its cure, while at the same time; the novel also investigates into  
the other relevant philosophical and sociological issues central to the politics of science.’ (Misra 2)  
The novel opens in the twenty first century with an Egyptian computer specialist, Antar. ‘Through his  
research into old and lost documents, Antar figures out that Murugan, (a colleague and researcher in Life  
Watch,) has systematically unearthed an underground scientific/mystical movement that could grant  
eternal life.’ (“Interrogation of science…”158) He came to an inference that Ronald Ross who was awarded  
Nobel Prize in 1906 for his work on the life-cycle of malaria parasite (1898) was heading in the wrong  
In the novel, Ronald Ross is shown as the second person to discover the mysteries of the malaria  
parasite; it was a group of underground practitioners of different, mystical, natives of India, who were the  
first ones to discover it. And they were the ones to guide Ross to the conclusions for which he is famous.  
Shattering the superiority science has over its counterpart, Ghosh presents Ross’s false belief in himself  
as the sole conductor of research and its discovery. This group of underground practioners were a secret  
group with a mysterious Mangala character as their leader. This group is shown as having already achieved  
this significant milestone much before Ross. Ghosh is therefore making a comparison between two kinds  
of epistemologies – Science, the western system of knowledge and Religion, the counter science, the  
Eastern system of knowledge (Mangala’s knowledge).  
The characters negotiate with two forms of knowledge – a Western, rational, epistemology and an  
Eastern, native, epistemology. Science is considered to be the epistemology of the West and counter  
science is considered to be the knowledge of the East. The novel is trying to bring out the fact that both  
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systems of knowledge must be equally valued at their frameworks. Instead science is higher valued than  
its counterpart as it involves a recognised system with rules, regulations, collecting and classifying, and  
recording of its findings and discoveries. Its counterpart would not stand a chance to fit in lacking a  
recognised system, no records, no rules, etc. Therefore it’s only way of functioning is through traditional  
methods. It chooses to remain a silent group for fear of being exposed and extinction.  
The characters; Elijah Farley and Phulboni’s in the novel have similar experiences of encounters with the  
mysterious group. Phulboni disembarks at the Renupur station in 1894. He survives the dangerous  
encounter and accident that night at the railway station unlike Farley, who disappeared without a trace  
after disembarking from the station at Renupur. Farley had discovered Mangala and her mysterious  
group working secretly in Ross’ laboratory, altering his research and experiments. He was thus a witness  
to the group which Mangala feared and the only way to safeguard this was to keep him ‘quiet’. Phulboni  
on the other hand is not able to get as close as Farley got, but has a strong inclination about a secret-  
cult group conducting some kind of ‘advanced’ research. He survives to tell his tale and reencounters  
them in his speech :  
For more years than I can count, I have walked the...secrets of cities, looking always to find...Silence  
herself. I see signs of her everywhere I go...but only signs, nothing more...” (108)  
Hence silence becomes the recurrent theme in the novel. Mangala and Lutchman, as members of secret  
religious group, believe in the powers of silence and try to conceal their identity. “This group worships  
the Goddess of Silence, embodied by the character of Mangala in the late 1890s story-line. They act  
according to the principles of silence and secrecy, and represent the ethical drive in the narrative,  
interrupting and deconstructing the hegemonic version of colonial medical history. Their way of going  
about things avoids becoming defined by colonial scientific knowledge production strategies. This way  
neither they, nor anything they do, can be ‘known’, i.e., it cannot be appropriated into scientific or other  
discourses. The work of this group is directed at the transferring of personality traits from one person to  
another in a kind of joined effort of Western science and the transmigration of souls.” (Huttunen 51).  
Much unlike the followers of Western science, this mystic group of followers believes the importance of  
silence, in advancing their mysterious cult, accepting it as their religion. The novel projects these people  
as far more advanced in malaria research than the world of medicine, Ronald Ross was part of.  
Therefore this counter-science remains out of the mainstream of its science counterpart. But, their  
marginalization is by choice and this does not leave them powerless. It allows them the freedom and the  
power to take their scientific research in directions unknown to conventional scientists. Their methods  
are very different from the ones used by their science counterparts. In fact the counter-science is in such  
control of the knowledge exchange process that it seems that they are at a superior level, and the  
scientists are mere puppets in their hands.  
Mangala is introduced as a servant at Dr. Cunningham laboratory who already knew the cure for malaria  
but did not reveal it. The prize was the Nobel Prize Award and world recognition, which was completely  
against their ‘silent’ system of functioning. Instead one of the main motives of this woman was something  
beyond this discovery, finding the cure for syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Their research hoped  
to go even beyond this, by way of transmitting the malaria microbe to the patient through a bird. In short  
she intended to achieve ‘immortality’ of human traits in which all information could be transmitted  
chromosomally from one body to another.  
But this secret knowledge is never revealed to the other characters throughout the novel. Whenever they  
suspect anything mysterious and begin spying on them, they are harmed or turn insane. The characters,  
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Farley, Murugan and Phulboni try to spy on this mysterious group, to reach this knowledge and they  
finally go mad. Laakhan, another character is the protector of this knowledge. He is the one to keep the  
outsiders at bay when they try to meddle into their world. He threatens them, and nearly causes accidents  
to those who try to enter this epistemology of knowledge in which Mangala is the possessor of. Thus we  
are led to conclude that knowledge of the unknown causes harm, a post-colonial view of the text.  
From a religious angle, Mangala can also be seen as a representative of Goddess Kali or Maa Durga who  
is known to possess powers of regeneration. Ghosh elaborates much upon the mystic, religious rituals  
performed by this secret sect for transmigration of the soul. ‘The theme of transmigration and immortality  
holds an important place in the novel” (Misra 2011: 5). Mangala, the possessor of this knowledge,  
discovers a way of keeping it alive through transmigration.  
Mangala makes a selective choice for resurrection. She needs a better, resolved mind to carry on her  
transmigration. She selects Urmila, the journalist for her next incarnation. Urmila, a vulnerable, emotional,  
hardworking, well-educated and a conservative character. She has a stressful struggling life between  
professional and private. Mangala alias Mrs. Aratounian waits till Urmila attains the moment of self-  
realization because she wants Urmila to come out of her mould and gain confidence to enter into a new  
domain. Thus the knowledge of Mrs. Aratounian alias now Urmila applies only to a particular sect of well-  
educated and knowledgeable group.. Thus we see “Mangala of 1890’s resurrects into the forms of Mrs.  
Aratounian, Urmila and Tara of 1995 and (similarily) Laakhan/Lutchman transforms into Romen Haldar  
and Lucky.” (Misra 2011: 5) Sonali, an employee at the Calcutta magazine, sneaks into Robinson Street  
and witnesses the transmigration ceremony, where “Laakhan’s (Lutchman) spirit is transferred into the  
body of Romen Haldar and the entire ceremony is performed by Mangala but in the form of Mrs.  
Aratounian.” (Misra 2011: 5) Nothing like ever seen or heard of before, Sonali passes out as she notices  
familiar faces as participants in the ceremony.  
She caught a glimpse of the tops of dozens of heads, some male, some female, young and old,  
packed in close together. Their faces were obscured by the smoke and flickering fire light . . . A figure  
had come out of the shadows: it was a woman . . . She seated herself by the fire and placed the bag  
and the birdcage beside her. . . . Then she reached out, placed her hands on whatever it was that was  
lying before the fire and smiled . . . Raising her voice, the woman said to the crowd, in archaic rustic  
Bengali: ‘The time is here, pray that all goes well for our Laakhan, once again.’… she caught a  
glimpse of a body, lying on the floor.” (142-144)  
Ghosh is unable to explain the exact procedure of the ceremony unlike his elaborate explanations of the  
Ross’ research on the mosquito and the malaria parasite. He also portrays the natives as more or  
equally intelligent than their science counterpart. He wants to give apriori value to the Eastern epistemology  
but his western discourse of writing does not allow him to do so. He tries to show the religious epistemology  
as an advanced system, unique in its own way and not in a bad light. But he is unable to explain the  
space occupied by Mangala and Laakhan because he is caught in the post-colonial trap of “Knowledge  
causes death/harm” to human beings and therefore there is a gap in the logical explanation of sudden  
disappearances of characters in the novel. Thus Ghosh’s attempt to show the Eastern and Western  
epistemology at equal par is unsuccessful because he cannot represent the other epistemology of  
Mangala’s Research. He is unable to explain clearly the Indian/Eastern epistemology from the two structures  
because for the local, native people accepting Mangala’s knowledge system is not so difficult but the  
people outside this circle accepting this system of framework within which she operating would seem  
dangerous and a taboo. To accept Mangala’s system one would have to negotiate and compromise with  
the other knowledge of Science by simply accepting the system without questioning and exposing it.  
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The other character in the novel, Phulboni who has a brief encounter with the mysterious group. He is  
portrayed as wanting to learn more about the group and pens all about it in his stories ‘The Lakhaan  
Stories’ and explains it as a dedication to her i.e. Mangala “every word I have ever penned has been  
written for her...” (108). Phulboni emotionally expresses his desire to join the join the group, pledging to  
keep it a secret, “I make this last appeal… I beg you, if you exist at all, and I have never for a moment  
doubted it – give me a sign of your presence …take me with you…”(109). He tries to explain that there  
exists not only the rational, the explainable but also the irrational, the unexplainable. Ghosh through this  
character contradicts the colonial framework of the Eastern system of knowledge as inferior and non-  
scientific, rather it a rich and vast system of knowledge packed with research, far advanced than the  
Western system of knowledge.  
In the end, the most important aspect Ghosh brings together is the clash of different conventions, discourses  
and epistemologies. The hegemonic notion of West over the East created a hierarchy of the former being  
superior to the latter. This notion is questioned as he tries to bring them at equal par with each other. At  
one point he even portrays the Eastern epistemology as having a superior notion reversing the power  
hierarchy through the mystic characters in the novel. But in reality, both the epistemologies exist and  
depend on each other to survive and progress. Thus we can see that the novel not only comments on the  
discourse of European colonization but also examines the social discourse between the colonizer and  
the colonized that shaped and produced post –colonial literature.  
References :  
Allen, Erin. Inquiring Minds: Studying Decolonization. The Library of Congress Blog. July 29, 2013. Retrieved  
Devi. G.N. 1992. After Amnesia: Tradition And Change In Indian Literary Criticism. Orient Longman.  
Hyderabad. pp. 2,3. Print.  
Ghosh, Amitav. 1996. The Calcutta Chromosome. Ravi Dayal Publishers, New Delhi.  
Huttunen, Tuoma. “The Calcutta Chromosome: The Ethics of Silence and Knowledge.” Seeking The Self—  
Encountering The Other : Diasporic Narrative And The Ethics Of Representation Cambridge Scholars:  
Newcastle upon Tyne, England (2008) 51. Web 15 Mar. 2015. Pdf  
Mishra Sanjit, Kumar Nagendra. “Shaking the Roots of Western Science in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta  
Chromosome.” Asiatic IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature 5.1 (2011): pp. 78-85. http://  
Mishra Sanjit. “Dismantling the Hierarchies: An Analysis of Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome.ELT  
Voices. October 2011. p 2,5.  
Said, Edward. the Scope of Orientalism. Orientalism. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul,  
978. Pp. 3,40.  
Annabel Rebello, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Maniben Nanavati Women;s College, Mumbai.  
Divya Yogeshwar, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Shri M.D. Shah Mahila College of Arts and  
Commerce, Mumbai.