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The Calcutta Chromosome

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The Calcutta Chromosome

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Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Avon, 1995

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Near-Future
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From Victorian lndia to near-future New York, The Calcutta Chromosome takes readers on a wondrous journey through time as a computer programmer trapped in a mind-numbing job hits upon a curious item that will forever change his life. When Antar discovers the battered I.D. card of a long-lost acquaintance, he is suddenly drawn into a spellbinding adventure across centuries and around the globe, into the strange life of L. Murugan, a man obsessed with the medical history of malaria, and into a magnificently complex world where conspiracy hangs in the air like mosquitoes on a summer night.


August 20
Mosquito Day


If the system hadn't stalled Antar would never have guessed that the scrap of paper on his screen was the remnant of an ID card. It looked as though it had been rescued from a fire: its plastic laminate had warped and melted along the edges. The lettering was mostly illegible and the photograph had vanished under a smudge of soot. But a four-inch metal chain had somehow stayed attached: it hung down in a rusty loop from a perforation in the top left-hand corner, like a drooping tail. It was the chain that tripped the system, not the card.

The card turned up in one of those routine inventories that went flashing around the globe with metronomic regularity, for no reason that Antar could understand, except that it was what the system did best. Once it got started it would keep them coming, hour after hour, an endless succession of documents and objects, stopping only when it stumbled on some thing it couldn't file: the most trivial things usually.

Once it was a glass paperweight, of the kind that rain snow flakes if you turn them upside down; another time it was a bottle of correcting fluid, from an irrigation overseer's office just south of the Aral Sea. Both times the machine went into a controlled frenzy, firing off questions, one after another.

Antar had met children who were like that: why? what? when? where? how? But children asked because they were curious; with these AVA/IIe systems it was something else-- something that he could only think of as a simulated urge for self-improvement. He'd been using his Ava for a couple of years now and he was still awed by her eagerness to better herself. Anything she didn't recognize she'd take apart on screen, producing microscopic structural analyses, spinning the images around and around, tumbling them over, resting them on their side, producing ever greater refinements of detail.

She wouldn't stop until Antar had told her everything he knew about whatever it was that she was playing with on her screen. He'd tried routing her to her own encyclopedias, but that wasn't good enough. Somewhere along the line she had been programmed to hunt out real-time information, and that was what she was determined to get. Once she'd wrung the last, meaningless detail out of him, she'd give the object on her screen a final spin, with a bizarrely human smugness, before propelling it into the horizonless limbo of her memory. That time with the paperweight it had taken him a full minute to notice what was going on. He was reading: he had been lent a gadget that could project pages from a magazine or a book on the far wall of the room. So long as he didn't move his head too much and hit the right key in a steady rhythm, Ava couldn't tell that she didn't exactly have his full attention. The device was illegal of course, precisely because it was meant for people like him, who worked alone, at home.

Ava didn't notice the first time but it happened again with the correcting fluid: he was reading, staring at the wall when she went deadly quiet. Then suddenly warnings began to flash on his screen. He whisked the book away but she already knew something was up. At the end of the week, he received a notice from his employer, the International Water Council, telling him that his pay had been docked because of "declining productivity," warning him that a further decline could entail a reduction in his retirement benefits.

He didn't dare take any more chances after that. He took the gadget with him that evening, when he went on his hour long daily walk to Penn Station. He carried it to the franchise doughnut shop where he was a regular, down by the Long Island Railroad ticket counters, and handed it back to the Sudanese bank-teller who had lent it to him. Antar's retirement was only a year away and if his pension rates went down now he knew he wouldn't be able to work them up again. For years he'd been dreaming of leaving New York and going back to Egypt: of getting out of this musty apartment where all he could see when he looked down the street were boarded-up windows stretching across the fronts of buildings that were almost as empty as his own.

He stopped trying to get the better of Ava after that. He went back to his job, staring patiently at those endless inventories, wondering what it was all for.

Copyright © 1995 by Amitav Ghosh


The Calcutta Chromosome

- Weesam
The Calcutta Chromosome

- Allie


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