2. The Calcutta Chromosome – Amitav Ghosh

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‘… to know something is to change it, therefore in knowing something, you’ve already changed what you think you know so you don’t really know it at all; you only know it’s history.”

If you want to read an engaging, but refreshingly bizarre sci-fi thriller, you should definitely get your hands on Amitav Ghosh’s 1996 novel, ‘The Calcutta Chromosome – a novel of fevers, delirium and discovery’. The novel moves in a frenzied time loop, hopping from a futuristic Manhattan to 1995’s Calcutta to the Victorian years preceding Sir Ronald Ross’ discovery of the Malarial parasite in the early 1900s. This is unlike anything Ghosh has written; a mash of Western medicine, Indian tantric practices, mosquitoes, modern science, immortality and the transference of souls – all in all, a very enjoyable read!

Antar is an Egyptian data-analyst in Manhattan, whose computer, the AVA/ IIe is his only companion. A widower, due-to-retire, he stumbles upon the damaged ID card of an ex-colleague, L. Murugan (Morgan), who went missing several years ago. Ghosh, then, takes us through the winding lanes of Calcutta, as we follow an obsessed Murugan on his quest to find the truth about Ronald Ross and his discovery of a cure for Malaria, which, Murugan believes wasn’t his at all! Ghosh introduces the idea of a secret cult of ancient Indian practitioners of medicine, who plant ideas in Ross’ head, using his findings to further their own experiments on immortality.

The Calcutta Chromosome is peppered with confusing sub-plots, blink-and-miss characters and a ton of unanswered questions! You have to pay attention! Ghosh takes a historical event and packs it with magic realism, mysticism and mystery. With a story so layered, it’s difficult to sum it up in one review. You HAVE to read it to know. It has fiery female characters, a demi-goddess, elements of the supernatural and blood sacrifices; in the words of Murugan, this book is the “whole f**cking paratha”!

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1. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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‘But that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.’ Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel, Exit West, is a comment on the refugee crises, examining the very strained dichotomy of beginnings and endings; on the freedom to travel versus being forced to get away. Devoid of the gruesome aspects of migration, the book is as powerful as life itself.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an unknown war-torn city, fall in love and are forced to leave home through black doors that suddenly begin appearing – gateways that connect countries around the world. Some of the doors are heavily manned, while others lay ignored. As tensions mount, Saeed and Nadia step through one of these doors, leaving life as they know it, behind. Hamid uses the relationship between his protagonists to highlight the mental, emotional and physical impact, war and migration can have on human beings who are torn from their homelands.

It isn’t just the story that hits the reader; Hamid’s use of language is haunting. Reflecting on death, especially in countries riddled with conflict, he says, “… because life and its end are unpredictable, especially at a distance, where death seems to operate with such whimsical aim.” Constantly on the move, Nadia and Saeed’s relationship begins to unravel, each of them growing into different individuals for whom the meaning of life changes as their paths diverge. ‘… for the end of a couple is like a death,’, he writes, ‘and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things…’ Hamid’s story is real, rife with heartbreak and hope and everything in between.