While discussing Indian Writing in English, a person that the literati never tire of mentioning is Amitav Ghosh. His fame and dexterity as a writer who carved a unique style of diasporic writing and representation of postcolonial identities remain unchallenged even today. Skewed timelines, multi-narratives and story-within-a-story technique make his works stand out amongst the many Postcolonial and Diasporic writers of today.
I recently happened to read his book The Calcutta Chromosome, set in 3 different times and exploring the life and works of the Nobel laureate Sir Reynold Ross, who discovered the malaria vector. The book subtly examines subaltern identities, colonial exploitation and fluid constructs of the self. Here, I will focus on these themes from the perspective of Ava/IIe (a supercomputer/AI machine). This is the first time Ghosh ventures into an exploration of our cyber-future, and The Calcutta Chromosome loosely fits within the framework of a science fiction.
The novel begins with the retrieval of an old ID card belonging to L. Murugan from the 1990s. It is found by Antar a work-from-home employee in the future, who uses Ava/IIe to manage corporate inventory. Antar investigates Murugan’s mysterious disappearance, followed by Murugan’s search for the truth behind Ross’s research and an underground secret society that works to help Ross reach his success.
The story is narrated mainly by Antar, Murugan, Phulboni and Sonali who are in the 1990s Calcutta, with a sprinkling of voices dating as far back as 1800s. The author weaves together a stunning web of images, instances and encounters, with a strong emphasis on the interconnectedness of material life, supernatural forces and spirituality. The interplay of these elements in a typical Ghosh novel brings out a poignant and haunting feel that resonates within us even after turning the last page. Although a compelling read, the book lets a lot of ends fly loose, and leaves it to the reader to resolve the unanswered questions.
Antar, our primary narrator, is part of a dystopian society, where jobs are few and the general condition of the urban middle class is bleak and dreary. He is cloistered in his two-room apartment throughout the story where he works and interacts with the world through his supercomputer Ava. In the opening chapter of the book, Ghosh describes Ava in much detail. Ava adorns numerous roles in the book, of a friend, philosopher, linguist and a researcher. Antar wonders about Ava’s undying curiosity and equates it to that of a child.
“Antar had met children who were like that: why? what? when? where? how? “
Although he believes that this inquisitiveness is Ava’s simulated urge for self-improvement, it is interesting to see how similar they are to human beings who constantly strive to refine themselves.
Antar dreads the drudgery and monotony of his work. Bored of working alone at home, he sneaks in a gadget that lets him read by projecting the text on the opposite wall, away from Ava’s vigilant eyes. But a moment of Antar’s inattention causes Ava to give him the silent treatment and then throw a deafening tantrum which results in Antar’s pay being docked for “declining productivity”. Here, although technically Antar is cheating at work, don’t we sense in Ava the petulant, attention-craving lover who does not tolerate even a slightest sleight from her partner? Is Antar cheating Ava while she obediently and efficiently helps him in life?
Ava’s presence in the novel points to a future that is subsumed by technology, where human interactions would be mediated through technology, where automation and artificial intelligence will replace human beings in the job market and economy. Antar is able to transition through various lands and time-zones, with just a click and command. He revisits his childhood in Egypt, “a brilliantly sunlit vision of sand and mud-bricks and creaking waterwheels”, while Ava analyses the company’s long inventories. Ava becomes a Dust-Counter who examines each minute detail of the past, and tries to validate its relevance to the present. Antar reconstructs the past by tapping into Ava’s “horizonless limbo of memory”. The novel deals, in many ways, with people’s predicament when restrained to fixed cultures and norms. Ava transgresses these restrictions and flies free of all stifling chains.
The book deals with the consequences of globalization and the plight of diasporic communities, both in the West and in the Calcutta of the past. Antar himself longs to return to his hometown in Egypt after retirement. His friends at the doughnut shop in Penn Station are a motley crowd comprising of the Sudanese bank teller, the Guyanese woman who works at the Chelsea used-clothes store and the young Bangladeshi man from the subway news-stand. They represent the lives of the many migrant workers who are forced to flock to developed countries in search of sustenance. Their nostalgia for lost homelands are sharply contrasted by Ava, a ubiquitous entity whose reach pervades all parts of the globe. She is comfortable using different languages, gestures and expressions. In a way, Ava embodies the mixed characteristics and amalgamated traits of a diasporic community. The linguist in Ava shuffles through the world’s languages- Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, English and Bengali and expertly translates the Arabic dialectic word that Antar uttered under his breath. Antar, who is depressingly marooned in his foreign home, chides Ava,
“Stop showing off. You don’t have to show me you know everything there is to know. Iskuti; shut up.”
It is interesting to see that Ghosh has given Ava a female identity. It is similar to Alex Garland’s psychological thriller science fiction movie Ex Machina (2015), where the humanoid robot empowered with artificial intelligence is also named Ava.
In the movie, Ava manipulates the male characters to escape from the confines of her lab, killing them in the process. The humanoid robot is shown as being extremely shrewd and intelligent; probably much more so than her human creators. In The Calcutta Chromosome, Ava’s powerful position in the future resembles the continuity of female power and intuition from the past, where the demi-god Mangala Bibi finds a breakthrough discovery for the cure of syphilitic dementia. It is then no surprise that Ghosh ascribes the feminine gender to Ava, who controls and decides the fate of Antar’s life with her supreme brilliance.
Secrecy is a key theme of the novel. Ghosh explains how the cult headed by Mangala Bibi espouses the theories of ‘counter-science’, whereby ‘knowing about a thing essentially leads to a transformation in that knowledge.’ Murugan’s painstaking attempts at uncovering the mission and workings of this cult, shrouded in mystery, tell us that they believe secrecy to be their religion. Ghosh too wearies us by leaving character biographies obscure and individual narratives unresolved. The trope of secrecy is used in the story as well as in Ghosh’s writing style, to impress upon the readers its importance in the novel. Ava, on the other hand, inverts this theme, through her relentless search, exposal and analysis of the past, present and future. Her voyeuristic instinct is precisely the reason for the story’s unfolding.
The novel warns us of a dystopian future, where human beings would be forced to succumb to the powerful influence of technology. Ava, with her intelligence, emotional apathy and aggressive competitiveness, epitomizes the human greed for advancement. But in reality, is a world operated and ordered by machines such a grand notion? Do we really need to persist at cutting edge scientific research to make uber-smart machines that could one day overthrow us?