Literature does not tell just the story of humans
When an author is praised for a new novel, I like to first make his acquaintance by reading his older work. We all have gaping holes in our reading lists, and I had never read Amitav Ghosh’s work. I borrowed “The Calcutta Chromosome” from my friend, so that I could eventually borrow her “River of Smoke”. She said: “When you’ve finished ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’, please tell me what it was about. I didn’t understand what was going on at all!”
Once you start reading a book, your world falls in step with it. Here in mosquito country, it is always a good time to read a novel that traces the history of malaria research. I was confident of understanding at least the science in the book. I take an interest in mosquitoes, and they certainly like me. I lived for three years in the Chennai suburb of Tambaram, where the drone from the drains often drowned out the training flights at the nearby Air Force runway. Since then, mosquitoes and I have only become friendlier.
Even a lay person notices variations in mosquito size and colour. There are brown ones and black ones, many wearing dapper white patches on their legs. Some bite and leave a scar, some just bite. Some sing low and some sing high. One day I copyedited a taxonomy called “Anopheles”. It described 56 species that feed on humans, with drawings of each. Illustrated taxonomies of birds and wildflowers are gorgeous, but insects are just as fascinating, especially their names. I thought Anopheles kochi was named after the mosquito head office, but it is named for the German scientist Robert Koch, who studied infectious diseases. Species names such as elegans and pulcherrima demonstrated that the scientific eye sees elegance and beauty in these balletic bloodsuckers. Since I read that book I never slap a mosquito without examining it afterwards. And I still have to read about Aedes, and the other 39 genera of mosquitoes.
Ghosh’s novel is about much more than mosquitoes, the early scientists who studied their connection to malaria, and the later scientists who studied those scientists. It contains some science fiction and some paranormal events. There are ghost railway stations and ghost station managers to keep them in order. There are seeming time travellers, or perhaps, transmigratory souls. Disease is transmitted from one human generation to the next, but so is a race memory or an insight, itself built on the insights of ancestors. At least, I think that’s what Ghosh was saying. His story has so many loose ends.
As does the story of malaria. Bed nets and window screens help, they say. The vaccine may work. And who knows what those genetically-modified mosquitoes will do that have already been released in Malaysia and Brazil? (That part is not Ghosh's science fiction, but last year’s news.) Evidently we will read the history of mosquito for as long as we read the history of man, and find in it elegance and beauty.