Are we smarter? Or are they?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 5, 2006

Nothing is as it appears in Kunal Basu’s third novel. The racists of the title are not today’s right-wing, anti-immigrant lunatic fringe.

Though he is a Kolkata boy in an alien clime, he is not, he claims, “trying to comment on existing race relations” in Britain, where he has happily made his home for six years.

Instead of the modern preoccupation with racism, Basu’s strange, rather haunting story goes back two centuries to another kind of racist, the racial scientist.

These were men who spent much time trying to answer an esoteric, essentially flawed question: what makes the white man intrinsically superior to the black and coloured?

So to Basu’s 19th-century extraordinary saga of a fascinating, “forbidden” experiment in racial science. Two babies – ”one white, the other black – ”are brought up on a remote island off the African coast.

There they live, out of sight of the world. It is too much to say the babies are brought up. They are left to grow – ”wild as the Arlinda tree that gives the island its name.

They have a mute nurse who gives them food and keeps them in basic repair. The rest is “planned neglect”. Innocent of language, song, music, games, cuddles, authority and structure, the two children are left to live out the racial battle for superiority.

They are laboratory specimens. Literally so. Despatched to deserted Arlinda by two scientists intent on winning the ultimate argument of racial science.

Every six months or so, both men – ”English scientist Samuel Bates, “the father of craniology” and Paris ethnologist Jean-Louis Belavoix – ”visit the island to measure the children’s heads, observe physical and mental growth, write up their log books and prepare for the great denouement.

This will either be Bates’ cherished theory that the white girl child will ultimately triumph over the black boy. Or Belavoix’s belief that a racial war will eventually erupt and the experiment will end in bloodshed with one child murdering the other.

Racists is unique not because it is true but because it could so easily have been so. As Basu explained to TOI, disparate cultures and civilisations have yearned to put the ‘forbidden’ experiment into practice for almost as long as man has been on earth.

But ethics and basic humanity intervened. And yet, he says, Herodotus records a similar” but less intense and long-lived ”experiment conducted by the Egyptian emperor Psammetichus.

In a vainglorious quest to determine which tribe – ”Egyptian or Phygian – ”came first, the emperor ordered a baby from each to be nominally reared by a herdsman.

Soon enough, the Phygian infant began demanding ‘becos’, which is Phygian for bread. The experiment was declared to have reached a conclusion. The emperor retired hurt from the pseudo-scientific battlefield.

But the Racists’ experiment is profoundly different. It is complex, callous and consistent in its unemotionalism towards the specimens.

Long dreamt of by racial scientists but forbidden because of its unethicality, the Racists experiment is meant to last 12 years. In the event, it is hastened to an untimely end in just seven.

But this is still long enough for brooding Arlinda and its proto-animal inhabitants to live untrammelled by society’s false straitjacket.

The final chapter is unexpected, a shock to the system, arbitrary and unplanned for when the experiment was conceived and totally out of order in the framework of its rules. The end does not matter.

It is a nullity anyway, with Basu appearing to be in a mad rush to bring his slender volume to a too-quick conclusion.

In the process, Racists scrambles helter-skelter over narrative logic, tramples on natural progression, caring little for the pregnant promise of his story’s beginning.

The end spoils a rather good yarn, ripe with all sorts of possibilities, not least a thorough examination of how and why racial science alternately became both sacred cow and handmaiden to three life-changing events in world history—slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust.

Basu believes he has addressed all of this. He says Racists was prompted by an idea greater than the sum of its parts. “Why are we fascinated by human difference? It is natural to note difference, but why do we the take the next step and ask what it means?” It is a sound reason to write a book.

Especially one so linguistically measured and carefully researched as this. Basu, whose earlier novels, The Opium Clerk and The Miniaturist were well-received, insists he is a careful craftsman.

“The language is not incidental to the story…I invest a lot of time in my writing,” he claims, adding a tad boastfully that he “is not interested in writing classics of the kitchen sink” but wants to roam, through his fiction, “a world not commonly traversed, geographically or in time span”.

Again, it is a valid sentiment. Admirable too, if one considers the need for our turning world to internalise Basu’s basic premise – ”that science is a false prophet, it cannot answer every question asked by man.

Unfortunately, the reader is left wondering about the answer and what might have been, had Basu delayed the grand finale and stuck with his story to the bitter end.

Rashmee Roshan Lall / World Report