Kunal Basu's Racists, a strange little book set roughly between 1855 and 1862, has an absorbing setup: two babies, a black boy and a white girl, are left to grow up together on a deserted island with only a mute nurse to provide them with food and shelter. The question being asked is: thus cut off from the lessons of civilisation, with no knowledge of the roles they are expected to inhabit, what will they grow up to become? And will one of the two eventually assert dominance over the other?
This is a private experiment arranged by two men of science in order to settle their differences. Professor Samuel Bates, a master craniologist with a large private skull collection representing dozens of races and tribes from around the world, believes that some races are demonstrably superior to others: the European stands at the top of the chain, the Negro at the bottom. His rival Jean-Louis Belavoix, a member of the Societé Ethnologique de Paris, retorts that the races are in fact different species: "Would you compare a horse with a zebra?" Belavoix, who is innately pessimistic about the past and future of the human species, maintains that the only thing the races share is the germ of hatred for each other – all races, he proclaims, are doomed to plunder and be plundered, to murder and die. His prediction for the isolated children is that they will grow up equal, but that one will eventually murder the other. (Naturally, Bates's prediction is that the white girl will leave the forest superior to the black boy.)
Racists is essentially the story of this clash of ideologies, but despite the intriguing premise the book doesn't hold together in the end. Basu teases us with some interesting ideas (notably that the real proof of racial superiority is "the skill, the power, the cunning to kill if necessary… the ability of the civilised, the most civilised of all, to show the highest savagery") but he doesn't see them through. To start with, we don't get enough time with the children as they grow up, primal little beasts, in this Garden of Eden-meets-Island of Dr Moreau. Then the scientists themselves go missing for a while and a considerable part of the book's mid-section is given over to a burgeoning romance between the nurse and Prof Bates's assistant Quartley. (In fact, the character of the nurse does have a lot of potential for exploration – imagine the predicament of a woman living essentially in solitude for years on end, looking after the children but not permitted to be a mother or teacher to them – but the relationship between her and the assistant is stilted and unconvincing.)
And finally, given that the early chapters are so languid and drawn-out, the book rushes to an untidy conclusion in the final 30 or so pages – the effect is as if Basu had initially been given the go-ahead to write an 80,000-word tome and then been asked to pare it down to 60,000 when he was halfway through.
Racists is still interesting enough in concept, and to an extent in execution, for me to want to endorse it in some way. One of the things I liked was its depiction of the loss of humanity in the pursuit of science (how could Bates care so much about variation in the human species and yet have so little concern for the humans he knew, Quartley wonders). The writing mostly has the same intelligence and restraint that was on view in Basu's last book The Miniaturist, an engrossing historical fiction about the artist Bihzad in Emperor Akbar's court. The quality of the research is solid too, the period detail believable, but Racists never quite takes off as the novel of ideas it aspires to be, which is a real pity.
P.S. One of the interesting things about this book outside of its merits and demerits is that it's a member of a rare species – a novel by an Indian author that doesn't have an Indian setting, an Indian character, or even an Indian reference (except for a minor allusion to the 1857 Mutiny). This is quite rare. I remember when Vikram Seth's An Equal Music was published in 1999, many of the reviews devoted much space to marveling about the fact that the book “had no Indian connection”.