Thursday, May 18, 2006

Short review: Racists

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.)

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.

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.

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”.


  1. Hello Jai,

    Have you read Kunal Desai's Miniaturist? You have provided the link for it, was wondering if you had a chance to read it, I loved Orhan Pamuk's 'My Name is Red' which is about the same theme more or less, so was wondering if you had a look at this one.


    p.s On an added note, whats the best way to order books from Delhi, if you want them shipped overseas, i.e. authors not featured in Amazon. Any tips would help

  2. You say, in your PS,

    'a novel by an Indian author that doesn't have an Indian setting, an Indian character, or even an Indian reference'

    and I thought, isn't it odd how when we are children writing stories in our English Composition classes, we come up with wildly un-'Indian' names for our principal characters--Justine was one of mine (but never, I'm happy to report, Balthazar, Mountolive or any one of the nine muses). Sometimes they have red hair or blue eyes, and speak in a weird language. And though the stories came back with several red marks for other reasons, mostly our teachers never questioned our choices of names or settings.

    Then one day without quite knowing how, we become conscious of our 'Indianness' and choose appropriate stories--and names. Until a Kunal Basu or a Vikram Seth book becomes an object of wonder.


  3. Space Bar: true, so true. It goes hand in hand with our imaginations being stifled as we grow older - and the shock some people feel when they see adults reading "children's" books. And I actually know people who won't read books by non-Indian writers because they don't see how those can be relevant to the realities of their own lives.

    Priya: yes, have read Miniaturist (I wouldn't have described it as being "intelligent and restrained" if I hadn't!). But really, there's very little similarity between that book and My Name is Red except for the broad setting.

    I don't know much about shipping, but have you tried FirstandSecond? Don't know if they have a wide selection of titles though...

  4. What about gender and the sociocultural constructs of it? Does the book also deal with this? Am interested because, just as there was a deliberate choice of race, is the fact that there is a boy and a girl also deliberate -- or just a convenient way to introduce a romance angle into the plot?

  5. No romantic angle - the story doesn't move beyond the point where the children are 6-7 years old. The choice of a white girl is Bates’s, to make his "victory" all the more conclusive - since a white girl in his view represents an "inferior white", his idea is to show that even a lesser white can assert her supremacy over the black race.

  6. Ah. Ok. So it was deliberate then, based on Bates's belief that the female, like the non-white, is inherently inferior. Thanks for clarifying... Sounds like an interesting book all in all, even though I'd be reading it with my mind already made up to dislike Bates.

  7. Space Bar, Jabberwock, I think the identification with white children and western names happens much less due to a highly developed imagination in childhood than the continual exposure to the likes of Enid Blyton and Just William. Our imaginations were shaped by these books.

    Which of us haven't thought of ourselves a part of the Five Find Outers or haven't had a midnight feast at Malory Towers? I used to invent really cool names for myself to 'fit in'. (Of course, Jai, being saddled with a handle like mine is problematic at the best of times. You have the advantage there)

  8. Shrabonti: you're right but we were making another point in those comments - about how, as we grow up, we are expected to gradually discard the things that are deemed to not be directly relevant to our lives. And how that leads to a circumscribing of our imaginations. Talking animals for instance become a definite no-no, regardless of their nationality - whether it's Brer Fox or Chamataka the jackal from Tinkle comics. [In my imagination the two of them used to meet up frequently for rabbit stew.]

    Also, indirectly, about how we start accumulating labels with which to mark ourselves and others as we move out of childhood. Most of us are far more inclusive creatures as children than as adults (in terms of being open to different ideas and allowing different worlds to inhabit our minds).

  9. Mail, I believe they ship and they are pretty extensive in terms of catalogue.


  10. I completed the novel yesterday and I agree 100% with you on the review. I thought that the end was really very disappointing and very rushed. The story had a lot of potential but in the end it seemed wasted. The story started well and the build up was great but the second half was a disappointment esp. the part about Black boy in the end.

    What was the conclusion of the book? The arab part in the end was so filmy. Do a whole Arab ship/boat will come to the island to grab one black boy? I would have rather seen them move to Canada and end the story there.

    I liked the character of the nurse too a lot. It had great potential. And, yea the premise of the story without an Indian character was surprising yet refreshing.

  11. did anybody get that the black boy in a way or manner sacrifized himself for the leading the attention of the slavers to himself...???