Kunal Basu's 'Racists' unfolds in the early 19th century on a remote island in Africa. This island becomes the setting for an unusual experiment carried out by two European scientists of the pre-Darwin era, each trying to prove the validity of his hypothesis about racial superiority. The experiment is unusual in that it is carried out on two human 'samples', a white girl and a black boy, over an extended period of time, twelve years, without societal intervention except for the presence of Norah, the mute nurse. The two 'samples' are moved to this island as new born infants in the care of Norah whose job is simply to feed them and keep them alive; she is not to discipline them, teach them, or to reward them in any way.
Basu, a Professor of Management Studies at Said School of Business, Oxford, published this novel in 2006. A man given to crunching numbers and studying markets has created for himself a literary pallet out of which he has painted many a canvases with varying backdrops: China of the early 19th century in 'The Opium Clerk', India in the 16th century in 'The Miniaturist' during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and then a pre-Darwin Europe in 'Racists'. His choice of settings is remarkable since each one of them catapulted the world into a significantly different era of socio-scientific awareness.
This novel had been on my reading list on the recommendations of Eshuneutics, and perchance I happened to have read this novel just as I finished rereading the Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Racial differences and their possible origins were on the minds of most thinking people in the early 1900s, and the likes of H.G. Wells made these subjects their literary fodder to create stories and novels that would forever document the pre-Darwin obsession with racial asymmetry. Basu followed suit but in the 21 st century, and in 'Racists' he has tried to capture the development/trend of scientific thought as it pertained to racial segregation then. Through the novel he forces his readers to revisit the various steps in evolutionary Biology that lead to Darwin's Origin of Species. Absurd and antiquated as some of the dialectic in the novel may sound to the modern reader, it indeed articulates the infancy of a scientific renaissance; 'craniology' as presented in the novel was perhaps a stepping stone/ a precursor to the establishment of modern evolutionary theories introduced by Darwin.
I enjoyed the novel as it was quite the page turner, but somehow I had to suspend my disbelief at numerous points simply because I wanted to see what Mr. Basu was leading up to. It was the overall idea of the novel that proved to be more appealing than its writing style, its characters, or even the unfolding of the plot itself. Having said that, it is still a novel worth reading if you are looking for something to stimulate the mind. It's almost as if Basu presents this complex situation amid a setting that is vibrant and explosive, but then he leaves it to the reader to make of it what he may because the conclusion Basu provides is rather unsatisfying and this leads the reader to find alternate explanations/ solutions/ conclusions to the story.