Charting the Cranium Underneath the Color

Charting the Cranium Underneath the Color

A review of:

RACISTS by Kunal Basu; Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2006; Pages 214, Rs.250

Racists by Kunal Basu, is a poignant tale of the scientific racism that was rampant in nineteenth century Europe. The title, simple and suggestive, reeks of what is to come, but falls short in that it is too direct while one begins to anticipate allegorical nibbles and analogies. Considering that racism is an area that is widely discussed but rarely explored with quality literary works even harder to find, it is considered politically taboo thereby stifling true scientific discourse and hence, literary appreciation is due. But think fiction with a spine of racism, and the incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird will still race all others to the top, although it is a trifle unfair to compare these two with their totally different narratives. The similarities end with the boy-girl duo on which the narratives are built with the sole similarity in style being the bildungsroman approach of both, wherein the protagonists evolve physically and mentally with the flow of the story.

The year is 1855 and an experiment, so anachronistic in nature is envisaged, that it is doomed right from seed for its sheer audacity. Two eminent scientists, at the zenith of their parallel professions, dream up a foolhardy experiment, fairly typical of the era, in order to resolve a debate that has been storming academic circles for decades - whether the European is inherently superior to the African, and the manner.

Professor Samuel Bates, a craniologist by profession at the Royal College of Physicians and Monsieur Jean-Louis Belavoix, a member of Societe` Ethnologique de Paris shoulder the self-imposed responsibility of proving European superiority and studying the ethnological differences of races, with the fashionable Franco-British rivalry of the era dividing them in approach. Bates' assistant Nicholas Quartley tries to bridge the regional divide in vain and the conversations between the flirtatious Frenchman, the stubborn Briton, and the assistant caught between the two add subtle humor to an otherwise stark tale.

The scientist duo concoct an elaborate experiment to be held over a period of twelve years. They plan to establish the superiority of their individual and distinct theories by raising two babies right until adolescence in an unexplored island off the coast of Africa called Arlinda. They plan to use a white girl of European descent and a black African boy, and recruit a mute nurse Norah so that the "samples" can be studied in their natural environment with no external, societal interference. They lay down Ten Commandments that Norah must follow while raising the children in order to ensure that the "samples" actually do grow up wild. While the absurdity of the situation hits the reader full force, the author subtly highlights the ignorance of the people of the era who will accept anything that is tagged "scientific" - that the veneer of science subdues all and sundry.

Supposedly a great orator, Bates opens his public speeches with puzzles- "That the Negro is more a monkey than a man can't be denied but why is it so ...?" and would elucidate by comparing the skull of a European, "the race that produced Newton and Shakespeare", to one of races of African origin: "the inferior sibling, unable to count the numbers of their fingers." Belavoix, on the other hand is a polygenist who nihilistically believes that the "races are not siblings, but strangers" and are unrelated.

Bates' work titled the Chain of Races is compared to Aristotle's scala naturae, charting the entire human race on the basis of the cranial features of each race. He positioned the European right at the top of the chain, while the bottom was reserved for people of color. "A man he is like us, but a lesser man!" was his oft repeated announcement to an appreciative crowd - where science doesn't hold stead, !

Belavoix's thesis on race, perturbateur, on the other hand was considered “arch-heresy in the eyes of most scientists” – his trademark comment being "Two hands and two feet, a head and a belly don't make the same animal." His stand in the duel is that one of the "samples" will kill the other, and even goes to the extent of suggesting to Bates that a knife be given to the children in order to bring the charade to its proper end, but is instantly rebuffed by the latter. Bates, although, does concede to fetching a mirror and observing the reactions of the boy and the girl. And when the girl appears slightly more curious about the mirror, as opposed to the boy who simply runs away scared by the thing, Bates swells with pride at this small success- that a European girl who is considered inferior to the European man is actually superior to a black boy, the best Africa has to offer. Here thunders the sexual discrimination predominant of the period, under an aegis of racial discrimination, which is further swept under a veneer of science.

The book stresses on the liberal English philanthropy of the day, in the form of Bates's crippled but wealthy wife, Louisa, who for all her idiosyncrasies and his dumb brainstorms, sponsors his experiments and voyages, all the while taking active part in the popularization of the experiment and demands but periodic reports of the travels. It is when she is convinced by Esther Graham, “Louisa's most obedient friend, her spy, the social butterfly who brought her the world's silly bits” and some others, and concludes that the children are being ill-treated that financial trouble for Bates starts brewing, which finally leads to an upheaval that stops the experiment just five years into its course - "The curse of the Dark Continent hurts anyone who intrudes into her bosom. She's best left alone for God to decide what He wants to do with her wretched inhabitants", Esther's theology scoffing Quartley's reasoning and Bates' defense, as she precedes this by "The bedwetting ... children running around naked.. it won't be long now before they start getting curious ... before they start to amuse themselves", exemplifying the narrow-minded view of the day.

Between all this surfaces the love affair between Quartley and Norah, after many a billet doux and his arrival again in Arlinda - this time alone. Norah confesses that her dumbness was a charade, but conveys that she really did try very hard to keep her part of the bargain. This is the foundation on which they decide to prevent the experiment from a "natural conclusion", which is helped mightily by the death of the monsieur. They decide to elope, taking the children with them but Quartley's reasoned planning is favored by Darwin's timely entry into the scientific society of the day and the Royal Society's support of Darwin's theory of evolution which is chalked out by detailed and actual scientific analysis, as compared to Bates's measly and ignorant hypotheses. This along with Belavoix's death, exhaustion of Bates' funding, and Captain Perry's (who heads 'the Rainbow', the ship which is a staple of the voyages) help, buttresses Quartley's prosperous future.

The denouement is almost anti-climactic in that author surrenders to an all's-well-that-ends-well-ending instead of ameliorating on the stark and savage promise of the narration, sponged with subtle British humor. When a book is built on the backbone of discrimination, that too involving societies that were in the middle of a transition from the medieval to the modern exemplified with military conquests and ritualistic streaks interlaced with gory exhibitionism, taking cue from ghastly exhibits such as the Hottentot Venus (displayed in England in the early nineteenth century, before public intervention from the African Association), one feels the tale to be incomplete.

An account of European ideals of racial supremacy, alternating between Africa and Britain as backgrounds, by an Indian author is sure to be interesting - the potpourri of science, sociology, politics, philanthropy and geography, is indeed gripping but somehow ceases to satisfy.