Narratives of `truth' and fiction
Racists is a story about science, about the possibility of science being a story.
Racists, Kunal Basu, Penguin India, 2006, p.214, Rs. 250.
RACISTS is a story about science, about the possibility of science being a story, and not a very pleasant story at that. It elaborates, in fictional terms, the possibility of science being just another form of narrative, highlighting that which is usually glossed over in traditional accounts of the history science: the role of the narrator himself (usually gendered) and the circumstances in which he tells his story which have quite a bearing on the way the 'plot' develops. It brings the narrator back, as it were, into the story of science.
The novel is set in the mid 19th century, just a few years before the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, when "scientists" were trying to explain the "variations" in the human race and trying to arrange the races within a hierarchy. As the narrator says, it was "a time to rejoice, as scientists finally turned their minds from the mystery of things to the mystery of man. From arranging the millions of stars neatly into a universe, to arranging the motley races strewn ... across the earth. From discovering nature's laws to building a theory of the human species" (p.27).
At the forefront of mapping the difference between the races and the explaining them away into convenient slots is the "science" of craniology, or measuring the size of the skull, and indirectly the brain, to explain superiority of races. Samuel Bates is the master craniologist, ready to crack the puzzle of human variations. According to him all races belonged to the same species, but, like siblings, were not equal. He measures skulls to prove the superiority of Europeans.
The race to truth
Competing with him are the polygenists, represented in the novel by Jean-Louis Belavoix, who claim that different races developed separately, totally unrelated to each other and that the only term on which they can relate to each other is that of aggression. An experiment is conceived to test the competing theories, whereby two infants, one black and another white, are to be brought up totally isolated in an island, looked after by a dumb nurse whose only job is to see that they are kept alive. She (again deliberately gendered) is not to tell them stories or teach them games or music and there are strict rules laid out for her interaction with the "samples", as the scientists refer to the children. If the craniologist is right, the white girl will emerge superior. But if Belavoix is correct, then either one will kill the other before long.
As the experiment unfolds, slowly the boundaries between the observed and observer begin to blur. The observer in fact is as much a part of the experiment as the subjects themselves and directs its course in more ways than he is aware of. Basu seems to say that science is not just a straightforward affair of drawing verifiable conclusions from observable data. That a lot a circumstances that are usually glossed over and which are totally external to science per se the question of funding, the motives of those who fund science, the competition between competing theories and scientists and its impact on the way science is conducted, the explicit link between colonialism abroad and the flourishing of science in its early days in Europe, the sciences' subservience to the dominating ideologies are not factored in in our narratives of the need and quest for knowledge.
These are legitimate enough and familiar enough questions to raise but it is to Basu's credit that he succeeds in working these out in fictional terms. Racists works well primarily as fiction, without sounding like a self-righteous treatise on racism and the sociology of science.
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