Monday, January 25, 2010


Kunal Basu, Kolkatta born English author, picks up a controversial topic and tries to spin an intriguing story around it. Though this book falls under the genre of science fiction, it would be apt to call it anthropological fiction. The main plot of the story is an experiment to determine which among the two human races; White or Black is the superior race. It’s difficult to establish who the protagonist of the story is, as each one tends to lead the plot in his/her own way. First, there are the two scientists; an English and the other French, who are the brain behind the racial experiment. Second, a set of children; one black and the other white, who are the subjects, a mute nurse, in charge of bringing up the kids. Then there is the scientist’s assistance, with a mind of his own. Last but not the least, a remote, desolate island which forms the backdrop of the experiment.

The story takes place in the latter half of the 19th century, when transatlantic slave trade is at its peak. The English scientist, Bates, a craniologist, believes that the white race is superior to the black and it’s the destiny of the black people to serve their white masters. He proves it by the measurements of scores of human skulls, of different races, procured from all around the world. His assistant, Quartley, is in charge of up-keep of these skulls. The French scientist, Belavoix, doesn’t agree to his English counterpart’s views and, based on his close study of the various civilizations of the world, advocates that the two races are better in their own right and that the superiority is not unidirectional. They challenge each other to an experiment, by isolating two babies, a black boy and a white girl, on a beautiful but remote island, away from human contact and ethics. They are to be brought up by a speechless nurse, who would just feed and protect them. She is instructed not to act as a mother to these children and other strict dos and don’ts. She is not to teach the kids anything and they are to grow up on their own, with the island being their school. All necessary supplies to the island are provided by the benevolence of the English society, which wants a proof of the white supremacy. The experiment is to last for 12 years and the scientists are too come to the island every six months to observe and study their subjects. Bates believes that the white girl, sooner than later, by her actions prove that she is the master to the black boy. The French on the other hand predicts that the children will become savages and one of them will murder the other.

The first half of the story grips the reader with a vivid description of the island; a small land mass in the African coast, isolated from the world, the dense forest which covers the island under a thick foliage and protects its inmates from prying eyes and how the island is only connected to the world by a ship, whose captain is a backer of the English scientist. The author beautifully sketches the personalities of the characters, with Bates being the irate and finicky one and the French being the docile and compromising type, though quiet often he picks on the nerves of his opposite number. There is constant squabbling going on between the scientists throughout. The narrative also gives details into how the children are growing, their eerie habits, their fights and how with each passing year the children are becoming more savage. Often the author is seen tilting the balance of power between the kids and this keeps the reader interested. There is mystery woven around the nurse and the assistant and it keeps the plot alive. The author indulges the reader with a hint of ‘something’ between Bates and the nurse and then switches the focus to the affection between his assistant and the nurse. Then towards the end it is revealed that the nurse is in fact not mute. The story then picks up pace where the assistant convinces Bates to return to the island, one last time and concurrently connives with the ship’s captain to help him and the nurse escape from the island. Though the author picks up a contemporary topic, it is nearly impossible for him to provide the answer to the basic premise of the story. The answer to; which is the superior race; white or black? The question might be quiet relevant today with Mr Obama becoming the first man of the white world, but that’s where the book falls short of the expectations. The reader picks up the book thinking that it’s the final frontier but gets nothing more than an average fiction story. The book starts with a big promise, then hooks you on to the lives of the characters as if trying to move you away from the big question and finally ends with a compromise of sorts. But then perhaps it’s not correct to ask such a question in the first place; at least not politically. Pick this up if you are someone who enjoys the journey and not the destination.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very interesting to find you writing reviews. very nice