“Racists”, by Kunal Basu

Racists. (Kunal Basu, Penguin, 2006).

While sipping comforting cocoa in the cafeteria of a high-tech Indian hospital that provides health services internationally, my eyes fell on a book displayed on the shelves of the gift shop. Three words caught my attention: Racists and Kunal Basu. Very a propos, because racism is the thread that runs through this Montreal Serai issue and Kunal Basu is the name of a young student who used to act in Montreal Serai plays way back when MS was both a producer of thespian culture as well as its enthusiastic critic and much more. Twenty years down the road Montreal Serai has morphed into a highly respected cultural and political ezine still intent on bringing the margins to the centre and Kunal Basu has grown into his current role of author of two previously acclaimed novels –The Miniaturist and The Opium Clerk – as well as teacher at Oxford University. Growth is a factor of time.

Racists, like the name suggests, is a novel that deals with the construction of the concept of race by European “scientists” to justify their colonial and slave-trading practices during the middle of the 19th Century. It takes the form of an adventurous voyage from the British Isles to the Rock of Gibraltar and beyond where “black gold” in the form of African slaves for the American Colonies and “white gold” in the form of European women for seraglios East of the Bosphorous were mined to maintain what was considered a fair balance of trade. The story revolves around a cruel experiment with two innocent infants foreshadowing even more cruel pseudoscientific experiments that were to be perpetrated in Europe a century down the road at the behest of a self-styled superior race. But most importantly for the reader, Racists is a touching love story between a man and a woman, between the woman and her children and between the children themselves, cutting across an artificial racial and class divide.

Racists is such a riveting read that I lost a whole night’s sleep over it because I could simply not put the book down. Kunal Basu has plunged into the muck and filth of the coal mines of racism and colonialism to hew a single pure shimmering diamond whose beauty speaks for itself.