Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar reviews ‘Alpha’ by TD Ramakrishnan, translated by Priya K. Nair

A novel about an experience with an early conclusion that made me wonder why the author wrote it in the first place

A novel about an experience with an early conclusion that made me wonder why the author wrote it in the first place

It is a moving novel. Thirteen people travel to a ‘previously uninhabited island’ somewhere in the Indian Ocean and spend 25 years there.[going] back to zero – the beginning – and from there start again. In other words, alpha, beta, gamma”.

The team is led by a professor of anthropology, who is simply referred to as “Professor”. Eleven of his 12 companions come from privileged backgrounds similar to his. They are journalists, academics, a geologist, a classical dancer, a painter, a former bureaucrat and a doctor. Once on the island, which they call Alpha, the participants abandon their languages ​​and the knowledge they have acquired so far to start afresh, to “live like primitive beings, for twenty-five years, uncontrolled by the norms of society, without rules”. or laws”.

For me, the experiment seemed doomed. But it was interesting to see how it plays out, combined with the ideas of the surviving members. The motivations for such a bizarre experiment intrigued me: “The professor believed that the new generation on Alpha would quickly acquire knowledge and be able to analyze and conceptualize at a higher level.” Participants, on the other hand, joined because “[m]most of them aspired to a life without taboos and without law”.

A life without taboos

The backgrounds of the participants are instructive here – the teacher is Upelendu Chatterjee, possibly a Bengali, Hindu Brahmin; the others have surnames like Desai, Bhatnagar, Menon, Mehta, Sarkar, Sharma and Dasgupta, revealing their social privilege. Perhaps to balance things out a bit, there is a lonely Muslim character whom the others do not consider “their equal due to his low social status and lack of formal education”. Would someone from, say, a working-class background, a Dalit or an Adivasi have joined the experience?

“Would anyone from, say, a working-class background, a Dalit or an Adivasi join the experience?”

Because, one of their motivations is a life “without taboos”. The word “taboo” suggests a society bound by rules and regulations, a hierarchical society governed by considerations of caste and class. What if the participants didn’t practice caste differentiation in the first place? The descendants of the experience are said to have “failed to grasp the repetitive nature of the seasons and the possibility of agriculture.” Well, that’s because they didn’t have any farmers in attendance, I thought. In practice, farmers and the working class simply do not have the luxury of the fancy trips planned by the privileged class.

Points to ponder

There are more things to ponder. An experience that would force its subjects to return to their primal selves would involve giving way to unbridled lust and sex. But sex on Alpha is forced, with “the strongest males…controlling the females”. At one point, sex is described as “a spiritual experience” and “a yagna… with the chanting of mantras by a sanyasi. All of this sex is heterosexual, of course. Were none of the participants homosexual or is it suggested that all ancestors of modern humans were straight?

It hurts even to observe a supposedly meaningless experience like this. The person in charge of the experiment after 25 years is another top academic, a certain Professor Banerji, who “lived in a peaceful old building in South Delhi”. The survivors are taken to meet him only to be told by his servant that he “must not be disturbed”. They are accommodated in a hotel in Delhi so that they can stay close to Professor Banerji. The picture is funny — the former inhabitants of Alpha, where they “[ate] raw fish and bird meat to survive” for 25 years, staying in a hotel!

Why did TD Ramakrishnan write this book, I wonder. I hope it’s to convince academia of the futility of an experiment like Alpha.

Alpha by TD Ramakrishnan, Very Priya K. Nair, Pan Macmillan India, ₹599

The critic wrote this piece in Chandil, where he is currently stationed.

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