…the fundamental knowledge that is acquired should be transfered to the next generation through our genes. When animal instincts are thus transmitted, why aren’t intellectual capabilities inherited?”
“That is because mankind’s collective intellectual achievements are monumental. Only a very small part of the immense knowledge gained by society is stored in the brain of an individual. Most of us retain only relevant information about our chosen field of expertise and even that would be a tiny percentage of the existing knowledge in that particular field. Even an extremely intelligent geologist or a doctor would have assimilated only a small part of all existing knowledge. Knowledge is recorded and preserved in millions of books and computers to be used when needed. A man who learns to drive a car doesn’t genetically pass on this ability to his progeny; he has to teach them. In the same way, education from a qualified teacher is an important aspect of growing up. This limitation of the human brain has been confirmed by this experiment. This is a problem for geneticists. Even if a highly intelligent person’s cells are used to create a baby, knowledge needs to be imparted to the child as it grows up. The human brain might be a supercomputer that works quickly and as accurately in relation to the available data. So if you deliberately do not feed the computer of data or deprive it in a language that the computer understands, it will helplessly deteriorate just as the evolved modern-day humans will become like cave people.’
Alpha by award-winning T. D. Ramakrishnan ( translated from the Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is his debut novel about thirteen people who live on an island called Alpha for twenty five years. It is published by PanMacmillan India. It is an experiment conducted by anthropologist professor Upelendu Chatterjee at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The twelve members of his team were from different Indian states and faiths. The experiment was unique in that the investigators had to be their own subjects. The professor had discovered this remote island that was not to be found on any published map. The people he took on this experiment were academics, bureaucrat, artists, painters, doctor etc. They were young, knowledgeable and were enthusiastic practitioners of their discipline. The professor was clear that if they were to accompany him to Alpha, then “They would have to give up all knowledge gained since the uncertain emergence of their lives. Go back to zero — the beginning — and from there start once again. In other words, alpha, beta gamma.” The professor plans the experiment meticulously. So much so that he leaves instructions with one of his students to search for the island in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, the student, Professor Satish Chandra Banerji, himself falls ill and is paralysed, so he persuades in turn one of his students, Avinash, to go in search of this island and ascertain if there are any survivors. When Avinash arrives at the island, he discovers three of the original team have survived. But there is also a small community of forty-seven people — men, women, and children. He brings home the three survivors — Malini, Santosh and Urmila.
Alpha turns out to be an experiment that went horribly wrong. The participants had to follow strictly the rules imposed by the professor including avoiding all learned language, speech, and therefore communication of ideas. They also had to forget all their knowledge about medicine, anthropology, science, arts etc. It made for a very chaotic but also carnal form of communal living. There were no rules for social and moral conduct and yet there were the rules as stipulated by the professor. Also, over a period of time, a peculiar hierarchy had come into place, where the professor by virtue of being the seniormost by nearly a generation was given his special cave dwelling and accorded a respect that was not necessarily reserved for the others. All individuals were meant to be treated at par. When the next generation was born, they had no knowledge of the previous generation’s skills and accomplishments, nor did the parents deign to teach their kids any skills. They were left to fend for themselves. It was back to a primeval form of living. Base. Violent. No rules. No authority except for the authoritarian professor.
T. D. Ramakrishnan wrote this book in 2003. The author is an Indian Railways officer. Perhaps it is a coincidence that this novel was written soon afer the Godhra riots of 2002 that were sparked off by the burning of a railway carriage. Yet, the story itself is set between 1973 and 1998. It begins at the time of the former prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. But the lens that fiction provides for contemporary society cannot be ignored. The uneasy commentary provided by the author that centuries of learning, culture and knowledge are completely disrupted by authoritarianism is a worrying idea. Once the damage is inflicted, how does society recover? Is it possible? Or does the island in the story become a metaphor for real life that such a society if forever marooned, it regresses and will take a long time to recover or be at par with rest of civilisation.
Interpreting Alpha as an allegory is perhaps doing it a disservice but it is hard to read it in any other manner. Otherwise reading it as a straightforward story results in asking many more questions than the story itself posed. The author pushes the limits to every boundary, especially that of time, knowledge, life skills, and brain development in speculating its impact on the individual and society and what does it mean to be human?
Alpha is a peculiar story. It is powerfully told. No wonder it achieved the success that it did in Malayalam. This is the first time it has been translated into English. Read it. It is going to be talked about for a long, long time to come. It is not going to be easy to forget. Try it.
21 Feb 2022