The Modern Indian Looks Back: A Conversation around The Ekkos Clan

(A version of this article appeared on NewsYaps)

In the high altitudes of the snow mountain lives the powerful Indar. He uses his weapons, the thunderbolt and fire, to break into pieces the glaciers that crawl down the mountains like Ahi, a big dragon. The ice melts and releases from captivity the swollen waters. Thus the river is born. Full of life, the liberated waters flow like streams of milk, gushing through the slits and splits of mountains like freed cattle running towards their mother…

Written by débutante author Sudipto Das, the Ekkos Clan is essentially a mystery novel exploring the lives of multiple generations of a family as they realise a pattern of mysterious deaths and unknown benefactors around them. It’s not the average whodunnit though, and is grounded in a substantial base of research and exploration into our past and the origins of our civilisation. This journey wasn’t made with the aid of tangible historical remains and proofs, which diminish once you try to step further after going back a few millennia, but instead, a more living, breathing form of residue from our ancient past is combed through: language.

Kratu, Sudipto’s protagonist, finds himself suspended deep in a clash between two mysterious forces, and sets on a quest across continents and cultures to find answers to questions that man has posed to himself since gaining sentience: Where did I come from?

The novel starts with the 1946 Noakhali Riots and the struggles of one family through the Partition of Bengal, and swiftly moves to exploring much less pronounced forms of cultural suppression and struggle. In the meanwhile, the hidden nuances of past in our music, literature, and most importantly, language, are looked into, leading to fascinating insights about our past and about our ancestors.

This application of linguistic palaeontology amidst a mystery novel, marked with glimpses of mythology and historical narrative, is unique in an Indian setting, and places both the author and the novel at a space occupied by a very few in the contemporary Indian literary scene.

Another point of interest is how the work has been neatly sprinkled with an array of pop-culture references, from a character’s altruistic choice to work at a rural bank run by a professor in Jobra, to a starry sight of the ‘Brocaded Sky’ that could very well inspire Gulzar (Zariwaale Aasmaan, if you will). I spotted a couple of subtle references to Kharagpur as well (Sudipto being an alumnus of IIT-Kgp), but they’re not likely to be noticed by anyone else aside from those connected with the institution.

With regards to the accuracy of the contents of the book, it should be noted that there is no historical consensus as to the origin of the Aryans or the supposed Indo-European Urheimat, and there possibly may never be. The author has chosen to follow a particular school of thought (which, he admits, may not be universally acceptable), and clearly dove into its depths to maintain faithfulness with it. Whether one agrees with it or not, the book remains a thrilling read, and one can be expected to develop greater understanding and curiosity about this complex subject after having read the book.

Delhi Launch of the Ekkos Clan

Myself, Sudipto, and Omair at the launch of the Ekkos Clan at Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, Delhi

Earlier this month, The Ekkos Clan was released in Delhi at the Oxford Bookstore, in presence of acclaimed writer Omair Ahmad. I was also a panelist at the event, and our conversation moved around the book as well as the larger issues of cultural subjugation and its many faces.

When asked why he chose the medium of fiction to showcase his work, Sudipto said that this was because he believed that fiction can draw in many more patrons than perhaps a rigorous academic work, even one which may be investigating the same subject. This seemed to echo a sentiment from the book itself, that magnanimous events which may not survive generations otherwise can survive millennia by being told and retold in the form of fables and bedtime stories.

Discussion moved from the Rig Veda to the ideas of racial supremacy and the Aryan Übermensch, and an interesting thread about the link between patriotism and cultural superiority emerged. The notion of cultural purity is an undying one, and has always found greater magnitude in the presence of foreign cultures. What one generation considers love for the land and country, the next may well consider xenophobia.

Omair espoused the idea that cultural superiority, if it leads to absolutism, becomes a cancer that leads to decline and ultimately demise of the very roots it tried to uphold. This is the fate suffered by many of the ancient languages, held in protective cages by the contemporary clergy class, which are now only left to be studied post-doctorate, not spoken. Or, as Sudipto pointed out, companies, such as Kodak, Nokia, or Blackberry, took less than a few decades (in some cases even half-a-decade) to go from being market-leading innovators to the capitalistic equivalents of failed states. One wonders what the future has in store for today’s large, rabidly-followed cultural icons, religions, and brands (Apple being an example of all three).

On a lighter note, one of the audience members enquired about a growing trend of IITians entering bookshelves in India, and how this particular work ‘fits in’. Many cheeky references to Chetan Bhagat later, we concluded that the Indian Institutes of Technology are just schools or institutions that makes engineers and scientists of students, who are then free to pursue their own interests and passions. Generalising this phenomenon makes little sense, and its best if ‘IIT’ were not treated as a genre of literature.

The race between nationalists and cultural puritans is an unending one, and historical revisionists, conspiracy theorists, and right-wing nutjobs will continue fighting it out, either on the political stage, or at the nether ends of the blogosphere. Meanwhile, the modern Indian is now looking inward with a sense of existential angst. As residents and non-resident Indians alike try to locate India, and themselves, in the wider world, I am sure some of those curiosities can be further fuelled with a reading of the Ekkos Clan.