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September 23, 2014

Cultural Superiority and the modern Indian: A conversation around The Ekkos Clan

The_Ekkos_Clan_CoverIn 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 debutant author Sudipto Das, The Ekkos Clan is essentially a mystery novel, but is grounded in a substantial base of research and exploration into our past. This journey was not 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 to find answers to questions that man has posed to himself every now and then: Where did I come from?

The novel starts from the 1946 Noakhali Riots and the struggles of one family through the Partition of Bengal, and swiftly moves to exploring much more subtle 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 currently occupied by a very few.

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).

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 revealed that this choice was influenced by the fact 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 idea 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 then introduced 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, 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?).

While nationalists and puritans fight it out among each other, 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.

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