Bhrigu fell at her feet. “Ma, don’t go,” he pleaded, crying softly. “Let us all die together. I don’t want to survive like this. Let them kill all of us. Don’t go.” Khubha raised Bhrigu and held him to her. “Remember the river? He never stops, he never gets lost. He has to flow, and he should flow. If there are mountains in the way, he goes around them. He jumps and leaps and makes waterfalls. Do whatever you like, but never die. Anything is better than death. Let me go now.” Khubha closed the door. Bhrigu heard the door of the other room slam shut. Soon, he heard hushed cries of pain.”
This is an extract from Sudipto Das’s remarkable novel, The Ekkos Clan, where, for the first time, the experience of Hindus in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) is meticulously described. These includes riots, rapes, stabbings, and communal carnage. “There was an equally horrific experience on the Bangladesh side, just as it was on the Punjab-Pakistan side,” says Sudipto, while on a reading trip at the Just Books store in Kochi. “But not many people know about it. Even in Bengali literature, there is hardly any exploration of what had happened.”
And in his research Sudipto came across an interesting phenomenon. “The atrocities were not done by the local Muslims but by the Bihari Muslims who came across the border and did mayhem,” he says. “In fact, the Bangla Muslims saved many Hindu families.”
Sudipto, himself, is of East Bengal origin. Like the two youngsters in the novel, his uncle, then 14, and father, only seven, made a daring escape, at the insistence of their mother, and made their way to Kolkata.
Many relatives followed suit. But despite living in Kolkata for fifty-odd years, home still meant Bangladesh. “They talked about Bangladesh all the time,” says Sudipto. “They always remembered their village and the people who lived there. The language we speak at home - Bangaal - is that which is spoken in Bangladesh. Their exile is a wound which has never healed. And it had impacted me even though I had a comfortable upbringing in Kolkata. That was one of the reasons I wrote on this subject.”
Not surprisingly, Khubha, the mother, is the most powerful character in the novel. A widow, she is strong, as well as practical. Khubha has an affair with her brother-in-law. “She is not a goddess, nor is she a vamp,” says Sudipto. “She is just a normal human being who succumbed to her desires.” And even as riots raged in East Bengal, and Hindus are being killed by Muslims, Khubha falls in love with a Muslim man.
But The Ekkos Clan is not only about the 1947 Partition. The scene moves to present-day Stanford, in the USA, and to a place called Arkaim in Russia. It is a novel steeped in intellectual subjects: so there is linguistic paleontology, astrology, archaeology, music, maths, ancient history…the list goes on. And yet, all these subjects are dealt with, in an easy and simple style, so that the reader is never put off. And all these topics are pursued to understand the meaning of the stories that Khubha told her children when they were growing up.
Interestingly, Sudipto’s motivation to write his first book was unusual. “I am doing well in my profession,” says this Vice President of an electronic design services company in Bangalore. Sudipto is also an engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. “But I also felt that I was not doing anything unique. Whatever I was doing, anybody else could do.”
So he decided to write a novel. “This book is mine alone,” he says. “And nobody else can lay claim to it.”
But it was not an easy task. He began work every day after 10 p.m., and wrote till 2 a.m. But he would have to get up at 7 a.m., to get ready to go to work. On weekends, he carried on working on the book. “For the past five-and-a-half years, I have screwed up my personal life,” says Sudipto, who is married, and has a 10-year-old son. “Every six months I would fall sick because of lack of sleep, stress, and office pressures.”
And then when the book was complete, it was not easy to find a publisher. “The literary world is a closed group and does not entertain outsiders,” says Sudipto. “They have their own shell. They don’t like engineers or IT guys writing books. They look down on Chetan Bhagat, even though he has superb sales.”
But Sudipto had a stroke of luck when the Delhi-based Niyogi Books accepted his manuscript. And ever since the book was published in July, it has now reached No 19 in the literature and fiction best-seller list on Flipkart.
“I want more and more people to read it,” he says. “So I am going around the country holding book readings.”