If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alone, and a Few Others

Eka ebong Koekjon (Alone and a Few Others) is a long Bangla docufiction – if I may use the term for novels – by Sunil Gangopadhyay that covers numerous voices bearing witness to an eventful time of the Twentieth Century India. Beginning a little before the Second World War and ending after the independence of India, the narrative covers the war and the vulgar profiteering that accompanied it, the burst of patriotism and resistance during the Quit India Movement (1942) in which some of the fading terrorist freedom fighters of Bengal got a new lease of life and then died out as quickly. It covers the Great Bengal Famine (how can a famine ever be great?), the agony of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946 followed by the ecstasy of 1947, and ends with the disillusionment that came upon people when the reality of the free India turned out to be harshly different from the utopia of equality and endless happiness nurtured in the mind of ordinary Indians.

Two storylines, around cousins Surya and Badal, who began their life’s journey at the time of the war, intertwine the novel. Their names, meaning the sun and rains, eponymously tell the reader the contrasting lives the two protagonists would live. Badal is clearly autobiographical. He is a budding poet with just about an average academic career from a rootless family that migrated from East Bengal to Kolkata, like the author himself in every which way, who tries to find his feet in a pitiless and chaotic post-independence India that doesn’t offer an easy passage to a young man without the support of a papa with power or pelf. Badal comes out in flesh and blood, an ordinary boy with sparks of brilliance being buffeted by the gigantic forces unleashed by history yet to be written.

Surya, on the other hand, is the son of a self-made businessman and a dancing woman, who he had married after forsaking his first wife. After his mother killed herself for inexplicable reasons, Surya was brought up by her stepmother in his early childhood and later, after her premature death, by wardens in a Jesuit boarding school.

Given his unusual childhood, Surya offered tremendous scope to his creator to sculpt an unusual character. But unfortunately, despite Sunil’s brilliance as a storyteller, I think he went overboard in his efforts to construct Surya with everything that doesn’t fit into normal scheme of things. That Surya would be a non-conformist is more than plausible, but what stretches the reader’s credulity is his complete lack of empathy for the people around him. He seems too cardboard a character with far too many self-contradictions. For example, nothing in his life correlates to his absolute commitment and boundless love for a comrade when they come face to face with death, or the empathy he shows to the young boys who supervises in an ashram run by a Gandhi follower, although he has unmixed contempt for the philosophy behind the ashram. Neither is it clear why he has to be a sex-maniac.

As I read the 626 pages, I couldn’t but think that the novel was trying forever to stand up on one leg, but despite that, I am convinced it is worth reading.

In fact, it is much more than worth reading because of the historian in Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recall, in his autobiography titled Ordhek Jeeban or Half a Life, he narrated the events leading to the Second World War in passing, in just about six pages. I think those six pages would make any historian proud. In Eka ebong ... too, Sunil captures an enormous historical canvas almost effortlessly. And to the extent I know, he depicts about the quarter of a century of tumultuous time accurately, in brilliant prose. In the introduction to his memoir Bangalnama, a significant Bangla book of our time (In English, The World in Our Time), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote that as a historian, he wanted to feel the heartbeat of the men and women who lived in the past. In Eka ebong Koekjon, I felt the heartbeat of some people who lived in both Bengals during the time.

I believe Eka ebong Koekjon was one of his earlier historical novels. Sunil was developing the skills needed to mesh history with lives of ordinary men and women. He would develop his skills more completely in Purba Pashchim (The East and the West) written with the freedom struggle of Bangladesh as the background, and of course, Sei Samay (Those Times), his magnum opus which covers the history of the nineteenth century Bengal with an élan unmatched in Bangla literature.

Bengaluru / Thursday, 20 July 2017

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