In conversation with Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019
Every life is the wreck of a perfect dream. In the case of Vishwanath, the protagonist of Delhi-based author Amitabha Bagchi’s DSC-winning fourth novel, Half the Night is Gone (Juggernaut Books, 2018), it is the same. Spurred by the loss of his son in a car accident, Vishwanath, a Hindi novelist, sets out to write after a long dry spell a novel which, set in the household of a wealthy businessman, Lala Motichand, in the early 20th century, revolves around his three sons: “self-confident Dinanath, the true heir to Motichand’s mercantile temperament; lonely Diwanchand, uninterested in business and steeped in poetry; and illegitimate Makhan Lal, a Marx-loving schoolteacher relegated to the periphery of his father’s life.” As he reflects on his life, Vishwanath, son of a cook for a rich Sethji, also tells the story of the Lala’s personal servant, Mange Ram, and his son, Parsadi. With the demise of the Lala looming in the near future, the story puts the spotlight on notions of fatherhood and brotherhood, love and loyalty. Making extensive use of Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit literary traditions, Bagchi’s novel actually speaks to our fractured times. In this interview, Bagchi talks about various aspects of his DSC-winning novel.
Shireen Quadri: In Half the Night is Gone, did you set out to write the “Great Indian Novel”? How much of the novel is shaped by your appreciation of the writing tradition in India, especially those in languages other than English?
Amitabha Bagchi: It was not at all my intention to write the “Great Indian Novel”, nor do I believe that such a thing should be attempted. I started out with the idea of two brothers and with an image of a pujari who later transformed into a kathavachak, i.e., an expounder of the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas. As I went along, many of the things I had been reading over the last decade or two kept finding their way in. At first, it feels like serendipity that something you once read somewhere appears to be an apt reference for a particular point in the book. Then, with hindsight, you realize that the work takes a particular shape so that it can accommodate the things you have read that resonate most with you. So, I think it is correct to say that the project was shaped by my readings over the last so many years, most of which happened to be of Hindi prose and Urdu poetry.
SQ: There are two parallel narratives: the generational history of a patriarchal family of lalas, and the letters written by writer Vishwanath looking back at his life in his twilight years. Was this parallel aimed at capturing India’s journey to modernity even as it continues to hark back to traditions?
AB: Whether this parallel structure captures India’s journey or not is for readers and critics to decide. My own reason for this parallel structure was different, more practical in some sense. When I started to read the Ramcharitmanas and thought about making it a leitmotif of the book, I felt daunted at the prospect. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that an English-speaking person such as myself couldn’t lay claim to such a text. So I borrowed the idea of the novelist writing a novel from Amritlal Nagar who used this device in Amrit aur Vish. The novelist Vishwanath came to me that way. Being a Hindi novelist, I felt, he could easily claim a major work of the Hindi canon in a way that I couldn’t. This was the practical reason for the parallel structure. Once I had taken it on, it opened many possibilities for me, possibilities that I later realized I had been wanting to explore. But those possibilities were for the writer. What interpretive possibilities it opens up is for readers and critics to say.
SQ: Half the Night is Gone also reflects on the ties between brothers. This aspect intersects both the narratives—writer Vishwanath’s own life and that of his novel’s characters. Why?
AB: As I recall, the notion of brothers was there in some of the earliest thoughts I had about this book. I vaguely remember that I had some ideas of doing a kind of rewrite of the Ramayan and organizing it around two brothers. Those ideas morphed over time to become what you see today. However, the idea of having a story within a story and more than one set of brothers came later.
SQ: Vishwanath, the writer in the novel, seems to be concerned with the way religion is often channeled for political gain. How do you make sense of the discourse around religion and politics today?
AB: Vishwanath feels, like many others do, that religion has been heavily politicized to a dangerous extent. Of course neither is the politicization or religion new, nor are the dangers associated with it. They reappear in every age, sambhavami yuge yuge. I don’t necessarily try to make sense of this discourse in the book. Instead, I explore an alternate conception of religion as something that gives strength and succor to people. It may be a quixotic response to the poisonous rhetoric surrounding religion in the political space, but I don’t feel that politics should be allowed to exert such a totalizing claim on religion. I feel that which is good, that which speaks to what is noble in human beings, should also get a share.
SQ: The other Hindi novels and writers you give a nod to in the book, like Srilal Suklal, captured their eras brilliantly in some of their works. Do you think today’s literature, especially those from the subcontinent, is the harbinger of any change?
AB: It’s difficult to say. When you situate literary production within the attention economy, it simultaneously increases its power by extending its reach and weakens it be reducing the depth to which its readers contemplate it. Does that increase or reduce the potency of literature as an agent for change? I don’t know.
Shireen Quadri: There is plenty of reference to Urdu poetry in your novel. You intersperse the novel with the poetry by Munir Niazi, Allama Iqbal, Bashir Badr and Dushyant, among others. Tell us about your engagement with Urdu poetry.
Amitabha Bagchi: I’ll just try to summarize how I discovered Urdu poetry and what channels enabled a deeper connection. The engagement began with the TV series Ghalib (1988) when I was a child, which continued through the beautiful music Jagjit and Chitra Singh recorded for that show. When I went to the US in my 20s, I made some Pakistani friends who introduced me to poets like Parveen Shakir. In the early days of the internet, a lot of Urdu-speaking expats in the Gulf and the US were putting up shayari and related content and I devoured that. I taught myself Nastaliq which made it possible for me to buy books of poetry which were not available in Devanagari or Roman. Eventually, with the advent of Rekhta and its huge archive and the simultaneous upsurge of mushaira videos on YouTube, my addiction only deepened.
Shireen Quadri: Tell us something about your approach to characterization. Most of your characters seem to have jumped into the pages from real life? Also, what does fiction writing mean to you?
Amitabha Bagchi: My approach to characterization is probably the same as that of other writers: you try to enter into the character’s consciousness, try to feel what they feel and guess how they will respond to situations as they arise. Characters generally appear to me first as images or as located histories. Sometimes I feel that the first inkling of the character contains most of the character’s aspects already and the further fleshing out is more like a revelation of the possibilities rather than a creation.
It’s interesting that you paired your question about characterization with the more general question of what fiction writing means to me. I do feel that the process of entering the skin of a fictional individual is probably one of the fundamental aspects of fiction writing, in fact, you could say that is one of the constitutive aspects of fiction writing.
(This interview first appeared on The Punch Magazine)