An interview with author Amitabha Bagchi on his latest novel, Half the Night is Gone, which subtly used spirtual texts to convey a message.
Half the night is gone may well sound like a tired lament. A soft moaning of not having finished what one set out to accomplish. Ironically, more than half the night is gone as one gets engrossed reading this novel. It’s a fascinating peak into India’s past. A word replete with havelis and lalas. If you have always wondered about the country in the 19 century in the pre transition phase from British rule to democracy, this is a riveting book to read. It has the grandeur of a 70 mm film. The landscape is so potently visual that you can picturise each scene even as you process the words. The narrative is told from the perpsctive of author Vishwanath, a Hindi novelist and the son of a cook. At the heart of creation, is the story of a rich landlord lala Motichand and his two polar opposite sons, Dhyanchand and Diwanchand. There is also an illegitimate son, Makhan lal, a school teacher deprived of his father’s love and name. This is a full blown drama, where there is an abundance of varied human emotions that add colour to a verbose novel Elements of intrigue, undercurrents of sibling rivalry (brothers separated emotionally by the cruel fate of misfortunate. A tragic incident ensures that an emotionally scared Dhyanchand holds his brother responsible and therefore loathes him. Exceprts from an interview with the author
You have generously quoted from Tulsidas Ramayana. How did this deep love for spiritual texts begin?
Not being a religious person I don’t differentiate between religious texts and texts that are not religious in nature. To my mind all great literature has a spiritual dimension. I mean that it touches us at some deep level that is beyond the material realities of life. For example, I feel that Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: A Novel is a spiritual text although it is not a religious text at all. And that book I read in one long sitting when I was sixteen.
What is admirable is that you have managed not to get carried away by your knowledge of the Ramayana, only quoting when it is absolutely relevant to the book. How did you manage to strike this balance?
The goal was not to quote from the Ramcharitmanas. The goal was to tell a particular story of some characters. As it happens, these characters often turn to the Manas for some kind of spiritual sustenance. One character, Diwanchand, decides to make the study of the Manas a vocation. By doing that he takes things a little further. But, eventually, I am basically interested in people. How they interact with the Manas says something about who they are and what they want. And that’s what I wanted to explore.
The novel within the book is written by Hindi novelist Viwshwanath. So when one of the protagonists is an author, does the story take over purely from his perspective and the author in you takes a backseat?
That’s a very interesting question. In fact it is a question that the reader will probably be asking every so often. Every now and then the reader will possibly ask: Who is speaking here? Is it Bagchi the real-life person or Vishwanath the fictional character? There is no correct answer to that question but it must be asked. For my own part, I found that it became easier for me to write this book when I started thinking of it as a book that Vishwanath was writing. Maybe it has to do with the fact that being an English-speaking person writing in English I couldn’t give myself permission to write about a world peopled by those who quote the Manas regularly. But Vishwanath could write such a book because he is a legitimate successor of Phanishwarnath Renu or Amritlal Nagar or Bhagwaticharan Verma who wrote about such people.
This is a fabulous period drama, almost like the movies from the 60s era.. The attention to detail is admirable. You have combined this with your love for Hindi literature and urdu poetry… Where did the early influences come from?
After college, when I travelled to the US to study for my PhD, I made some Pakistani friends who knew a lot about Urdu poetry. We used to meet and they would read me Urdu poetry and I would, in turn, collect what Hindi poetry I could and read it to them. These friends introduced me to Parveen Shakir, for example, and helped me navigate Ghalib’s complex diction. This was the 1990s so there wasn’t much on the Web back then. There was urdupoetry.com run by Nita Awatramani with a lot of Urdu poetry in roman script. Some people had also uploaded audio recordings of mushairas. I would listen to Jaun Elia on loop. That’s where I first found Dilawar Figar. At the same time I started reading Hindi literature, beginning with Shrilal Shukla’s classic Raag Darbari.
The importance of religion and how it shapes our lives is an underlying theme. You have subtly tried to convey the fact that when you show disdain towards religion, it can an have adverse impact through Vishwanath’s ideology. But you don’t really take up this concept too strongly in the book. Why is that?
I don’t believe fiction should be concept-heavy, that it why. There was enough there that you, as a reader, got the hint. And the story went on from that point. At the end of the day fiction must be true to its constituents: story, character, language. The development of concepts is the realm of non-fiction.
In your novel, the author is disenchanted with the ruling party. You have also said, “Personally, I am someone who always finds himself confused, unable to create affiliation with any particular grouping or ideology.” There are many people who feel that way today. What do think is the way forward.
I don’t know if I am qualified to suggest a way out of the hyper-politicised mess that the whole world, and India, finds itself in today. But I do feel that there are many of us who are weary of the shrillness of the everyday discourse on social and mainstream media. We need to remind ourselves that there is some value in thinking deeply and considering all sides of an issue. There is some value in being confused.
The female characters, though strong primarily indulge in Kitchen politics. Their role is primarily to keep a hold over their men or wilt away. Even the widows who live in the ashram, appear somewhat political and gossipy. Was that how women in that period lived or was this portrayal necessary from your author’s perspective given the fact the was the son of a cook and had limited exposure to women in those times?
I don’t think that the politics of the world outside the kitchen is of greater importance than the politics of the kitchen. There is a false value assigned by the world. We automatically assume that power and wealth out in the world makes a life more valuable and powerlessness or limited power within the home makes a life less valuable. For a writer of fiction to believe this propaganda would be a disaster. No one who has read Krishna Sobti, for example, would ever think that the life that is lived within the kitchen has lower value as a source of insight into the human condition than the life lived outside it. Specifically when it comes to my novel, I didn’t write it with a view to representing what all households were like or to show the world how women lived in a particular time or place. This is a specific story about a specific group of people. They behave within the culturally possible of their time, to the extent that I understood what was culturally possible in that time. There is every possibility that my understanding was wrong in some aspects. This is a work of fiction, it shouldn’t be judged the way a work of non-fiction is judged.
It is possible that if Diwanchand had bothered at any stage in his life to understand the delicate web of social and professional relationships that allowed someone like Lala Motichand to flourish and provide for his children and their children, if he had known the banal but undeniably real material benefits that could be directly traced to the possession of a relatively unsullied reputation, if he had any notion of the severe economic disadvantage his family’s business would fall under — the orders discreetly redirected to other suppliers, the falling away of business associates who wanted to steer clear of sensation — if something as scandalous as a son marrying a widow took place, he might have been able to comprehend the simple logic of Suvarnalata’s action.
This excerpt appears to have condescending look down at Diwanachand as if it was his fault that he was guileless. If he indeed had understood all of this, how different would the novel had been?
Quite different, I think. Maybe there would not have been a novel at all. Although Diwanchand is a major character, almost the protagonist, of this book, the authorial voice doesn’t feel the need to be sympathetic to him at all times. I can’t say why but that’s how I felt like writing it. Somehow, while writing this book I kept finding that both sympathy and antipathy have their limits. I had felt similarly while writing The Householder and This Place, but here it became an enveloping feeling that took many characters into its fold.
As a writer I have always tried to fit a narrative on to everything that I have experienced or seen. I think now that this is a weakness that writers have: the inability to accept that certain things just happen, that narrative does not have primacy over life, it is just a servant of life that can sometimes do right but will often do wrong by its master. Is this how you also feel?. As a writer, I feel it necessary to always say, “No, that’s not what I think, that’s what the character thinks.” But for this one, I’ll give a straight answer. Yes, I do feel that way.
Vishwanath’s letter to Sara is perhaps the moving part of the novel...That sense of loss and regret can be felt by the reader. Does intense writing sap you emotionally?
Yes, it does. Even now, a year after I finished the first draft, I find some parts of this book very difficult to read.
A casual summary of the history of the twentieth century shows that human beings as a species cannot really claim to be a better, more caring, species than they were before. It is true, though, that there are many small and big developments that bring hope, and it cannot be said that the great writings and great art that we have produced over centuries has nothing to do with those developments. So, if literature can bring some change, the question arises, what is the nature of the literature that can bring change, and what is the scale in terms of time and space in which that change can come? Like Vishwanath, are you still searching for the answer?
No, I am not. I am from a different generation to Vishwanath. His generation viewed literature in grand terms. They sat in the Coffee House and dreamt of changing the world with their writing. I just look for the next story that compels me, the next world I want to create for myself and my readers. Or at least that’s what I say to myself. But the truth is that I too dream Vishwanath’s quixotic dream. At the same time I feel that such dreams are silly, untenable. That’s why I need Vishwanath. He can say things I cannot say. He can say things I want to say but cannot say.