An attempt to explore India’s current schisms steers clear of any established point of view.
It must be tough for the writer to field interviews when his fourth book is launched as ‘the great Indian novel’. Even the reader wonders, who coined the description? Was it the writer himself? Or other writers? A reviewer’s burden, I guarantee, is the worst of all.
Half the Night is Gone is the great Indian novel if you have been dissatisfied by most of our Indian writers in English. Half the Night… is the great Indian novel if you firmly believe that most Indians who have had a so-called liberal education and are comfortable in English are not Indian at heart, and don’t know what Indianness is. Half the Night… is the great Indian novel if you firmly believe in the existence of, and the rising clashes between, two Indias—one of so-called upper-caste elitism born out of extensive education and intellectual professions, and the other of, for want of a better word, dehat-ism where the vernacular, Tulsidas, Ram Rajya, filial and parental loyalty rule supreme. If a reviewer doesn’t believe in any of these, the task is doubly difficult.
Notwithstanding the irrelevant great Indian novel debate, Amitabha Bagchi deserves unstinted praise for his attempt to return to what Indian writers in English have rarely embarked on of late—a complex narrative that begins in pre-independence north India where everyone dreamt of Ram Rajya and thought independence would be it, not the transfer of power from one group of elites to another! The novel finely captures the disillusionment and melancholy of what happened and what might have been. There is a gentle attempt to explore India’s current schisms in this flowing river of time, in its ebbs and high tides, but in a way that steers clear of any established point of view. Bagchi seems to be saying that if humans can find peace and a raison d’etre in their own lives, despite the perennial diversities and complex externalities in the evolution of the Indian nation, perhaps our nation can do so too.
Bagchi juxtaposes two contrasting stories to tell a tale of two Indias—one of the award-winning writer Vishwanath appraising his life in his sunset years in the form of letters to the girlfriend of a son who he never tried to understand, in an attempt to make amends that are too late; and of the generational history of a patriarchal family of lalas (merchants) and their servants, marked by loyalty, greed, cold calculations, and perpetuation. These two sagas paint an intricate yet improbable canvas that depicts India’s journey to modernity, still half a night away, through characters that have been drawn in detail, but many of which feel unreal.
In contrast, liberal Vishwanath’s feuds with his conservative priest brother Jagannath are much more alive, especially on the demolition of the Babri masjid, an epoch-making event in India. At a time when secularism was not a word in the Constitution, but simply meant good neighbourliness and universality of humankind, such debates were frequent, as it meant clearing of misconceptions. While regret and a sense of loss for the olden times is a leitmotif of the novel, there is also redemption, in Diwanchand’s simple yearnings and romantic interpretations of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and in Vishwanath’s acknowledgement of his liberal intransigence. Their tragedies, especially Vishwanath’s or India’s secular liberals, remind us of Brecht’s immortal lines, “…Even anger against injustice/Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we/Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness/Could not ourselves be kind.”
Bagchi is clearly inspired by famous writers in Hindi, most of all Ramcharitmanas, though curiously, he steers clear of a katha style, except when he speaks for Diwanchand, the melancholic and poetic son who falls in love with a widow, renounces his family, and becomes a kathavaachak. The book is dense sometimes, too descriptive and lacking easy conversation—indeed, there are almost no dialogues for the first 140 pages or so! Sentences such as “The incessant call of a crow outside his window got tangled in the ravelled skeins of masterji’s consciousness as he drifted between the deep and light sleep of an untimely afternoon nap” makes one feel that there is an attempt to anglicise Hindi, but it could be just words that don’t work!
Bagchi often speaks in Vishwanath’s voice, when he shows that the Hindutva-vaadis haven’t read Ramcharitmanas, and they don’t know what Ram Rajya is. And he also says, “the continuing strength of our democratic process, no matter how distorted it had become, will ensure that if we do not speak in the idiom of the people, we will lose this argument.”
In believing literature must complicate the world and not show easy answers, Bagchi takes his novel closer to the ground reality of India, that of a deeply unequal land that increasingly uses religion today as a mask to seek restoration of the old order, or as a weapon to challenge or even overthrow the new, both losing battles. When Vishwanath says, “To be a writer you also have to be a good person”, he also means what can religion teach if not how to be a good or kind person.
The author is a freelance writer