There is not much to add about Amitabha Bagchi’s Half The Night Is Gone that has not already been said. The winner of this year’s DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, awarded at the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara last month, the book has been readily deemed the ‘Great Indian Novel’ of our time.
Bagchi sets most of his novel in Delhi, with parts in Agra and Banaras. Writing in pre-independence times, Dilli’s rich lore and the old ganga jamuni tehzeeb of North India is woven beautifully into the novel – with intercuts of a harder, less forgiving modern-day shown in letters between chapters.
Bagchi carefully constructs his plot – a long winded ambitious tale that tells the story of two families and their men sprawling across generations. This story is told by the fictional, award-winning Hindi novelist, Vishwanath, who takes breaks to pen letters to his brother, his dead son’s girlfriend and his estranged wife.
Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas (an Awadhi retelling of Ramayana) undercuts the novel being written within the novel, with additional Sanskrit sloka, Hindi-Urdu couplets, and Qur’anic hadith referenced throughout, each with an English translation. Bagchi’s greatest feat is the way the quoted verses always add to the narrative, never distracting or pulling a reader away. As The Hindu put it, this is not an ‘Indian novel in English’, it is an Indian novel.
The men Vishwanath writes about are deeply flawed and violent – they beat, rape and abandon their wives (stylistically depicted as ‘claiming their conjugal rights’) and yet, somehow, they are always portrayed as layered and interesting individuals. The writing is confusing, it is unclear if the framing of women as always youthful, inherently lustful and scheming is meant to highlight the predicament of women in Indian society or if Vishwanath is just a bad writer.
Whatever the motivation, it is the novel’s glaring fault. It is difficult to read Omvati (She manages to get a name – something not every female character in the novel is granted) who is molested by her father in law, and as she stabs and wounds him in a ‘… a coruscating sweep that left her quivering. She felt arousal’.
Later in the novel, her husband reaches for her and Omvati throws up again and again. In response, her husband beats and bribes her and ‘takes to visiting prostitutes’. There is never an effort to depict her inner feelings and trauma – only his frustration.
Bagchi is a gifted storyteller, creating varied and interesting relationships between his characters both within their families and across them. Diwanchand, the younger son of Lala Motichand, is so devoted to Tulsida Ramcharitmanas, he leaves his inheritance, wife and child to dedicate his life to the work.
Makhan Lal, Lala Motichand’s illegitimate child, is a Marx-loving schoolteacher who resents his father. Vishwanath is devastated by his son’s death in a road accident, and only in his grief does he begin to try and repair his relationships. It is only the caricatures of women that leave an unfortunate stain on the novel, a book that otherwise speaks to nostalgia, of interfaith harmony and complex family dynamics.