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Saturday, December 05, 2020

‘The elite’s grip over cultural production is gone,’ says author Amitabha Bagchi

Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, on how great art bonds communities, why narratives can be constraining and the role of the middle class in a democracy.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: December 22, 2019 8:42:28 am
DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Amitabha Bagchi, Half the Night is Gone, indian express book review, book review Front cover of Amitabha Bagchi’s book.

Title: Half the Night is Gone
Author: Amitabha Bagchi
Publication: Juggernaut
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 399

Your novel Half the Night is Gone is built around father-son relations…

That’s where it started, after my father passed away, but then many other things came in, as the structure proliferated. But it’s basically about fathers and sons.

This is the first time you have attempted a long timeline. Was that planned? 

I did have the idea of a long timeline, but in short spans of five or 10 years. I started in the Forties, because essentially, the idea was to recover the time when my father was young. But I found that I could not go forward without going much further back, and the timeline proliferated. And then there’s a framing narrative of the Hindi writer Vishwanath, writing in 2008 and looking back on his life.

The framing narrative derives from my reading of Shrilal Shukla over the years. (Shukla’s Raag Darbari became known to millions because of a popular Doordarshan serial). There were certain things that I wanted to transact with Shukla. I had never met him, but I admired his work hugely. Then Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas entered the picture, and I was terrified. As an English-speaking person, I had no claim to it, but a year or two before I started writing this book, I had read Amritlal Nagar’s Amrit aur Vish (1966), which has a framing narrative in which an author is writing about his neighbourhood in Lucknow. I decided to use the device since Vishwanath, being a Hindi writer, could claim the Ramcharitmanas. You have writers like Bhagwati Charan Verma and Phanishwar Nath Renu (in Maila Aanchal, 1954) who used Tulsi. For them, it was just day-to-day business. So, hiding behind Vishwanath, I could pretend that it was my day-to-day business also. When that frame appeared, along with the Shukla element, then the timeline went forward into 2008 and looked backward from there, to a son who had died, and the grief of Vishwanath, which makes him re-evaluate many things.

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Amitabha Bagchi, Half the Night is Gone, indian express book review, book review Amitabha Bagchi reading from his novel Half The Night is Gone at the prize distribution ceremony in Nepal.

Questions of authenticity run through the book, as they do in contemporary politics. You seem to be saying that the old politics has failed partly or largely because of a language barrier.

That’s what Vishwanath feels, but it’s a misunderstanding on his part. Power doesn’t work through making sensible decisions about who should be included and who should not be included. Power works by attempting to exclude everyone except those who hold power. The progressives and democrats of independent India didn’t include Hindi speakers like Vishwanath. He feels that if the angrezidas who wanted to run the country had included Hindi secular intellectuals like him, things would have been different.

There are other threads. I read Doodhnath Singh’s Aakhri Kalam (2006), about the Babri Masjid demolition. Aakhri Kalam is also the title of one of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s works. Jayasi was from Faizabad, and so there’s a Jayasi link to Tulsi, Avadhi and Ramcharitmanas, and our Hindi secular intellectuals — I don’t even like that phrase — would understand them. If we are all to get along under the rubric of a nation state, you have to understand how these links work. History has never been hunky-dory between different groups, but you have to understand how culture works to be able to make the cultural argument. That was Vishwanath’s beef with the way the English-speaking political class worked. Maybe it comes from a sense of dispossession — a lower division clerk, as opposed to a Class 1 officer who would have taken his exams in English. The fact that Hindi speakers were given that second class status may have affected the way the discourse of the modern secular republic developed.

Do you think the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was helped by the refusal of elites to take it seriously?

In Aakhri Kalam, a professor, a friend of (Jawaharlal) Nehru, says, ‘Tum sab Tulsidas ke ghatakop me ho (you’ve been fooled by Tulsi).’ I don’t agree with that. I feel that the Ramcharitmanas is multivalent, that certain strands were taken out of it for political reasons. I’ve not thought hard enough about what the English elite has or has not done over the last 70 years. It doesn’t interest me much.

I read Hindi literature over the last 20 years. My gateway drug was Raag Darbari (1968), and I never looked back. I was in the US then, we had friends from Pakistan who read Urdu poetry. The internet was new and people would post audio clips of mushairas held in the Gulf in the ’80s and ’90s. Take a poet like Basheer Badr. I was browsing a bookstore in Delhi and I was picking out the usual — Mir, Ghalib, Dagh. The shopkeeper pointed me to Basheer Badr, saying, ‘Yeh Hindustan ke azeem shair hain.’ If he’d gone for tea, I would have never discovered the extraordinary Basheer. In the midst of a tweet storm a couple of weeks ago, Sanjay Raut (Rajya Sabha MP and executive editor, Saamana) was quoting Basheer, but most people don’t know where it’s from.

This book reflects wide reading in Urdu. Do you read the original?

I taught myself nastaliq and Bangla was the next project, but that hasn’t happened yet — the conjoined consonants defeat me. But my most recent completed work is a translation of Munir Niyazi’s ghazals, which should be out next year. My reading speed in nastaliq is good enough for that.

Present-day politics is completely about authenticity and identity — it’s about having papers and lineage. This is not how things were in the period in which your book is set. If you identified with a state, you belonged. How does the mind come to accept exactly the opposite?

I think it’s easy to convince people to other. It’s equally easy to convince them that they are bonded to those others. I think that great literature, poetry and music do that. You have to squeeze the poetry out of national life to convince people to hate. You have to make them fear. There are very few literary works whose aim is to create fear. But fear is a powerful emotion, so people like me try to create that other sensation, through language, where you begin to appreciate that someone understands your pain. I felt that Ghalib, Jayasi, Munir Niyazi, Parveen Shakir actually understood me. For me, one of the most phenomenal works of Indian English literature, which has never been given its due, is Khushwant Singh’s Delhi (1990). I wept like a baby when I finished it. There have been times in history when politics has had a certain kind of poetry. But not in our times.

You’ve often said that writers suffer from the deficit of having to narrativise everything. Why do you feel strongly about it?

It’s a very human feeling. We feel that if we impose a narrative on the world, then somehow we control it. It makes it easier to live. But the narrative is also a constraint — you wish that you could be at peace with the random nature of the world, without having to create a story or a theory around it.

Why doesn’t your work in computer science infiltrate your writing? I would have expected a little science fiction.

It’s not my thing. There’s a story about Bedil, who was one of the great ustads of a generation or two before Mir and had a shagird — a hakim who wrote poetry. Once, he made the mistake of trying to correct the master. Bedil was enraged. He said, ‘Listen, doctor, in the company of doctors, you may be a poet, but in the company of poets, you’re a doctor. When neither are there, you may be both, but when both are there, you are neither.’ I love computer science and if a bridge with fiction appears, then it will appear.

There’s a lot of frustration about literature in your book. You find literature to be powerless to influence history. What is its purpose, then?

I read Shukla’s books in sequence and as his career wore on, I encountered increasing frustration and anger. I felt bad for him. I wanted to say, if you stop at anger, that’s a moral failing. But my character Vishwanath says, ‘We kept writing but nothing happened.’ I feel that Shukla also felt that. I don’t know if I personally share it; if I did, I would have to stop writing.

Or write for yourself?

I’ve never understood what that means, though all the books I’ve written are books that I wanted to read but which had not been written. In that sense, I write for myself. But the frustration with literature and realities isn’t really justified. There’s a lot of literary production going on, and it is influential.

This book is also about a change in power equations. Many believe that the deepening of the middle class changed the nature of politics. And, yet, as the class widens, more people are reading…

Right now, who’s going to put money on the future of democracy? But there is evolution. The elite’s grip over cultural production is gone, and hence, its nature has changed. I was born a democrat, so I have to remain one. I can’t live in a situation where I feel that there is no hope in democracy or that the outcome of universal suffrage can sometimes be very bad. In a teleological sense, I can’t read the end as good or bad. I think time is cyclic. The growth of the middle class has brought good and bad things. I know that if democracy is to be rescued, it is this relatively new middle class which will do it. But if democracy is to be destroyed, it’s probably them who will do that, too. I’m hedging my bets.

The interviewer was a guest of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

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