In Conversation Authors

Hatred is created by sucking poetry out of our lives: Amitabha Bagchi

Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

Amitabha Bagchi, winner of the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It was curiosity about the lives of religious people that drew Amitabha Bagchi to Tulsidas’s ‘Ramcharitmanas’ and led to ‘Half the Night is Gone’, the winner of this year’s DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone has been getting rave reviews ever since its publication in June last year, and now it has won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, sealing its reputation as the “great Indian novel”. The novel spans generations living in pre- and post-Independence India, but the shifts in time are conveyed less through the description of external events than through characters who live the change. The title alludes to a line from Ramcharitmanas, and Tulsidas’s version of the Ramayana lies at the novel’s core.

In his acceptance speech, Bagchi said, speaking with reference to what is happening in India at present: “Hatred is created by sucking poetry out of our lives. By bringing poetry back to life, we can bring back the love and togetherness that poets have given us over centuries.”

Excerpts from an interview:

Did you expect to win the DSC?

This is my fourth novel and I think I have been shortlisted four or five times but never won a prize. So this was not expected because, you know, jury decisions are subjective. All the shortlisted books are strong in their own ways and so you can’t tell. You try not to expect. You can only hope.

From Above Average (2007), your first novel about an IIT aspirant, to Half the Night, about the philosophical and social conflicts of an entire nation, you seem to have travelled a long distance. Do you think you have grown as a writer in these 11 years?

Yes, I think I have. My concerns have remained the same. But the sources I have worked with have changed. Half the Night has a lot to do with the reading I’ve been doing over the past 20 years. The first three books were more about the life I had seen around me in different places.

Half the Night features the fictional Hindi novelist, Vishwanath, who is grieving the death of his son and also writing a novel. Do you think writing can be an antidote to grief? Or does writing accentuate it?

Good question. I have always felt that writing is an antidote but I can see how for some people it can also accentuate certain feelings. This kind of question has no definite answer; it depends on who the writer is. Vishwanath might be writing because he wants to salve his loss, to repent. When we undertake an act of writing, we hope something will happen. Whether it happens or not needs to be seen.

The pivot of the novel is Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. How did that come about?

I have wanted for a long time to enter into the world of religious people. I think that curiosity finally bubbled to the surface and pulled me towards Ramcharitmanas.

Fiction writers typically tend to be curious about the inner lives of other people, people who are different from us.

This is an English novel where the characters belong to a time and segment where it is natural to think and talk in Hindi. How did you achieve this feat of Hindi-ising English, as it were?

While writing literary fiction, you channel a lot of what you have been reading. I had been reading a lot of Hindi prose and Urdu poetry — those channelled themselves into my prose. It was not a deliberate act, it happens with all writers.

Amitabha Bagchi (fourth from left) with the award

Amitabha Bagchi (fourth from left) with the award   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

 

You were also reading Proust?

Yes, I spent one year reading Proust — a great year. Proust sees the multitude of connections and points of view that cohere around every single idea, action. When I read Proust, I was in that frame of mind where I could not focus on one thing without seeing it in relation to everything around it. Proust showed me it was possible to write like that without sounding incoherent.

One of the shortlisted novels for the DSC is a translated work — Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air — and translation is getting attention like never before in India now. Do you think it’s a kind of revolution that will change the way we think of Indian fiction?

I think so, hope so. Not just older authors but contemporary writers too are being translated. This will make Indian writing a more coherent system. Till now Indian writing in English and writing in the regional languages have existed in silos. Hopefully, those silos will now start bleeding into each other. And who will benefit the most from this? English writers from India, because we will get to savour the experiences contained in languages that we cannot read.

What after winning the DSC? Do you think anything has changed?

No. I am happy for this but the writing process has its own logic that is not really decided by which prize you win.

anusua.m@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 12:49:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/authors/hatred-is-created-by-sucking-poetry-out-of-our-lives/article30356335.ece

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