Waiting for the monkey’s return: Review of Amitabha Bagchi’s ‘Half the Night is Gone’ by Shreevatsa Nevatia

Dexterous, unabashedly ambitious, and altogether inventive in its use of language

Published - August 18, 2018 04:00 pm IST

 Old devotions: Actors dressed as Hanuman during Rama Navami celebrations in Vijayawada.

Old devotions: Actors dressed as Hanuman during Rama Navami celebrations in Vijayawada.

One would think the Ramcharitmanas is impossible to include in modern literature. Tulsidas’ epic poem drips with a piety and excess that are seemingly hard to make relevant. In Half the Night is Gone , Amitabha Bagchi not just climbs that mountain, he lifts it. Of all the references he makes to that sacred text, there is one that is repeated more often: “ Ardh raati gayi kapi nahi aayau/ Ram uthai anuj ur layau” (Past midnight and the monkey has not returned/ Ram lifted his brother’s prone body and held him to his heart). The couplet describes a scene Hinduism has, of course, made iconic over the years.

Lakshman has been fatally wounded in battle. Only a certain magic herb can save him. Hanuman flies to fetch it. He gets confused and brings back the entire mountain. We know Lakshman will be saved, but in the moment when half the night is gone, the prince is something of a Schrodinger’s cat: dead and alive. Like Lakshman, the characters of Half the Night are simultaneously one thing and its opposite: loyal and selfish, banal, yet oddly poetic, brawny and weak, familial, yet very individualistic.

Three generations

The architecture of Bagchi’s novel is intricate. He details the turbulence that besets two families and their three generations.

Lala Motichand is a typical Delhi merchant who does not let patriotism preclude profit. All revenue, he realises, is hard-won in a pre-independent India.

Dinanath, his elder son, is an anglophile who will inherit from his father not just his wealth, but also his disposition. His brother

Diwanchand, however, has little time for his family’s materialism. He wants to expound on the Ramcharitmanas’dohas and chaupais he had enacted as a child. Motichand’s entitlement had left a woman pregnant. Makhan Lal, his illegitimate son, rebels with Marx, Bhagat Singh and atheism.

The starkest divide in the book is between the inside and its immediate outside, between masters and their servants. Wanting to mimic the devotion of Hanuman, Mange Ram and his son Parsadi settle for a servility that leaves them somewhat desperate. Though Motichand can boast of shrewd industry, his masculinity is mocked by courtesans. Mange Ram has to suffer the bloating of his wrestler’s body.

Men don’t have it easy here. Their control is precarious and Bagchi indulges their egos only up to a point. Though Half the Night is first a novel of men and their follies, its women prove to be far more entertaining. They have agency, guile, even sass. If a man molests them, they’ll get a knife to stab him.

On four occasions, Bagchi interrupts the flow of these narratives with letters written by the Hindi novelist Vishwanath. He writes them in 2008, weeks after his son has died. Though a novelist of great acclaim, Vishwanath flagellates himself each time he sits down to write a letter. Overcome by remorse, the writer repeatedly apologises for his aloofness and reticence. He quotes poet Muneer Niazi: “In telling them the truth was not what they thought/ I’m always late.” He’s always this plaintive.

Seen it all

The book’s blurb first tells us that Motichand and his offspring are all Vishwanath’s characters. Their stories mirror his life. His father, for instance, had once compared him to Ram and his brother to Bharat. Like Diwanchand, his brother left home. Vishwanath had dropped his brahmin surname ‘Pandey’, and so he found it hard to stomach that his brother was performing pujas in the U.S. It didn’t help that the Ayodhya movement was gathering momentum at the time. Writing to him, the novelist explains his earlier anger: “The cynical manipulation of vote banks that the Congress indulged in was matched by the cynical manipulation of Hindu sentiments by the BJP and their associates.” Vishwanath, it would seem, has seen it all. He clearly remembers the day Gandhi had died.

Bagchi freewheels between pre- and post-independent India with a dexterity that makes Half the Night one of the more accomplished and comprehensive Indian novels to have hit our stands in months.

Strangely familiar

Ram, for instance, has now become a symbol of religious and political hegemony. Bagchi shows the deity can remain a pathway to feeling. Vishwanath, we know, is a Hindi novelist, and you read much of the book unsure about whether it is an intended translation of his work. The lucid English never draws attention to itself, and for those conversant with Hindi literature, its tropes do seem strangely familiar.

Bagchi’s success then does not limit itself to characterisation. He does something altogether inventive with language. Half the Night doesn’t strike you as an ‘Indian novel in English’. It is just a wholesome Indian novel.

Some of the book’s sentences are a line too long, but that’s a minor quibble. Bagchi’s fourth novel is unabashedly audacious. Even when you pause to consider it, you turn its pages quickly.

The writer’s latest book is How to Travel Light.

Half the Night is Gone; Amitabha Bagchi, Juggernaut, ₹599

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