An emotional connect: Amitabha Bagchi chats about the need to carefully look back at the past
Amitabha Bagchi can be a fun guy to chat with, and he can ever so easily slip into a serious moment, and give you an insight you weren’t expecting.
Bagchi recently picked up the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019 for his novel, Half The Night Is Gone, described as ‘a post-colonial saga that unfolds over three generations, exploring human relationships and the intertwining of fates and cultures, in a thoroughly Indian context’.
We got to chat with Amitabha about his book, and the far-reaching changes apparent in Indian society lately. Excerpts:
Do you imagine there’s a novel in you that is not based in Delhi?
I guess for me, setting a novel in a particular geography only becomes possible once I feel a sense of intimacy with it, once I get a sense of how people live in that place and what specifically they are dealing with, and feeling in that space.
As such, it is hard for me to think of setting a novel in a place I haven’t lived in. For me, the idea of writing a novel doesn’t precede the creation of intimacy with a place, it probably springs from the process of creating emotional links with a particular geography.
Having said that, I should also clarify that I have never lived in Old Delhi, nor have I spent a lot of time there, but still, it is the primary setting of Half the Night is Gone. So it is not necessary to inhabit a place to make emotional links.
In the last few years, you're easily the one author who has given us the most number of references from Hindi literature, for us to go back and read up and do research on. Tell us, does it come easy, and naturally, for you to write in English? Are you more comfortable thinking in English or in Hindi? And, if it is a mix of both, which of the two languages is more dominant in your personal style of interactions, as in with normal banter, joking around and so on, when compared to writing fiction.
English is not only my first language, but also the language I am most comfortable in. It is also the language I think in. Hindi and Urdu are both languages I love dearly, they affect me the way music affects me.
When I banter with my friends from college, it is always in a specific dialect of Delhi Hindi as inflected by the language of IIT-Delhi in the 1990s. That was the dialect whose power was the engine for my first novel, Above Average.
But meetings with college friends happen infrequently, so most of the Hindi I get is from day-to-day conversations at work, or from books, or by overhearing people on the street, which I love to do.
For someone with so many computer science and technology-based interests in your profile, your narratives seem quite disinterested, and almost wilfully distanced from life in a slick new world of gizmos, gadgetry and space-age convenience. Do you consciously stay away from the tech part of the modern world in your stories?
Technology has a very different valence in my life. I don't consciously stay away from it in my writing, it just hasn't come up to any significant extent. Modern technology is also difficult to write about because it is a constantly moving target.
The breakdown of a belief system can be devastating, for any society, anywhere. This book, and its narrative and characters, in particular, seem to endear to us as they are very familiar, almost like stories at the back of our heads. It's a strong personal connect, and sense of identity that makes this all the more enjoyable. Tell us, if you could, of how the act of writing itself helped you get over so much of those anxieties from the past, to begin with? How did writing help you come to terms with so much of these every day realities?
I agree with you in the sense that I feel it is important for writers in our time to address the anxieties associated with change, just like it has been important throughout history for writers to address the basic anxieties associated with human life.
It is a very difficult task, though, to show your reader a path to overcoming these fundamental anxieties. My literary heroes are those who have succeeded to a great extent, Krishna Sobti comes to mind. I also nurse such an ambition, but I don’t think I am there yet. It requires great spiritual depth.
Now, following the DSC Prize, have you begun to fantasise about bigger awards, bigger prize money bags, and much grander citations? Give us the best, most intense mix of emotions that went through your mind, before and after you received the DSC Prize. How much of it is inspiring, to actually compel you to write another book?
Having been shortlisted a number of times in the past, including twice for HTNIG, and having never got an award, my first feeling was that of relief. I was relieved, I wouldn't have to go through the aftermath of a rejection, never a pleasant sensation.
As for bigger things and fantasies, I have learned over the last ten or twelve years as a published author that hankering for literary success doesn't get you literary success, it just gets you down.
Best to keep doing the work you are doing, keep following the internal logic of your own writing process, and hope that external factors align in such a way that your rejection to validation ratio remains reasonable.
In the story, when it came to the ideas of a feudalistic society, and its remnants in a modern-day household, many of us related to them in different ways, as readers. Very clearly, our individual childhood experiences and personal histories did influence our interpretations, and lead to our own readings of the text. Looking around you now, how much of that culture is just breaking up and disintegrating, especially with youngsters more prone to voicing off opinions, as opposed to the mature idea of settling down, and building domicile?
The fundamental tenets of a feudal and casteist society are still in place, I feel, although the ways that these are expressed may change with time and with the intermediation of changing technologies.
As such, it is important to track both the continuities, and disjunctions, in order to better understand where we are today, by referring to where we have come from.
This process is undermined by the weaponising of history for political purposes, by the distortion of the past to serve an agenda. In such a situation, it is ever more important to look carefully at the past.
Regarding young people, I think in every generation, the youth raises the banner of revolt. Every now and then, a generation does cause a far-reaching transformation.
Whether the current generation will do so or whether they will continue to articulate regressive ideals in new ways, is something to be seen. Definitely, the anti-CAA protests give hope and draw comparisons with the flower power generation of the 1960s in the US.
There is a very laidback, contemplative air that comes over you as a reader, once you've read the book. We had to reflect on your writing style, and that you took so many years to think each word and sentence through, rather than rush out a manuscript. This only makes us look around, and think, how can you conceive of a balance between all the noise going on all around, at all times - to do with every important subject you can think of? How does one get a few quiet moments of thought and contemplation in today's day and age?
The short answer is: get off or ration social media. It's a personal thing, actually. You have to decide what is important to you. Each of us has the option to limit the noise we ingest.
The world makes us feel we don't, it's called FOMO, but if we get over that feeling we get back a lot of time to decide what we want to contemplate.
The lyrical and poetic elements here are definitely among the more compelling aspects of the book. Tell us, what kind of music do you like to listen to? Do you have music playing in the background when you're writing? Are you given to finding reason and space to think in music? How do the worlds of music and literature coexist, in your mind?
You have put your finger on a very important aspect of my writing process. Earlier, I used to have music playing as I wrote. I wrote all of The Householder with Abida Parveen's Heer playing in my headphones, just that one album.
For This Place..., I remember listening to Amazing Grace before writing the first words. Once I had heard it I felt ready to write that book. For HTNIG it was different. I didn't play music while I was writing.
But before each writing session, there was some song that was earmarked, which I heard on loop for half an hour before I could write. Most of those songs were from Coke Studio Pakistan.
The way I think about it is this, music creates an emotional texture within us. So, for me, when I am trying to create a particular emotional texture on the page I need to refer to the piece of music that first helped create that texture within me. That piece of music is my equivalent of Proust's madeleine.
Would you like to take a moment here, and let us have your thoughts about the other books that were in the running for this year's DSC Prize? Which among these books are you likely to read again, and recommend to other readers? Is there anyone here you'd like to collaborate with, or even have discussions with, on current affairs in South Asia?
All the other books sound great, actually. I definitely want to read Jamil Jan Kochai's book. I have also picked up Manoranjan Byapari's book but in the original Bangla, which is a challenge for me.
As for collaboration or discussions of current affairs, I think novelists of this category are better left alone to follow their paths rather than enter into engagements that don't suit their temperament. I think my co-finalists will probably agree on that.
The citation of the awards begins with the declaration, 'South Asia is now perhaps more visible and more omnipresent than ever before.' Give us your thoughts on that revelation. As an author who's been given the mantle of being a pioneer from the region - looking over at the rest of the world, give us your bird's eye view of South Asian writing coming into its own, in its many different dialects and regional diversities, tongues and customs, and tales to pass on over the ages? How heartening is this aspect, to gain recognition for South Asia? Does it give you that rare feeling of pride as an Indian, to now have that sense of a global influence?
As an Indian and as a South Asian, I am as aware of the greatness-es inherent in us as I am of our many weaknesses. As a novelist, I try to balance the good with the bad and try to be clear-eyed to the extent possible. I believe this is my duty, not just to literature but also to my nation.
I have always felt that our hankering after global recognition is a weakness, a kind of inferiority complex. Neither will the recognition of others make us better than what we are, nor will their neglect diminish us in any way.
And perhaps if we realise this we can comport with the rest of the world on easier terms. When that happens, it would be something to be proud of.
Half the Night is Gone, Juggernaut, INR 599.
— Jaideep Sen