Winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2019, Half the Night is Gone is Amitabha Bagchi’s third and arguably most popular novel. The author speaks with Kunzum about the book and its new Hindi translation, his literary influences and recommended reads. By Sumeet Keswani
In 2018, Amitabha Bagchi came out with a book that was heralded as “the great Indian novel.” Half the Night is Gone was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Interestingly, it had prominent inspirations in Hindi literature—rooted in the author’s love for books in that language. In fact, the story’s protagonist is a Hindi novelist named Vishwanath who deals with the untimely death of his son by writing a fictional story that deals with themes of fatherhood, family, and India’s feudal past.
Recently, the novel got its long overdue Hindi translation, Ho Gai Aadhi Raat, published by Rajkamal Prakashan. It was at the centre of a discussion between the author and translator, Prabhat Ranjan, at Kunzum GK2. We sat down with Bagchi to get some insight into the original novel and its translation, his literary inspirations, recommended reading list, and latest project.
A Conversation with Amitabha Bagchi
Kunzum: What does this Hindi translation then mean for your story and for you?
Amitabha Bagchi: It’s hard to explain how profoundly the publication of this translation affects me. I have been waiting for this translation for years. The wait began at the time I began writing Half the Night is Gone, that is to say around 2014, four years before the novel was published. The publication of this translation is like a return to a home that I was never able to claim as my own. I am deeply moved by it. When I read the translation I feel exhilarated. I feel like I have skipped across the highly militarised border that separates these two languages, English and Hindi, without a passport.
Kunzum: Translations of Hindi-Urdu works have reached a zenith, with Tomb of Sand winning the International Booker Prize. Your novel goes the other way. What sort of benefits do you see in this blurring of linguistic borders? Are there any downsides?
Amitabha Bagchi: I have always felt that Indian English writers do not read enough in other Indian languages, and that our colleagues in other languages don’t read us. I think of myself as an Indian writer, and I want these boundaries to break so that we can learn from each other across languages and talk about our concerns with each other. For example, when the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan wrote about the Tamil translation of Half the Night is Gone—that it is “imbued with … the anxiety and agitation that arises from the sorrows of life”—I saw my own work from a different perspective. If my book had not been translated, how would I have found that perspective? To put it another way, for politicians there may be a downside to blurring the boundaries of language, for writers there is no downside.
Kunzum: Your English-language novel did justice to portraying a culture that is not English-speaking. How did you overcome this linguistic barrier?
Amitabha Bagchi: I am glad you feel that I “did justice” to a non-English speaking culture. That has been the ambition of Indian English writers since Raja Rao. I don’t know if I have or not, all I can say is “Aap ke muhn mean ghee shakkar!” Regarding “overcoming” the language barrier, I see it more like I tried to stand up on my tiptoes and peek over that barrier. I did that by reading everything that appealed to me in Hindi and Urdu. It’s actually that simple.
Kunzum: In the time since the first publishing of Half the Night is Gone, has your own outlook towards the book or its story/characters changed in any way?
Amitabha Bagchi: Writing that book was an emotionally intense experience. It’s only now that some years have passed that I can return to it fairly calmly and re-examine what I had done. I still see the glaring faults and the things I missed or could have done better. But apart from that, I am thinking ahead to other things now so I don’t think too much about it.
Kunzum: In the novel, Vishwanath deals with the loss of his son by writing. Is writing equally cathartic for you?
Amitabha Bagchi: The short answer is yes, writing helps me make sense of difficult things that I can’t resolve or address in any other way. This has been the case for me since I wrote my first novel, Above Average.
Kunzum: In the novel, Vishwanath’s experiences echo in the book he’s writing. Does that happen to you in some way?
Amitabha Bagchi: Yes, it does. In fact, writing helps me view things in my own life from different angles. Fiction allows you to reconfigure relationships and situations and experience them differently. Vishwanath does this and so do I.
Kunzum: Which writers and books have influenced your craft the most?
Amitabha Bagchi: My main influences are Krishna Sobti, Shrilal Shukla, and Marcel Proust. Bashir Badr had a major impact on me as well, as did Ghalib. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines made me feel like I want to be a writer.
Kunzum: Which five books would you recommend to our patrons?
- Song of the Soil by Chuden Kabimo, translated by Ajit Baral
- Valli by Sheela Tomy, translated by Jayashri Kalathil
- Iman by Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Arunava Sinha
- Breaking Free by Vasanthi, translated by Kalyan Raman
- The Mendicant Prince by Aruna Chakravarti
Kunzum: What are you working on next?
Amitabha Bagchi: I just published an English translation of Muneer Niazi’s ghazals under the title Lost Paradise: The Ghazals of Muneer Niazi. I hope readers who liked the nazm of Muneer’s that I quoted in Half the Night is Gone will look at this translation. The book also contains a translation of a short essay by Intizar Hussain which is an amazing work in itself. Currently I am working on my next novel.