“Aren’t artistry of language and worthiness of theme both necessary for good poetry?”, asks one of the characters in Half the Night is Gone.
Blending grandeur of theme with poetic language, Amitabh Bagchi’s multi-layered narrative leaves the reader spell-bound and ruminative.
Unfolding at both the personal and the political level, the book not just explores the individualistic mindset and belief system but also addresses the larger questions of religion, class, lineage, the power of literature which are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.
Spanning across decades, the novel not only charts the trajectory of Lala Motichand and his sons and the replacement of old feudal lords by the new generation of shopkeepers, but also “the replacement of an oppressive regime of white people by an oppressive regime of brown people” who are equally corrupt and deplorable, if not more, than the white people. In a sense, the title of the book also evokes the passing of the old India and the arrival of the new India which is ruled by the merchants and the browns. However, as the novel unfolds, the hope of Independence and self-rule soon turns into despair, “Was the poverty and desperation of our people worse when the British were its cause or is it worse under the rule of us Indians?”
Commencing with the story of Mange Ram, the son of a tenanted farmer and a star wrestler, the narrative quickly shifts to Delhi where Mange Ram comes to work for a rich sethji, Lala Motichand. While Lala Motichand is embroiled in the politics of the larger world, Mange Ram becomes enmeshed into the household politics played downstairs by the servants, which is depicted with equal nicety and subtlety as the life of Lala Motichand and his sons – Dinanath, Diwanchand, and Makhan Lal. Whether the servant or the master, the author paints the character of both the men with the same shade of grey – empathetic as well as apathetic.
Laced with sub-plots, the book intertwines the story of Lala Motichand and his three sons with the life of Vishwanath, the renowned Hindi author who is trying to come to terms with the death of his only son while mapping the fractured lines of the emerging nation. Fluidly moving back and forth in time, the author brilliantly binds the traditional narrative with epistolary structure through the thread of Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas. Not just a metaphor of filial duty and brotherly love, Manas also gives an insight into the true meaning of religion before it has been appropriated and misappropriated for political gain and propaganda. “You wrote of your love for Shri Ram, and you wrote that what happened in Ayodhya was done by those who did not understand the true meaning of Ram Rajya.”
Literature, or more precisely the role of literature in bringing forth the change in society, is as much a sub-text in the book, as is religion. “So, if literature can bring change, the question arises, what is the nature of the literature that can bring change…”
The greatest feat of the book lies in its character delineation. The narrative evokes equal sympathy and antipathy for both Dinanath and Diwanchand. Despite being selfish and opportunistic; Dinanath weeps for his dying father, yearns for his brother, struggles to keep his family honor intact. In spite of being compassionate towards the world in general, Diwanchand is cruel in forsaking his wife for his passion, and his son who aches for the fatherly love and acknowledgment as he once had. Mange Ram, the great wrestling champion, a devoted servant is despicable in sexually assaulting his daughter-in-law. However, the novel largely remains male-centric. Though the rivalry of Suvarnalata and Kamala is portrayed with precision; women always remain in the background and it is the men who direct the course of the book as well as the nation.
Delving into the complexity of human relationships with poignancy, and human emotions with intensity and profundity; Half the Night is Gone, leaves the reader wistful and desolate; craving for more. Definitely, a worthy addition to the annals of the Indian literature.
P.S: A review copy of the book had been sent by the publisher in return for an honest and unbiased review