Half the Night is Gone review: Familial element

Half the Night is Gone review: Familial element

Half the Night Is Gone by Amitabha Bagchi goes the full way — and more — across time and space. The reader is transported to the turn of the 20th century when the colonised country was going through continuous death as well as birth pangs. The novel is not about stark poverty but the evolution of an entrepreneurial family, its religious and moral beliefs and conflicts and how they impact existing systems.

The narration is an interesting interweave, if not a jumble, of multiple characters from different classes, mindsets and experiences. The plot is simple but seems complex due to the interlocking of the lives of three brothers and many tertiary characters, who represent the various classes during the 20th century. Lala Motichand is the head of a patriarchal business family. Dinanath, the elder son, is heir to the business as well as approach. He typifies the mercantile class — opportunistic and rather hypocritical, yet responsible and industrious, the drivers of the national ship.

Diwanchand, the second son, is a religious and literary acolyte and the complete antithesis of Dinanath in temperament as well as interest. He represents the dreaming classes, the artistic, self-absorbed persons who absolve responsibility.

Makhan Lal, the third, illegitimate son, is a Marxist schoolteacher, who carries a baggage of rage from his past into his father’s world, but is not able to become integral to the core. He represents the marginalised, oppressed classes that are raging and even violent for having been deprived of their rights, as well as resources.

The book opens and ends with tertiary characters, a servant and his grandson, who give the lateral viewpoints and objective comments on the characters, from the sidelines. All the stories are documented and seemingly crafted by another character, a modern, award-winning Hindi novelist, Vishwanath, who is a clerk and the son of a cook. His own simple-complex life in a globalised world emerges through an epistolary narrative in the 21st century. His self-introspection, regret and crumbling professional aspirations and relationships are reflected as well as refracted through the prisms of the business family.

The jump in character, plot and narration is a bit bemusing for a while, but when the map gets clearer the subtle overlap of eras, ideologies and mindsets get stronger.

The Hindi literary intellectual is not a right-winger, but rages against Nehru, the “degenerate anglophile” who had founded “third-rate secularism”. Yet, he also rues against the “people who were bent on destroying the remaining vestiges of the dream that Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru had dreamt…” He sums up the modern Indian tragedy by observing that the English atheist rulers had “no ideas of the depth of feeling that religion evokes in our people…”

Hence, his own love for Ram, a crucial modern God, is also clear, while Tulsidas’s ‘Ramcharitmanas’ is a vital theme and backbone of the novel. Many of the book’s verses are quoted and referenced to unfold the real-life stories of a widow’s ashram, the filial love and duties of fathers, sons, brothers, servants and other individuals belonging to the microcosmic kingdom of Lala Motichand.

The characters too are described, rather than shown, yet they are very nuanced and totally in sync with the times. For instance, the adoration of a young boy towards his older brother, the charming banter and affection between a brother and his bhaabhi, and the surreptitious machination of a servant to wheedle his way into the wealthy master’s house reflect very Indian sensibilities.

The master craftsman and novelist, Amitabha Bagchi is also a narrator, sometimes subtle, and sometimes more obvious. Many of the sub-plots and threads are described and commented upon, rather than allowed to unfold. He describes events, feelings and personalities in detail. His points of view emerge and seem informed, objective, detached as well as gently sarcastic by turn.

For instance, he describes the reactions of the two sons to their father’s death as follows: “Lala Motichand was still alive, if barely so, and so, at least for Dinanath, the thread of attachment was still unbroken, knotted where it had begun to fray…Tulsipremiji…was able to set aside to some extent the notion that there was a Diwanchand within himself who was also able to lose the same father…”

Hence, the novel is broad, expansive and sweeping, yet not strictly epic in proportion. Reading about the wealth and prosperity of the family gives an interesting insight into an earlier world that valued some ways of life that could become oppressive, yet retains the charm of carefully structured relationships. It is not laden with images or metaphors, yet some of them bring a flash of Hindi literature to the reader. For instance: “…the attacker became the attacked and the poisonous darts of jealousy reversed their direction and landed on the chests of those who had launched them.”

Ultimately, the narrative emanates the smell of a vigorous, eminently readable ‘Hindustani’ novel.

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