About two months ago, the novelist Amitabha Bagchi sent me an email. He had a new novel. It had taken him almost five years to write and it was about Tulsidas’s Ramayana and the place of religion in our lives.
I had greatly admired Bagchi’s earlier novel The Householder, a sly, subtle story about a well-meaning yet corrupt bureaucrat. So when the untitled manuscript reached my desk, I was delighted. I immediately passed it on to Sivapriya, our fiction editor.
At Juggernaut, we have a catch-up meeting every Monday. This is when we tell each other about the books we are reading, the manuscripts we are making offers on, the problems we are facing and of course, to gossip about the weekend. A few weeks after Bagchi’s submission, Siva came to the meeting enthusing about the manuscript. It was a most extraordinary novel, she said. She had cried three times while reading it.
Siva is usually a calm, restrained person, so this was a big deal. When my editors fall in love with a book, I read it instantly. I usually begin my reading that very day on my phone on the car ride back home. I began Bagchi’s book that evening and by the time I had arrived home, half an hour later, I knew, like Siva, that I had something extraordinary in my hands.
The perfect details
Half the Night is Gone – Siva’s wonderful title for the book – begins with a wrestling match in a crumbling zamindar’s estate in the early part of the 20th century. At the end of the match, the local champion is “gifted” to a sethji, a wrestling enthusiast whom the zamindar owes a lot of money to.
The novel then moves to the household of the sethji – Lala Motichand – in old Delhi, where the young wrestler becomes the Lala’s personal man servant. What unfolds is a glorious Downton Abbey-reminiscent world of upstairs and downstairs, masters and servants. There is a second, more contemporary, strand, that deepens the story later on, but this is how you are first introduced to the book.
I love a good period drama and Bagchi had perfect detail. The haveli, the food, the manners and speech, the customs, all felt like the descriptions from someone on the inside. Someone who had immersed himself in the era, who really understood it. The only two other novels that had impressed such a feeling of authenticity upon me as a reader was A Suitable Boy and The Mirror of Beauty.
You can’t fake voice
An editor is, before anything else, a super-reader. So our first instinct is often a reader’s first instinct. “Wow, this is a great story, I love this opening,” you might say. And it’s what we say too. But after that hit, we respond to other aspects of the book. And what we look at, above all, is the voice in which it is told.
The voice is more than just the style of the writing, it’s the underlying persona, the ambience of the book. You can’t fake voice. As a reader you unconsciously respond to this even though you may not use the word. It’s ultimately why you either love a book or put it aside.
The voice of Half the Night is Gone bore the weight of the classics of Hindustani literature – it contained some of the urbanity of Premchand, the melancholic beauty of 19th century Urdu poets and, above all, the clear, unadorned style of Tulsidas, the poet who popularised the Ramayana and brought it to the masses. It was this underlying quality that transformed the novel from elegant entertainment into something more meaningful. Bagchi was onto something bigger than a period piece.
The author’s intention
The writer’s ambition is always an invisible factor behind selecting a manuscript. We editors often pick flawed books that readers don’t love as much as we do because we sense an intention behind them that we are impressed by. It’s also why we work with an author over a number of books, despite their work not selling. We see what they’re trying to do, we know at some point the intention could flower into a perfect work of art. But there will often be false starts, wrong turns.
Bagchi was not just paying homage to the Hindustani cannon, he was also making a larger point. What would it mean to write an English novel inspired by Ghalib and the Ramayana instead of, say, Philip Roth and Martin Amis? What could such a book read like? What would the sentences look like?
He believed that you simply couldn’t erase religion out of people’s lives. That the socialist intellectuals of Nehruvian India had disdained liberal, Hindi-speaking, religion-minded thinkers. And it was this disdain that had helped to create the religious chauvinism of the BJP and RSS.
This is why Tulsidas’s Ramayana becomes a leitmotif in his book. It is why as a writer Bagchi found himself returning to Hindi literature for inspiration and understanding. All of these strands went into making his novel, giving it its depth, the weight to its voice. Siva and I felt that this was a book that was speaking to the deepest currents of our times. We had to publish it.
Finally, the offer
We made an offer to Bagchi almost the next day. Siva called him, I met him for a coffee. We batted back and forth briefly about the details of the offer. Invariably a publisher will offer less than what the author would like, the author or his agent then pushes back. Sometimes you come to a happy agreement. Sometimes you don’t. Luckily we did in this case.
We will publish Half the Night is Gone this summer. Our work is nearly complete on it. Gavin, our designer, has pored over black and white pictures of old Delhi, stylish photographs of boutique havelis, even film posters of the Grand Budapest Hotel, eventually finding the perfect illustrator. Siva has been taking the manuscript through a number of drafts, chiselling it to perfection. Tarini, our publicist, has begun talking to the press about it.
Soon the book will move from our desks into bookstores – it will wait for the reader to pick it up. To fall in love with it. The reader won’t really care about what’s gone into making it, indeed all the complex reasons why the book was acquired by the publisher, or the way in which it was published. They’ll simply either love it or put it aside.
At these moments, the publisher is as apprehensive and nervous as the author though we try not to show it. But with this book, I have few fears. I know I have a rare bird, the luck of the draw. Let the magic begin.