There is a phrase that appears twice over the stretch of Half The Night Is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi’s extraordinary new novel. A man mulling over the name of an old Delhi haveli considers that the story of that name is lost, because some link in the chain of generations “had considered the past to be of little relevance to the present.” Many years later, a young merchant looking at the day’s accounts thinks of how, like a new ledger replaces the old every Dussehra, he is destined to supplant his dying father “in the chain of generations.”

In the thicket of metaphor that forms the foundation of Half The Night, the phrase is almost throwaway. I asked a poet about its closest Hindi equivalent, and he offered the word “vanshaavali”. In English, the connotation is biblical: the chain of generations is the genealogical memory of the testaments. They tell the people of Israel how they came to be. Half The Night itself opens with a triple-decker sentence of begats: “Mange Ram, the son of a tenant farmer whose father worked on land that Lala Nemichand, a rich trader from Delhi, had inveigled from the indebted zamindar Nawab Mansoor Ali…” As the land goes, so does the fate of man.

The past and present

This, in brief, is what Half The Night is about. It envisions our history as a chain that binds us not only to our past, but to our present. The chain may be vicious and cruel; but without it, we are untethered, unable to seek out others in the caravan of civilisation that marches on, over the sands of time. That is a Majrooh Sultanpuri image, and it appears in Half The Night, as do the words and images of a grand succession of other Urdu and Hindi poets. Their words help create a language and atmosphere unlike any we’ve read in a recent work. They appear, too, because the book is a grand argument for the place of Hindustani and – more sensationally – for its successor, Hindi, in the life of India.

The story is about three generations of merchants and labourers with conjoined fates. At the turn of the twentieth century, the worker Mange Ram is brought to Delhi by the wealthy trader and amateur wrestler Lala Motichand. His son Parsadi serves Motichand’s sons. Finally, we meet Ramdas, who Parsadi hopes will be the personal attendant of Motichand’s grandson Kesho. The telling of this family history is interjected by four long letters written by an eminent Hindi novelist, Vishwanath (he has foresaken his Brahmin last name), an elderly man who is working on a new novel while grieving the untimely death of his son. The connection between Vishwanath’s story and Mange Ram’s is clear early in the book, although Bagchi, in one of the lightest touches in an otherwise deliberate narrative, never makes it explicit.

A yearning for Hindustani

This would be an unusually good novel if it were only about the depth and force of the bonds that connect these characters, and their universe of faith, service and self-abnegation – values that the modern novel, rich in irony, often finds easier to skim (and sometimes to satirise) than to investigate. But that is far from the whole of Bagchi’s intent. His fathers and sons are bound by a duty whose call can only be felt as yearning because the language to describe it has lapsed from their adult lives. For that language, Bagchi has a name, a history and an extended metaphor. It is Hindustani and its variants that colour the inner life of Motichand’s haveli and that of its dependents. Urdu, Persian, the nastaliq script and the Avadhi of Malik Muhammad Jayasi all track through the universe of the novel. Its lodestar, however, is Tulsidas Goswami and his great work, the Ramcharitmanas.

Ardh raati gayi kapi nahi aayau, Ram uthayi anuj ur layau,” goes the Tulsidas verse: “Past midnight the monkey has not returned / Ram lifts his brother’s prone body and holds him to his heart”. Half the night is gone. It is language like this that keeps the body and soul of the novel’s characters together. There is a Ganga-Jamuni echo here of the life of Gangauli village in Rahi Masoom Raza’s Aadha Gaon, whose Shia Muslims, whether university-educated or illiterate, retain an umbilical connection with their Muharram marsias. “It was seated on the floor-covering formed of the words of these poems,” Raza wrote, “that the Saiyid ladies and gentlemen of Gangauli had learned to live and die, laugh and weep, and love and hate.”

To forget and sideline this memory is to live in perpetual mourning, for language is how we acquire our beliefs, and our beliefs are what anchor us to what we love, because they teach us duty.

Delhi on the edge of transformation

The institutional memory of the Indian family is a double-edged sword, but Half The Night redevelops its emotional truths with unusual depth and tenderness. It makes no special pleading for its characters; yet I cried for them more than once. Between characters who undergo spiritual revolutions when far from home, and those who experience powerful and disorienting alienation in the bosom of the family, Bagchi also develops a terrific lens on the intellectual and spiritual life of Indians in the early twentieth century. Through them, we perceive, too, the Delhi of a century ago, poised on the brink of one of its periodic transformations: heterodox in thought and action, resolutely undemocratic in spirit, yet rumbling with the possibility of newness.

Even Bagchi’s slowly unfurling sentences are fashioned to sound like they were translated from modern Hindi, which is both lavishly, almost acquisitively metaphorical, and direct. “All his tears could not moisten the arid plain that time had made of his life,” Bagchi writes of one character; of another: “[for] some people even the remotest possibility of love, even a possibility that is in the past and hence not a possibility at all, can evoke feelings of yearning that resemble the symptoms of falling in love, especially in the untutored individual who has never fallen in love, who has known love only in books and words.” (It isn’t clear why characters keep telling other that they were “okay,” an expression born in nineteenth-century America but far from the minds even of Anglophone Indians in the early twentieth century; this is one of the book’s minor puzzles.)

Coarse-grained politics

There are years’ worth of commentary and critical judgement on the literary qualities of Half The Night Is Gone. At least one reason for this is because its political narrative will seem coarse-grained when cast against its other sophistications. Vishwanath, a sorrowing Gandhian sickened by communal violence, wishes for a modern India that could speak in the Mahatma’s flexible idiom rather than what he sees as the stiff and unaccommodating Anglophilia that structured Nehruvian India – an India where freedom brought about only a change in the skin colour of the ruling classes. Leftist radicalism, both Vishwanath and the narrator of the old Delhi sections suggest, entered the Indian bloodstream like poison, a form of righteous anger that “prevents you from seeing that there is more than one notion of what is right.”

In Vishwanath’s regrets, Bagchi cleverly captures a dominant strain of Hindiwallah thinking over several years, resentful of the role English assumes in India’s social reorganisation, and fearful that Gandhi’s mystical vision of a spiritually unified polity was the only viable alternative for a peaceful new India. Yet Vishwanath’s train of thought is left unresolved; its sympathies end at the notion that “unregenerate anglophiles,” to use his phrase for Jawaharlal Nehru (he must not have believed the story about Nehru flinging a garland at the feet of Nirala), destroyed the rebirth of Hindu society by refusing to collaborate with Hindi intellectuals.

This argument has played out outside the confines of Half The Night for so long that its complications and refutations would easily provide Bagchi room for two or three sequels. Yet it’s striking that at a time when religious conflict in our world has overtaken Vishwanath’s fictional forebodings, Half The Night goes so far in its reconsideration of revivalist Hindu spirituality, and no further. Not even the token angry Marxist of the novel recalls to us that the profound emotional effects of new-age, nineteenth-century Ram-bhakti went hand-in-hand with the belief that a Hindu’s karma determined their caste in the next birth; or that its purveyors had very definite ideas for the role of women in Hindu society – a belief underscored by Half The Night’s own pageant of helpless, largely silent women.

English versus Hindi

The historical sections of the novel convey to us how the Ramcharitmanas itself was an instrument in what Philip Lutgendorf calls the “semi-involuntary upward mobility” of a mercantile aristocracy (something that the journalist Akshaya Mukul covers comprehensively in Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India). Yet Vishwanath, who has come to believe that India’s descent into majoritarianism was inevitable, cannot quite bring himself to say that some of Hindi’s partisans not only did their very best to defeat Hindi-speaking society’s most liberal and democratic reformers but helped tear apart the Hindustani subcontinent itself. Outside the Hindi belt, the battle of English and Hindi is a territorial scramble between two usurpers, rather than an anti-imperial struggle. Perhaps it’s just as well that this candidate for a great Indian novel has appeared in a moment when the quest for The Great Indian Novel has mercifully exhausted itself.

And Half The Night is unmistakably great, for there is something more playful and more ambiguous about it than its political provocations. “I don’t have any serious problem with the time we live in,” a character says in one of the most uplifting lines in the book. “I just wish the past didn’t have to go away.” It is the voice of a child longing for a parent, of an old man whose memories are suffused with the warmth of a vanished reality. These are the links in the chain – shrinkhla ki kadiyaan, to use Mahadevi Varma’s phrase – that binds past to future. The novel ends, not in a crescendo of grief, but in a gossamer epilogue in which a child plays on the streets of a bright, self-renewing Delhi. We are stumbling in the dark, past midnight; but half the night is gone, and perhaps we will see the dawn arrive.

Half The Night Is Gone, Amitabha Bagchi, Juggernaut