Excavating memories to produce honest fiction

When it comes to writing, Amitabha Bagchi relies on the knowledge that he has garnered over a long time by reading, by carefully observing people and by tracing the echoes of the past in the world of today

Amitabha Bagchi, who won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019 for his novel 'Half the Night is Gone', is overwhelmed and humbled to be recognised among so many well-deserving writers. He believes when you work in the dark, any validation matters. "It makes you feel a little more sure of yourself, allows you to take more risks. In that sense, if the associated publicity helps you get a wider readership, that matters a lot too," the writer adds.

In an interview with Bagchi, we tried to know what goes in a writer's mind throughout the writing process – as he turns an idea into a story, to what extent readership matters to him and more. Here are few excerpts:

Do you think dominance of English language in the world of writing restricts many good writers from reaching out to a larger audience?

I don't think anyone can deny that there are hierarchies of power in every domain in the world and the literary market is no exception. English with its privilege blocks out, for example, the Hindi writer, Hindi in its turn dominates other smaller languages.

The point is not so much to acknowledge that these hierarchies exist, one would have to be blind to deny them, but to consider what is lost and what can be done about it.

When a lot is happening in the name of Ram, what made you bring religious texts in your book 'Half of The Night is Gone'? And how did you strike the balance as a writer while narrating a story?

It was precisely the political churning in the name of religion, and specifically in the name of Ram bhakti that brought me to the Ramcharitmanas. Bhakti, a word which has now taken on an ugly connotation, was always something I thought of as beautiful, nourishing. Great works of poetry and devotion, like the Manas, are texts people turn to when they need succour. I set out to try and recover that aspect of these texts.

I am not sure what you mean when you say "balance". The way I see it, the role of literature is, as I said, to be a candle in the darkness of human existence. The role is not to create hatred and anger. I feel that the great writers who have moved me have also seen it this way, Tulsidas included. I was just following that thought.

As a writer what excites you more, making your readers curious or satisfying yourself with your writing?

The writer is the first reader of his own work. If you can't satisfy yourself, how do you expect to satisfy anyone else?

Definitely to get my readers thinking is something that excites me, but more than thinking, what really excites me is getting them to feel something.

Your readers easily connect to your books – the story and its characters. How do you manage to bring relevance to real life through fiction-writing?

Most writers, myself included, work by thinking hard about our characters and the settings in which they are placed and we try to develop them in a way that feels true. This process takes place in the dark with no guarantee of success. We work in the hope that the reader will be able to follow our thought process and make the connection. But we also know that the stars need to align before that happens. We hope for the best and we keep working.

If it succeeds we are happy, but that doesn't mean we knew it would succeed when we were doing it.

In one of your interviews you said, "While writing literary fiction, you channel a lot of what you have been reading. I had been reading a lot of Hindi prose and Urdu poetry – those channelled themselves into my prose." Is your writing totally inspired from what you have been reading over the years or do you prefer doing groundwork (Talking to people about the subject, visiting places that would give you a better and clearer idea) before starting to write your book?

There are two schools of thought in this and I am in the Krishna Sobti school. Krishna Sobti felt that there is such a thing as too much research when it comes to writing fiction. She tells this story (in Sobti-Vaid Samvaad) of how to write her Daar She Bichudi, which is set during the Anglo Sikh wars, she went to Chillianwala where a famous battle of those wars was fought. She stood there for a while and she was ready to write.

I am not mystically-oriented so I interpret that story to mean that she believed in mainly relying on the knowledge that we already have within ourselves, the knowledge we have garnered over a long time by reading or listening to music or watching movies or by carefully observing the way people live and by tracing the echoes of the past in the world of today.

Muneer Niazi has said "zinda logon ke bud-o-baash main hain/murda logon ki aadatein baaqi" (in the homes of living people/the habits of dead people remain.) Proust also believed that internal resources are the primary source for a writer of a certain kind of fiction. And I too feel the same way.

When I wrote 'This Place', which was set in Baltimore, I did travel to Baltimore to do "research" but actually all I was trying to do was excavate my memories of having lived there in the 1990s. I did pick up a few facts on the research trip, but the main takeaway was the refreshing of those memories.

We can't deny that readership matters to every writer. So, do you keep audience in mind while writing?

I do but I don't let the idea of the audience overwhelm me. Sometimes you have to take a risk and hope the reader will follow along. Sometimes it means you get one kind of success but not another. I have published four books now and some of them have been heavily praised in India but not one of them has been published in the West.

Perhaps the reason for this is that I was clear about writing for Indian audience (except for 'This Place' which was written specifically for an American audience) and I hoped that audiences outside India would make the empathetic leap required to follow along.

Maybe the audiences would if given an opportunity, but the publishers who serve these audiences have not thought the risk worth taking, and that is something I have had to learn to live with.

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