‘Half the Night Is Gone’: The Literary Playlist

Listen to what was playing in author Amitabha Bagchi’s head while he wrote his latest novel, set in early 20th century Delhi.

by Amitabha Bagchi
24 July 2018, 12:30pm

Book cover by Bill Bragg.

Amitabha Bagchi seems to toggle effortlessly between roles— he teaches in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Delhi and is also a well-regarded novelist. His writing skips across subjects just as easily: Bagchi’s first, bestselling book was a coming-of-age story of an IIT student ; his second chronicled the life of an unimportant man in the Delhi bureaucracy; and the third is nominally an immigrant novel set in Baltimore.

In his fourth book , which has already received much critical acclaim , Bagchi flits just as easily between decades of Delhi history, tracing the story of a wealthy family and its retainers in a kind of upstairs-downstairs drama—all set within the frame of an ageing novelist’s letters. Half the Night is Gone also draws from a wellspring of devotional and modern poetry and music. Bagchi let VICE in on the soundtrack playing in his head while he imagined and wrote the new novel.

Most of the writing of Half the Night is Gone was driven or inspired or infused with poetry and music, and poetry delivered through music. Here are is a playlist of some of those things that I found or rediscovered on YouTube and played and replayed on loop.

Hamesha Der Kar Deta Hoon Main

There are other versions available, but this is the first version of Muneer Niyazi’s nazm I heard. I still think it is the best because the world-weariness that forms the spiritual core of this nazm comes through.

Mangal Bhavan Amangal Haari

The workings of the subconscious mind are strange. Heard on roadside loudspeakers and innumerable forgotten episodes of Chitrahaar , this song from the movie Geet Gaata Chal had been lying dormant somewhere within me. When it turned up as a earworm one day in 2013, I didn’t think much of it, but when it refused to leave, it got me thinking that perhaps I need to dig a little deeper, to open the letter my subconscious mind was sending me. It took me just a moment to come to the conclusion that the song was leading me to the text it came from; and that was when I first conceived the novel that became Half the Night is Gone. The words are adapted from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas by composer Ravindra Jain and vocalist Jaspal Singh.

Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar

A descendent of Guru Nanak recites poems in praise of the prophet Muhammad and Hazrat Ali. As if that was not enough, he begins his recitation with a short stand-up act.

Mori Araj Suno

For each one of us there comes a time when we turn to a higher power and appeal to it to hear our plea. At one such time in my life, I turned to this song, despite its political content (the words by firebrand poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz). And years later I turned to this song again (the Coke Studio version sung by Tina Sani and arranged by Rohail Hyatt), to help me write a crucial scene at the end of Half the Night is Gone.

Pa-ba-gil sab hain...

This ghazal by Parveen Shakir is one of the wonders of the second half of the 20th century. It’s a little difficult for the non-Urdu speaker but a little patience yields great rewards. Listen to the poet’s own recitation here:

Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon

Hard to imagine today, but they were making and watching movies in 1947. I don’t know what it is about this song by Shakeel Badayuni from the movie Dard, but for me it became a kind of semaphore for India in transition. Whenever I needed to transport myself to the past, which was often while writing Half the Night is Gone, I would load this up and let Naushad’s music and Uma Devi’s voice carry me there.

Ami Opar Hoye Boshe Achi

While writing Half the Night is Gone, I spent a lot of time feeling my way around the various bhakti literatures. At that time, Lalon Fakir’s classic, which I first heard on Anusheh Anadil’s band Bangla’s album, was a go-to song for me. The album version is slightly better and you can find that as well on YouTube, but the cheesy TV studio setting of this version somehow heightens the timelessness of the song.

Nek Bashar The Shah + Main Sunata Hoon Ek Majra Ajab

I have always felt that the astounding artistic success of Teesri Kasam was due to the fact that at the beating heart of this movie was an urge to pay a loving tribute to Hindi cinema’s immediate ancestor: Nautanki. The sequence of songs linked here (composed by Shankar-Jaikishan and performed by qawwal duo Shankar-Shambhu and Mubarak Begum) did not appear on the soundtrack, but have always been, for me, the most affecting part of this phenomenal film.

Pere Pavandi Saan

In the legendary Sindhi poet Abdul Shah Latif Bhittai’s version of the classic love story of Sassi and Punnu, Sassi’s desperate pleas (that we know will fall on deaf ears), and the poet’s call for his homeland to be blessed, came together for me in a moment of recognition. A collaboration crossing centuries between the great Bhittai, the Coke Studio musicians and their incredibly talented ringmaster Rohail Hyatt, and the soaring voice of Mithu Tahir, this song went to the very heart of what I was struggling with when writing Half the Night is Gone.

Ghalib Ko Bura Kyon Kaho

I first heard an audio clip of this nazm by Dilawar Figar several years ago and had already heard it something like a hundred times when I found this video. Figar switches from funny to serious in one powerful recitation that provides an insightful tribute to Ghalib and identifies the high watermark that—I have felt since I first heard it—all those who write about the human condition must strive to reach: “ pahunch gaya hai vo us manzil-e-tafakkur par, jahaan dimag bhi dil ki tarah dhadakta hai.” (He has reached that point in his spiritual journey, where the mind begins to beat like a heart.)

Old Delhi
Half the Night is Gone