We inhabit a time when political agendas drive the rewriting of history. As a student, I was taught that the Mysore Wars, which pitted Tipu Sultan against the British, were a turning point in the history of colonial India. Today, in my home State Karnataka, this entire chapter of history has been erased from textbooks. With every retelling of history, new characters and events appear while others fade away. What counts as “historic fact” is questionable as often fact, fiction, and myth are stirred into the same cauldron. Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s novel Song of the Golden Sparrow begins with the caveat that all of history is an account of the past “filtered through the sieve of prejudice”, cautioning the reader to set aside their expectations for objective historic truth.
Song of the Golden Sparrow: A Novel History of Free India
The theme of the entwined lives of a child and a newly born nation has been explored with masterly craft by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children. The New York Times’ review of the book in 1981 summarised the plot as “complicated enough, and flexible enough to smuggle Saleem [the protagonist] into every major event in the subcontinent’s past 30 years”. Choudhury’s novel attempts to follow a similar track, fictionalising modern Indian history through the life of a young boy.
Song of the Golden Sparrow is subtitled “a novel history of free India”. In some ways, it is so. Choudhury brings to light events and actors who may be unfamiliar to many of us. He weaves in significant historic milestones of 70-odd years into the lives of his characters. The narrative skips along with a light step in parts but is sometimes bogged down by historic details that older adult readers may be familiar with.
Choudhury teases “fact” into the realm of the “fictitious” and bridges the two with a liberal use of poetic licence. Which means that the reader is sometimes sent scurrying to Google to fact-check the historic trivia that pops up: Was Pt Ravi Shankar’s father really the Dewan of Jhalawar? Did Inspector “Neogi” actually have a hand in naxal repression?
Accounts of the freedom struggle and its aftermath have rightly been critiqued for focussing on India’s “elites” and obscuring the experience of subaltern subjects. The resistance of Adivasis, farmers, and India’s poor and their subsequent marginalisation in the march towards “progress” are not often found in mainstream history books.
The novel sets out to correct this omission by choosing to pivot the story on the life of a “little person”, a 10-year-old orphan, Manhoos (later Manu), who lives in the fringes of the Betla forest in Chota Nagpur. Choudhury’s choice of protagonist, and his social and geographic location, is the most interesting aspect of Song of the Golden Sparrow. Through Manu we are introduced to a host of characters who are often written out of history either because of their marginal social positions or the colour of their politics.
Early in the book, Choudhury etches a convincing portrait of Manu’s daily grind as a child mechanic who dreams of a better life despite his dire circumstances. The only redeeming feature in the boy’s hopeless situation is his friendship with Mary, a spunky Santhal girl. A chance meeting with an erstwhile prince launches Manu into an unfamiliar world of downy pillows and buttered toast, which becomes a springboard to a better future.
The bulk of the novel takes us through Manu’s move to the big city, where his life becomes entwined with businessmen, naxals, politicians, and ghosts from his past. The story is told through the eyes of an exiled Yaksha (a celestial being), transmogrified as a sparrow, who must redeem himself by producing an “interesting and entertaining” history of modern India. His account only partly fulfils this mandate. Beneath the cheeky lightness of Choudhury’s writing is a rather grim story of moral corruption, political ambition, and suffering.
- Song of the Golden Sparrow is subtitled “a novel history of free India” wherein Choudhury brings to light events and actors of India’s history who may be unfamiliar to many of us.
- Prominent historical figures parade through but are not convincingly inserted into the lives of the protagonists.
- The novel’s youthful voice may be attractive to young readers, especially since many of them would be unfamiliar with the twists and turns of recent history.
- The novel is best read with a healthy measure of lightness.
The thirst for revenge and retribution forms the spine along which the story of Manu the fictitious hero and the “real” agents of history (the Jana Sangh and later the BJP) unfold and intersect. Both share a hatred for Congress governments, and this becomes the driving force for their actions and choices. The novel paints post-Independence history as a dark time under the reign of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress as a party marked by greed, corruption, and brutality. This echoes the currently popular version of history that dubs the “Congress era” as a series of failures and transgressions, with no mention of its successes despite the challenges faced by a young nation.
Choudhury’s presentation of the Congress phase and the Emergency is hardly “novel”. There are powerful accounts of the same by journalists, playwrights, contemporary historians, and novelists, with Rushdie being the best known for his portrayal of the demonic “Widow”. Choudhury’s vivid and disturbing description of communal violence in the early 2000s, though gutsy, is a replication of testimonials that have been circulated in the public domain for two decades. What is missing in the novel is the response of protagonists to these hellish moments in which they are implicated both as abettors and victims.
Prominent historical figures parade through but are not convincingly inserted into the lives of the protagonists. Some sections read like a chronology of events rather than a compelling story that draws the reader into the inner lives of the characters. Manu is obsessed with the prospect of revenge against a regime while being its active beneficiary. Does he see these contradictions? When faced with tragic circumstances and personal loss, how does he make sense of his own part in the larger scheme of things?
“Manu and the narrator, the otherwise loquacious magical sparrow, lapse into a convenient silence when it comes to their interiority.”
Manu and the narrator, the otherwise loquacious magical sparrow, lapse into a convenient silence when it comes to their interiority. The reader is rarely privy to their internal struggles in the face of life-altering events. The silence diminishes the characters and deprives one of the affective “juice” that evokes empathy and reflection in the reader.
Choudhury’s light style, with its irreverent and quirky humour, transforms this sombre tale into a quick and easy read. This is refreshing in these times when satire and humour are silenced for their potential to “hurt certain sentiments”. Choudhury’s comic-noir portrayal of government officials is replete with colloquialisms: he manages to retain their sharp sarcastic edge in translation. References to prominent personalities from the swinging 1950s and 1960s are bound to delight Kolkata-philes. The novel’s youthful voice may be attractive to young readers, especially since many of them would be unfamiliar with the twists and turns of recent history.
The story has no happy ending—the future appears uncertain. The reader may choose to look at the past with a sigh of distress or a sense of pride, depending on their location within the political spectrum. As a former high school teacher of modern Indian history, I worry that the “history” in the novel might be taken to be the truth, or a reliable version, especially by young readers. Song of the Golden Sparrow is a creative work of fiction and the historic thread in the novel is one among many possible accounts of our past. It is best read with a healthy measure of lightness and a few pinches of pink salt.
Usha Rao is an urban anthropologist, an independent media maker, and a freelance educator.