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  Books   03 Jun 2023  Book Review | Convention-bound aesthetic, too many subplots clutter up big picture

Book Review | Convention-bound aesthetic, too many subplots clutter up big picture

Published : Jun 4, 2023, 12:37 am IST
Updated : Jun 4, 2023, 12:37 am IST

Historically significant characters flit in and out of the book.

Cover photo of 'Song of the Golden Sparrow' by Nilanjan P. Choudhury. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'Song of the Golden Sparrow' by Nilanjan P. Choudhury. (Photo by arrangement)

The premise is excellent: An immortal yaksha named Prem Chandra Guha, immortal and a lowly guardian of Kubera’s vast treasure, seeks to relieve the eye-watering tedium of his job by investigating the contents of one of the many treasure chests he guards. He finds the chest full of palm-leaf scrolls, not gold. He tries to read them, and finds them so boring that he falls asleep.

Caught asleep on the job, he compounds his crime by telling the court, consisting of twelve celestial jurors, that the scrolls, containing the precious history of the kingdom, were boring. Heresy, if not blasphemy. He is convicted, and sentenced to spending a hundred years in an earthly realm. That’s not all: he must use those years to write a history of that realm interesting enough to keep the jurors hooked, failing which he’ll have to do another hundred years...

The plot’s good, too. Guha finds himself somewhere uninhabited in the foothills of the Himalayas, and, a day’s flight later, meets a young boy, Manhoos, meaning unlucky, a victim of circumstance, whom he follows until the end of the boy’s life. With Manhoos then, and off and on thereafter, is a Santhal tribal girl converted to Christianity, Mary.

Mr Choudhury’s writing, too, is fluent, by and large, except for the occasional patch where it seems forced.

Despite all that going for it, the narrative falters. Guha introduces himself to Manhoos clumsily, by defecating on his head. He then discovers that the boy can understand what he says: Mary’s tribe lives in the forest and can understand what birds and animals say, and has taught Manhoos some of those tongues. And thus he decides to stay with the two, despite the utter misery of their lives: Manhoos, though a child, works for a seth for a pittance, and few days off.

With the arrival of the sparrow-shaped Guha, though, Manhoos’s fortunes change — as does his name, to Manu — and he sets off on a series of adventures that enrich him. Mary’s fate is different: she barely escapes a massacre of her tribes-people at the orders of an over-enthusiastic (“Mr Nehru is a man in a hurry!”) administrator rushing to mine bauxite reserves under the forests of the Santhals. She then joins a group of leftists.

Perhaps the most memorable character is the prince of an erstwhile kingdom called Registan, compelled to accede to the Union by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and VP Menon. After paying off part of his debt, he’s left with only a fraction of the money he needs to sustain himself. This prince understands Manhoos’s ability to speak to horses, and uses this talent at the Calcutta races to persuade all horses to go slow except the outsider on whom he places massive bets. The prince earns enough in a few years to start his own factory and give up the horse racing swindle, a rare instance of a conman going straight when he has enough.

Historically significant characters flit in and out of the book: an unlikely Satyajit Ray, for instance, then busy with Pather Panchali asks the prince-turned-industrialist for a loan, which is refused. The movie turns out a hit, financial and critical, and turns the prince towards his own doom: he is prepared to invest in any movie in which he plays the male lead!

Many others follow. There’s John Lennon, the late Beatle, serving as a sort of guard to Mahesh Prasad Varma, aka Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of TM. By this time, Manu has grown successful, the prince having decided to produce movies — starring himself — and handed over the running of his company to Manu. The wealthier Manu gets, the less he talks to animals. And, of course, his first love, Mary, is gone for good.

He moves south, to Bangalore, Karnataka, and, advised by one Ameer Premji, who runs WEEPRO, a manufacturer or vegetable oils and computers. Manu gets into real estate, making a fortune. He builds resorts in Kabini and Bandipur in Karnataka, where the environment is under threat: by this time, like government officials making environment decisions, he doesn’t talk to animals at all.

He is now Manu Pratap Singh, and well known. The chief minister of Gujarat, who looks like a man with a 56-inch chest, invites Manu to Gujarat to build resorts in his state. Meanwhile, people drift into his life. Sayoni, for instance, and, much later, a young boy, Ismail. Those whom he gets close die — like Sayoni and Ismail — or leave him altogether, like Mary, until, at the time of his death he is completely alone.

Guha the yaksha historian spends the remaining six years in a sort of freeze, just waiting for his sentence to end. And then, in 2022, a quarter-century ahead of time, he gets a message from home: a general amnesty has been announced, and everyone who has served more than fifty years is released. The message tells him to return, bearing his manuscript.

As he heads towards the Himalayas, he passes Mary, old and wrinkled but still straight-backed, working in the fields. The freeze breaks. He seems to see everything in a more pleasant light, full of hope...

The premise and the plot are striking, the possibilities immense, but the selection of historical events seems contrived. Partition itself gets hardly a mention, while the flood of refugees from the then East Pakistan gets a few pages. The coming and going of people such as Indira Gandhi gives the impression that they’re afterthoughts.

Characters such as the prince-turned-conman-turned-industrialist-turned-producer are simply not deep enough, and contrivance takes away the depth of the surrealism. The irony and the humour turn leaden, but not the gloom. So, the pieces are all there, but they don’t come together well...

Song of the Golden Sparrow

By Nilanjan P. Choudhury

Speaking Tiger

pp. 310; Rs.499/-

Tags: book review, pather panchali, satyajit ray