About the book
Songs of Glory is a work of political fiction – the second novel in a planned trilogy – set in contemporary India. It alternates between two characters’ perspectives: Sanoj, a middle-aged, washed-up reporter, and Sunanda, his young colleague. Both are part of a team documenting the murders of of Muslims, Dalits and Christians across India, them as they travel across the country interviewing survivors, families and witnesses. Sanoj and Sunanda come face to face with the collective trauma of a new India, which refuses to be erased, as they battle personal trauma along the way: Sunanda is forced to relive her family’s exodus from Bangladesh in the 1990s, while Sanoj’s wellbeing starts unravelling as his estranged family drifts into unreality.
Why the Selection Panel chose it
This work of political fiction explores urgent, complex themes of nationalism and religion, figuring rich individual stories as part of a wider reckoning with India’s contemporary moment. Kartikeya Jain captures the tensions and intricacies of Chandan Pandey’s novel with their conscientious and elegant translation.
Awards and press
“Hindi fiction has been enriched by this novel.” – Ranendra.
“In Hindi-Urdu fiction, one cannot recall anyone other than Manto who has similarly accepted the challenge of showing the terrifying threat of hypocrisy and madness – diving into its psychological, societal and historical depths – in such an artistic manner.” – Krishna Mohan”
“Songs of Glory identifies the societal hysteria and the psychological roots of organised mob lynchings through the form of fiction.”–Krishna Murari, The Print
Other languages sold: Punjabi, Urdu.
When we went to the late Pehlu Khan’s home in Jaisinghpur again, the scene that greeted us took me back to my childhood. Outside the door was a courtyard, triangular, with troughs firmly fastened to the ground. The memory moved my imagination, the past pulling the strings of my future. I saw cattle tied to each trough.
Safeda, the white cow, is tied in the northmost corner. She was named by the previous owners, before my father brought her home. To her left is her black calf, Kaajal. Kaajal cannot reach the trough, so her fodder of straw cakes and wheat chaff is kept in a yellowed bamboo basket underneath it.
Next to Kaajal are two troughs to which the bulls, Raja and Maharaja, are tied. Maharaja has just been bought at the Dullahpur fair, and the villagers are coming to see him. Rajan Baba, who has only one bull, is sharing his troubles with my father, hoping that he can borrow Maharaja for ploughing his own field. Father, preparing the fodder, nods and warns him, ‘Don’t turn him to the right. He’s a calf, only has a couple of teeth.’
When he turns around to mix the mustard cake, he sees me standing behind Maharaja. He shuffles over and tells me to stay away from the new bull, then drags me back inside by my shoulder.
I could hear his voice, now, after so many years, and it made me shuffle back in fear, keeping on retreating until Harveer stopped me. This was my first public slip-up. Pehlu Khan’s village here on one hand, and the memory of my own village on the other. There was no logic to it. Fearing that my paranoia – or maybe it was a hallucination – would be exposed, I asked Harveer, ‘Where are the cattle?’ I was still in a trance, standing at the trough, back in my village.
My question, despite its good intentions, had the opposite effect. Tied as it was to the past, Irshad, Pehlu Khan’s eldest son, took it as an accusation on the present. The meeting must’ve lasted twelve minutes, fifteen at the most, but who knows what my question triggered. Irshad broke down, right there by the trough. He wept inconsolably in front of everyone, wept tears usually shed in private. Some of the villagers came up to comfort him. Even I felt the urge to do so.
Eventually, he spoke softly through the tears, ‘I’m not able to tell you, but the killers took the two cows with them the day they killed Abbu. The money, too. Did we have papers? Yes, we did! All the receipts for the purchase. We had crossed all the government checkposts, showing our papers. Sir, I’m unable to tell you…’
I thought he was just repeating ‘I’m unable to tell you’ for the sake of it, but I later found out that he was truly unable to say what he wanted. At that moment, I fervently hoped to capture in our report the words that eluded Irshad.
‘Tell me,’ he continued. ‘Can anyone organise a cattle fair inside Jaipur without permission from the authorities? All our papers were in place, and we showed them everywhere. Who’s we? My father and another man from our village were riding with the cows. We trailed behind them, but were late in catching up to them. We were clean shaven, so it wasn’t an issue for my brother and I, but Abbu…’ he ran his hands over his face. ‘Abbu had a beard.’
‘Our receipts had always been deemed sufficient at the checkposts before, but these were new ones. We don’t necessarily agree, but some call them extortion centres, you know. And then people like the group who came to meet the police for Abbu’s case call them Hindu checkposts. They’ve been popping up all over the highways – Delhi–Jaipur, Delhi–Mumbai, harassing everyone. They should be banned, the group said. You can see the report in the Behror police station. But why should I acknowledge them? Will it bring my Abbu back if I do? He’s never coming back now.’ Then Irshad started sobbing again.
‘Is there any hope for justice?’ Sunanda asks.
‘I don’t know, I don’t think so. Two burly policemen came to take Abbu’s statement at the hospital. They heard everything carefully, wrote it all down. And then they went back, and they made a case against Abbu. We had the receipts for the transaction, which the people we met in the beginning, whose names the police didn’t include in the report even though their faces were clear in the video, had taken from us. These are the same people who stop vehicles and verify the drivers on the highways.’
‘Verifying the drivers? Or the vehicle?’
‘The drivers, madam. Otherwise who knows how many vehicles with cattle ply the roads. As I was saying, they were the same group who dragged Abbu by his beard and tore all the official receipts. We still have the scraps. You can get the carbon copies from where they were issued.’
Harveer was a local journalist. He’d joined us in Alwar to help us out at the district level. He must’ve been 25, but he had a gravity in his character that was beyond his years, and despite his age he had become a local correspondent for the biggest journalists. He was a sensible boy, in Sunanda’s opinion. He’d spent two days with us and, if you put aside his excessive deference to everyone, you’d grow fond of him like we did.
In his white kurta-pajamas, Harveer looked like a local politician. But there were too many folds in his outfit, the fabric hanging loosely, and so either by design or accident he had lost his identity as a Jat youth and simply looked like any other Indian politician. All other locals of the area, all men – Hindus, Muslims, Jats, Gurjars, Mevs – each one seemed six feet tall. They wore kurta-pajamas too, but they filled them out.
Today, he was lost so deep in regret at last night’s incident that he kept a fair distance from us. It had been quite disappointing, I suppose, but he was blaming himself when, actually, a source backing out was nothing new. It was about Inderjit Singh of Manpur Jhirka. The whole thing, it was nothing personal, besides the excessive swearing. As I recalled the words we exchanged, I shuddered and laughed. This morning, after attempting to start the day off casually despite having unsuccessfully tried it on with Sunanda yet again, I jokingly began, ‘Well, imagine my sister–’
Sunanda cut me off. ‘You should slap a case on him.’ I didn’t know how to explain to her that this was the provocation Inderjit wanted, and she shouldn’t have left the scene yesterday. That was his triumph. He’d wanted to put us on the spot from the get-go.
30 kilometres outside Alwar, on the road towards Delhi, we started seeing his posters. There were four of us in the car, including the driver. It was one of those interminable evenings, refusing to make way for the night.
Manpur Jhirka. As soon as we got close to the village, a restlessness flickered on Harveer’s face. He kept dropping hints about the man we were going to meet – how he was the secretary of the National Cow Protection Committee. This was the same man who had declared Pehlu Khan’s killers on par with the revolutionary freedom fighters Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. When told that there was a third killer, he had crowned him Subhash Chandra Bose. Inderjit wanted those prisoners’ release to be celebrated with drums and garlands, Harveer said, so maybe it was not a good idea to meet with him. He emphasised ‘good’, and then, chuckling nervously, added that the man was dangerous.
‘Are you on our side or his?’ I asked, trying to calm his fears.
‘I’m on my side.’ His response left me speechless.
Inderjit’s house appeared suddenly in front of us, like a snake in the grass. We had got off the highway and turned right. After a point, the tarmac gave way to a dirt road, and a cloud of dust greeted us. The car slowed, but we couldn’t see our surroundings until the dust settled. And then we saw it, a cowshed. The creatures are being milked for hate and blood, I thought. And so, we stopped the car.
There were cowsheds on both sides. We had to strain our eyes in the twilight to see properly. The shed to the left must have been half an acre, with a dozen cattle or so. To the right, a much smaller dwelling, with just four cows. There were boards on each side, with different names on them. When we moved towards the Parnaami cowshed, Harveer’s unease became obvious. ‘We should meet Inder bhai first,’ he said.
Telling him to stop the car turned out to be crucial. By falling slowly, the evening had done one good thing, showing us the calendar on the outer booth of the shed, one that we used to look upon with reverence in our childhood. It was now visible in an entirely different light.
To get to it, we had to cross the threshold. There was no door, though there was space for one. Next to it, there was a booth with an electricity board, switches and wires. But there was no electricity.
There must be a caretaker or guard in the booth, Sunanda thought, but there was no one around. Sensing visitors, the cows started mooing. Memories of a childhood in the village told me that there was a need being expressed in their collective stirring. For fodder, or light, or for relief from the mosquitoes, which were in such numbers that, if we had stayed any longer, they would have picked us up and delivered us to Inderjit themselves.
One of the two posters on the booth depicted a cow. Three feet tall, just as wide. The light outside had dimmed so much that you could only see with the help of memory. The cow in the poster was healthy, burly, and home to 84 gods. Sunanda began asking questions, perennially relevant questions, questions that I was trying to avoid. Most of them I was unable to answer without feeling complicit with the system.
‘Who is on the forehead?’
‘The Sun and Lord Shiva,’ I said.
‘Where is Brahma?’
I began reading the names of the gods at each body part, and she patiently listened to every one.
There were three people in Hindu attire below the cow’s massive udders. A little further away were three other men: a Christian, a Parsi and a Muslim. All six of them were drawn sitting, as if waiting for the cow to give milk. No, not waiting, but pining. The cow’s tether was in the hands of a man labelled ‘Dharmaraj’. Facing him was a bearded butcher holding an axe. There was speech coming out of Dharmaraj’s mouth: ‘Don’t murder our cow mother!’
Sunanda was asking something, but she sounded far away because I was lost in thought, wondering how old all this bloodshed in the name of the cow really was. Was Sunanda correct, that this dark cloud of hatred was not a new phenomenon? I was trying to recall when the Arya Samaj was established, or when Swami Dayanand wrote Gaukarunanidhi. There must be some clue as to what made cows the line of division before the Radcliffe Line.
Sunanda’s question, when she repeated it, pulled me out of my reverie.
‘Why are there only three people in dhoti-kurtas? There should be four – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra?’
How could I have the answer to that?
A voice called from behind us, urging us to make a move. As we left, I told Sunanda that the artist must have made a mistake. She laughed as she sat down in the front seat of the car.
As the car set off, Sunanda remembered that we hadn’t looked closely at the second poster. Harveer wasn’t going to let us turn back. I told Sunanda that the image was of Yamapata. She laughed. Harveer then explained that Yamapata shows the punishments of the afterlife that are meted out to all souls by Yamaraj, the Lord of Death, in accordance with their sins. I had noticed in the rush that this Yamapata depicted modern punishments. In my childhood memories, the Yamapata carried an image of a man getting fried in a pan. Here, he was being electrocuted.
When I told Sunanda, she turned around to face me. She looked like a flower in bloom.
‘I declare the same punishment for you.’ She smiled.
There was a huge congregation at Inderjit’s house. As journalists, crowds weren’t normally a surprise for us. But this was something else. The compound was as big as a playground. The evening had finally covered us in the blanket of night. There were about 50 charpoys near the door. Each had a hookah next to it and, apart from a few, all of them were occupied. White clothes sparkled in the light of the lone bulb fighting against the growing darkness.
We were given the cot closest to the door. When Harveer began lowering himself a voice shouted, ‘You’re still young, Harveer. Do you need to sit too?’ Laughing in embarrassment, he got up and remained standing until the end.
Inderjit arrived. He was in his early thirties. The sleeves of his kurta were folded up. First, he went up to Sanoj and shook his hand. When I extended mine, he pulled back and, smiling, joined his palms together in a namaskar. I should’ve understood from this gesture that there might be a problem. Harveer was grinning sheepishly, but Inder didn’t so much as glance in his direction.
‘What would you like to know?’ he asked.
‘Whatever you’d like to tell us,’ said Sanoj.
‘How did you like the cowshed?’
‘It was dark, we couldn’t see much,’ Sanoj said, trying to cloak his transgression in laughter.
‘You should’ve gone with one of us. How long does it take to assume a stranger is a thief? And what if there was an actual thief, what then? We won’t spare anyone, ever. In the morning, the news would have read: Gaurakhshaks batter two smugglers in typical fashion.’
At this, the gentlemen sitting around started speaking all at once. They all wanted to put forth their views. We could’ve recorded some of them but then Inderjit roared, calling for his servant with profanities about his mother. When a boy appeared with a tray of tea, Inderjit swore, ‘Where the fuck were you?’ The boy looked so used to being spoken to like this that, without saying anything, he continued serving tea. When it ran out, he went back inside the house.
I was trying to understand what, or who, all this abuse was for. Refusing to shake my hand, gathering such a huge crowd, talking without smiling, it was all meant to put us on edge. Perhaps the foul abuse of the servant was meant to inspire fear in us? A time-honoured ploy of brutes everywhere.
Facing us after this display, Inderjit suggested it would be better to talk with the camera and recorder switched off.
‘What do you people want to know? You’ve come from the cow thief’s village, so what is there to discuss? You can declare whoever you wish a murderer.’
‘You have crowned the killers “Bhagat Singh” and “Chandrashekhar Azad”. Please explain why,’ I said.
Inderjit turned to me, ‘You seem smart, educated. Don’t you understand history? Bhagat Singh and Azad were revolutionaries for us, but they too were killers in the eyes of the British.’
Such history lessons are the death of history itself.
‘You’re equating the killers who play Hindu–Muslim politics with Bhagat Singh and Azad.’ I bristled with rage.
Before Inder could respond, someone from the crowd heckled, ‘She’s a Dilli chick, bhai, Dilli people are half-English.’
‘And you’re the one putting Bhagat Singh in the category of killers,’ Inder said.
This argument was never going to end. Suddenly, Shrimaan Ji Mister Sanoj, who had no love for history, pulled the conversation to himself, ‘The British didn’t call Bhagat Singh a murderer, they called him an extremist.’
When forces that believe in social domination falter in argument, the sight is delicious. Inder was silent. His nose went red as he held his breath and glared at Shrimaan Ji.
‘Keep your history to yourself.’
‘Are you people Arya Samajis?’ Sanoj asked.
Perhaps someone else had asked this question before, because Inder was furious. ‘If your sister runs away with a lower-caste guy, will you still talk all high and mighty?’
Sanoj was silent at first. And then he started laughing softly, eyes darting this way and that. Harveer kept saying, ‘Forget it, Inder bhai.’ So I grabbed the reins and, for the next few minutes, Inder praised the killers.
‘The people you are calling murderers are gausevaks, cow servants. They are also gaurakshaks, cow protectors. They haven’t been taught to kill. Why should anyone have a problem if we worship the cow? Why should we not protest when people cut up cows and eat beef? You roam around pretending to be journalists. Why don’t you present our side? If you have the balls, then present our side too.’
‘But Pehlu Khan had receipts for the cattle purchase,’ I interjected.
‘Lies, it’s all lies! What authority does the government have to permit the buying and selling of cows? The government should mind its own business. Make sure you write that down.’
He could’ve kept going, but something stopped him. Having been silenced minutes ago by Inder’s rebuke, Sanoj suddenly got up from his seat and, smiling, started shaking hands with someone. There was no one there. Lifting his hand in the air, he put it on the invisible entity as if he were touching someone’s shoulder.
‘Come, Pehlu bhai, sit.’ Taking the invisible entity’s hand, he sat back down on his cot.
The whole gathering was up on its feet, now. All those present were stunned, some shouting that he was mad, others figuring this was some kind of act. Throughout the uproar, Sanoj continued gesturing with his hand and murmuring unintelligibly.
‘Will you take him away?’ Inder swore at Harveer.
I was sitting on the next cot, but I couldn’t get to Sanoj. Soon he was back to himself and started talking and laughing with Harveer. When Inder issued the command for him to be taken away, he went without resistance. Before leaving, Sanoj asked Inder about a popular rumour about his family, ‘Inderjit, was there ever a zamindar in this village that skinned his own tiller alive? Peeled the skin off his body?’
‘It is my greatest wish,’ he said.
I kept glancing at Sanoj the whole drive back to Alwar. There wasn’t a trace of that moment of madness in him. He was back in his simple posture, talking to Harveer about the state of affairs in Mewat, as if reading some marsiya, worried for what was once a free dominion or country, that had now been cut up into a district, its people searching for a new identity.
I had expected Pehlu Khan’s murder, and our proximity to it, to have an impact on his mental health, and for its effects to show up again. I was right. It was entirely possible that the next such meeting might be with someone other than Pehlu.
I wondered how long a person like this could survive, someone so vulnerable. I considered informing Rajbali ji and getting Sanoj dropped from this project. Even before this trip, Sanoj had complained about seeing visions of those who’d been lynched, their relatives. I sometimes saw my elder brother, too, but it wasn’t like with Sanoj. He never appeared out of thin air. We had accepted Nimai’s murder, his lynching all those years ago, the way we’d accepted his affection, his mischievousness, his insistence on staying behind in Mirpur during the riots, confident about selling off our ancestral property. Bhai was always with me, though his presence didn’t make me seem unstable, like Sanoj. I drew strength from him. And though I couldn’t fathom the end result of this project of collecting mob lynching statistics, I knew that at least it was an opportunity to understand the psychology of the mob that had killed my brother.
When I asked Harveer to dine with us on our last day in Alwar, he agreed.
‘It’s not your last day,’ Harveer teased. ‘We have to do one more trip. When the situation calms down, I will feed you guys biryani from Nuh and Ferozepur Jhirka.’
‘Why don’t we go now?’ I asked.
‘It’s late now,’ he said. ‘And besides, all those hotels are shut these days. Every day for the last few weeks government officials and gaurakshaks have raided the hotels, branding any meat they find as beef and handed out beatings and cases to the owners.’ He took a long breath, ‘That’s why everything is shut. But if you get the chance, you should definitely go there.’
‘I’m going to Nuh tomorrow,’ I said, attempting to provoke him, so that he might join us. But he was busy tomorrow and, besides, he was only with us as a helper for three days.
We had dinner at the Pavittar Bhojnalaya, in the very centre of Alwar. We were staying at the Lemon Tree, but our tariff only included breakfast. The rest of the food was so expensive that, even if we ate there for two days, we would’ve burned through our wallets. One of the problems with our job was that we had to find our own accommodation, keeping track of every expense. If we spent more than the authorised limit, the reimbursement might not be approved.
But this wasn’t the only reason. Harveer had been praising this Pavittar Bhojnalaya for the last three days, so we simply had to try it, even though I was exhausted and in need of a lie down. But I was scared for Sanoj. I don’t know why. So, hoping that at least here his mind might get a chance to wander, I resisted my exhaustion. With a change of scenery, perhaps he could get back to the present – although the present wasn’t any better.
At the restaurant we ate urad dal, rotis slathered in desi ghee, and kundru curry. What flavours! Seeing our happiness, Harveer’s own doubled. This was a win, and he was gratified.
After stuffing ourselves, we ordered makhane ki kheer for dessert. It came in small clay plates straight from the fridge, its usually milky consistency congealed into a pudding. Everyone was devouring the kheer with relish and then, as we ate, Sanoj told us that we humans don’t have blood all over our body – that, if one strikes the back of the head, the way Tabrez was beaten to death with a hockey stick, the skull leaks a shimmering substance like this kheer.
Harveer and I pushed our plates away. Sanoj began apologising. He’d made a mistake; he shouldn’t have brought this up whilst we were eating. But now we couldn’t swallow even one more spoon. Sanoj tried, but as he brought the spoon to his lips he gave up, saying it had too much fat.
Our hotel was outside the city. When we reached, we found that a themed night was underway. Those, like Sanoj, who don’t know the traditions of Rajasthan’s hotels would assume this was some cheap imitation of big-city culture. But if you looked closely, there was a logic to the tacky excess. Regardless of the clothes they wore, everyone sported a turban. In the middle of it all sat two men singing ghazals on request. Ordering two large whiskies, Sanoj and I took a seat. I was partly sitting there for him, partly for myself. I wanted to see what he would get up to tonight. I was, however, prepared to break his hand if he pawed me again.
He was quiet for a long time, listening to the ghazals and drinking, uttering no more than a word or two. Everyone was lost in reverie when the ghazalgos started singing their favourite filmy ghazals.
Sanoj called the waiter. Taking a slip from him, Sanoj wrote down his request: ‘Shayar Lakhnavi’s ghazal – Jo thhake thhake se thhe hausle, ve chiraag ban ke machal gaye…’ Then, realising that the performers would know the ghazal better from the name of the singer, he added, ‘Mehdi Hasan.’
The ghazalgos politely refused. They were sitting in place, with folded hands asking for forgiveness. Sanoj raised his glass in acknowledgement. They continued singing the same filmy ghazals they’d been singing one after the other.
Sanoj drank the whole time we sat there, looking tranquil but lost in thought. When he finally got up, he slowly made his way to the lift. I was on the third floor, but I went to drop him off at his room on the fourth. He struggled to open his door. As I was leaving, he elegantly bade me goodnight, with same coldness of that Monday all those years ago, which had poured water over all possibilities of anything between us.