February 23, 2020


The entrance to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India | Wikimedia Commons
The entrance to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India | Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, if not strangely, the memory of the barbarity and bloodshed unleashed a hundred years ago at the Jallianwala Bagh, on unarmed peaceful protestors craving freedom, by Brig Gen Reginald Dyer, has receded from the minds of the present-day generations of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

One would like to recall that as many as 1,650 rounds of ammunition were fired on unarmed Indians on Sunday, April 13, 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh. The Bagh’s narrow entrance was blocked as 50 soldiers from the Baloch and Gurkha regiments rained bullets on the crowd gathered there. Curfew had already been imposed in the city, so even if any of the hundreds of wounded wanted to leave after the brutal act was over, they were just not able to move out of the premises from where blood was flowing uninterruptedly. Thus, many of those who could have been saved succumbed to their injuries.

How closely literature can intertwine with history is aptly proved in the highly readable and soul-stirring volume Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry, which has been compiled, edited and introduced by the eminent Delhi-based literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil. She has also translated some of the prose and poetry pieces contained therein.

The introduction by Jalil is highly informative, as it gives the background of the events leading to the appalling tragedy. The first piece in the book is ‘An Incident from 1919’, a short story by Saadat Hassan Manto about a good-for-nothing fellow, Thaila Kanjar, who was “born from the womb of a prostitute.” He is the half-brother of two courtesans — one excels in singing and the other in dancing. Thaila leads a group of protestors who demonstrate against colonial rule. He is hit by a bullet as he drags one of two white soldiers from off a horse’s back and tightens his palms around the fallen soldier’s neck. The soldier’s stupefied colleague sprays a volley of shots on Thaila, but he cannot bring his dead colleague back to life.

Another odd character in the book is a fishmonger, from Abdullah Hussein’s magnum opus and Adamjee Award-winning Udaas Naslein (The Weary Generations). He has been a witness to the bloodshed. His narration is captivating and, at times, hair-raising.

A compendium of prose fiction and poetic responses to the most barbaric colonial-era massacre in the Subcontinent should be a part of all libraries in the region

Following that is an excerpt from eminent fiction writer and columnist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s English novel Inqilab. Laced with vivid description and an absorbing narrative style, the piece shows how two boys — Anwar and Ratan — drift with the crowd into Jallianwala Bagh, more out of curiosity than conviction. The most moving moment comes when their guardian Ajit Singh — who had fought for the British in World War I — gets up and says that he and his countrymen deserve a better deal in view of their support to the colonial power during the War. Much to everyone’s horror, a “Red-face” silences Ajit forever with a well-aimed bullet.

Ajit Singh would remind the reader of the fact that no less than 1.3 million Indians fought for their colonial rulers in World War I, of which as many as 74,000 lost their lives. There is no record of the many who returned alive, but not before being maimed.

Back to the volume under review, one of the finest chapters is an excerpt from Chaman Nahal’s novel The Crown and the Loincloth. It paints a vivid picture of the mind and thinking of the trigger-happy Dyer, who was born of British parents in India. He hates the Indians, does not trust them and is convinced that “inside their sweaty, slimy bodies, their heads simmered with intrigue. No matter the man was a Hindu, a Sikh or a Mussalman.”

Nahal introduces the fictional character of the urbane and well-educated Kenneth Ashby, who is shocked when Dyer says, “These Indians are fit to be thrown to the wolves.” Acting executive of Amritsar District, Ashby is poles apart from the rugged and cruel Dyer. Nahal brings out the brutality, deeply embedded in Dyer’s psyche, by narrating the instructions he gives to his subordinates before and during the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.

The next chapter is what Jalil describes as an essay-like short story by the top-ranking fiction writer in Urdu, Krishan Chander. He maintains that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs embraced martyrdom, as their blood mingled to form the sixth river in the land of five rivers, ie Punjab.

Another readable piece is Those Who Crawled, a translation of an Urdu short story by Ghulam Abbas. It is drawn from an actual event, when a British Christian missionary woman was attacked by a local mob but saved by the residents of the houses in the narrow lane where the action takes place. Her compatriots don’t reward her saviours. Instead, they see to it that all those passing through the lane have to crawl on their bellies to reach their destination. Four women — two Muslims, one Hindu and one Sikh — lay down their lives by refusing to obey the order. On the other hand, two young men are able to crawl and they do so with the intention of making fun of the armed white sergeant manning the entrance to the lane. Much to the amusement of the Gurkha soldiers on the side of the colonial soldier, the boys complete two rounds and are preparing to take the third when the armed colonial guard threatens to kill them if they don’t disappear from the scene.

Amidst fiction is a scene from the memorable play, Colour My Robe Saffron, by the Progressive Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni. Insha Waziri — who translated the original play Mera Rang De Basanti Chola — retains the original flavour of the story of the real life Ratan Devi who is desperately searching for her husband after he doesn’t come home in the evening. Ratan Devi discovers her husband’s dead body at the Bagh after the carnage is over and spends the whole night beside the corpse with a stick in hand to drive away the dogs and jackals looking for a feast. A plaque commemorating her is on display at the small museum that was commissioned at the site after independence.

Stanley Wolpert, known in Pakistan for his biographies of Messrs Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also finds a place in Jalil’s compilation. The excerpt chosen for this book, from Wolpert’s Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, shows that, instead of being condemned for his heinous deeds, Dyer is accorded a hero’s welcome in Britain.

Many poems from four languages — Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English — are included in the final section of the book. In ‘Vasant in Jallianwala Bagh’, the well-known Hindi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan advises all visitors to enter the Bagh with solemnity and dignity. In ‘Panjab [sic] 1919’, Sarojini Naidu mourns the tragedy in a plaintive style, which is rather rare in English poetry. Josh Malihabadi, in ‘An Address to the Sons of the East India Company’, recalls the intrigues and cruelties committed by the British who came in the garb of businessmen and refers to such victims as the Rani of Jhansi, Nawab Sirajud Daula, the Begums of Awadh, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Bhagat Singh. Commenting on all the poems would require a separate piece, but suffice it to say that the fiction part is more likely to stay in readers’ memory.

A point worth pondering is that no writer — and, for that matter, no historian — has condemned the soldiers from the Subcontinent in the colonial army for firing at their own countrymen. Not even scholar and politician Shashi Tharoor who has, in recent years, been asking for an apology from the British government for the mass massacre of unarmed people in and outside Jallianwala Bagh, ever made such a condemnation.

All said, Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry should find space on the shelves of all college and university libraries, not to speak of public libraries, in the Subcontinent.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Jallianwala Bagh:
Literary Responses in
Prose and Poetry
Introduced and edited by Rakshanda Jalil
Nyogi, India
ISBN: 978-9386906922

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 23rd, 2020