One of the most important phenomena we see in the wake of colonialism is revival of the past. On the one hand the past is employed as a tool of resisting foreign domination and on the other as the material for building future society free of colonial bricks.

The resort to the past was necessitated by the presence of the colonised societies which had little that could challenge the colonial onslaught prompted by the socio-political forces that had science and technology as a potent source of their unassailable position. The past is in any way, in the words of Eric. J. Hobsbawn, “a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society.” But in extraordinary times such as colonial era, the past assumed greater importance as a bulwark against the oppression and a mark of group or national identity. It was an effective strategy against the foreign occupation that galvanised the indigenous population in their defiance of it. But in some colonised societies it went overboard particularly in its zeal to resurrect what historically never existed.

Historians prompted by ideologues produced out of thin air the myths of larger than life personages and model ages which existed only in their minds. Historical lies became national truths. This gave rise to indigenous nationalism/religious nationalism. South Asia, Pakistan and India in particular, are a prime example of such a phenomenon. Hobsbawn has a very apt remarks: “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin-addicts; we supply the essential raw material for the market.” No one can contest the assertion if they keep in mind the construction of the glorious Islamic past of Pakistan and the rise of imagined golden Hindu era of India in the post-colonial age.

But it no way means that the present didn’t matter. In the first half of 20th century, when colonialism had an iron grip on India, something spectacular happened in the Punjab that had reverberations all across the subcontinent. A small group of young men and women led by a charismatic revolutionary named Bhagat Singh decided to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, a political leader, who got injured in a protest march against the colonial administration in Lahore. He later died as a result of his injuries. The brutal police lathi-charge was ordered by a ruthless senior police superintendent named James Scott. Mistaking John Saunders, a junior police officer, for James Scott, Bhagat Singh along with Rajguru and Chandra Shekhar Azad shot him and a head constable dead in Lahore. Later he with his associate Batukeshwar Dutt set off bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. How he and his comrades were captured, put on trial and executed is a story known to all. Mustansar Hussain Tarar retells/recreates the story in his novel Main Bhannan Dilli De Kingray published by Sange-e-Meel Publications, Lahore.

Mustansar, we all know, is the leading fiction and travelogue writer of Urdu language in Pakistan. He wears many hats; he is a writer, an actor and a television host. He occasionally writes in Punjabi, his mother language. His first novel in Punjabi titled Pakheru published years back was well-received.

His novel on Bhagat Singh may prove a significant literary event as it touches at least three important aspects of our collective life; history, freedom struggle and culture. What creates sense of history is its format i.e. the main protagonist, Bhagat Sigh, comes to visit his homeland after 100 years of his death. What has happened in the intervening 100 years is the historical transformation of society at multiple levels. This he finds more visible in the country landscape. Freedom struggle was what his short life was all about. His family was inspired by the revolutionary fervour of its times. He was brought up in a family atmosphere where idea of independent India and dream of an equitable society mattered. Singh was hugely inspired by the professed goals of the Russian Revolution and its grand and universal vision premised on the ideal of human equality and dignity of work. His lust for knowledge was insatiable; he continued to surreptitiously study revolutionary literature sneaked into his cell in the jail. As to culture, the novel neatly brings to fore the cultural manifestations emanating from our day today life. Mustansar is intimately familiar with the ethos of both rural and urban society which follow divergent paths and yet are interconnected. Nuanced cultural expressions unobtrusively permeate his narrative hinting at social values and changes taking place therein. It creates a feeling of lived experience so essential for any meaningful piece of fiction.

The novel again may help raise the public debate that engaged many a mind when the action took place; what is the best mode of resistance against oppression. It was time when Mr. Gandhi building on the ideas of Jainism and Buddhism advocated non-violence as a strategic tool of defiance against the British occupation. Revolutionary individuals and groups, especially of socialist persuasion, differed pointing to the facts of history that at times violence against oppression is a legitimate response.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat and his comrades upheld that one could not turn their other cheek in response to the colonial slap. Violence in its all-encompassing sense was the bedrock of colonial hegemony. Hence violence had to be met with violence. The debate is still on.

Bhagat Singh becomes an epitome of liberating dreams laced with ideals. Some unusual things make him a haunting legend; one, he defies the oppressor with intelligence and strength. Two, he dreams of an independent homeland free of caste and class distinctions. Three, he is absolutely fearless while facing the enemies. Four, he shows imperturbable serenity in the face of death. And above all he happily goes to gallows singing of revolution in the prime of youth.

Among Punjabis, Bhagat Singh subtly evokes the defiance and murder of legendary lover Mirza who was burnt to death as an irrepressible young man in the scrubland of Sandal Bar where the former was born and brought up centuries later.

Mustansar’s novel is a rich tribute to a legend whose hanging by the colonialists had become a cause celebre. His life inspires people and so does his death. The novel is a richly rewarding read with its free-flowing story. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 23th, 2023

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