Jallianwala Bagh | A disturbing anthology of the worse massacre

Published: April 14, 2019 2:28:33 AM

A disturbing anthology of works commemorates the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar

By Sudhir Chandra

This is the centenary year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It was on April 13, the day of Baisakhi, a hundred years ago that General Reginald Dyer ordered the cruelest killings in post-1857 India. Centenaries generally tend to be occasions for mere ritual remembrance. It is heartening, therefore, that Rakshanda Jalil has devised a creative way to commemorate Jallianwala Bagh. She has come out with a representative, and disturbing, anthology of creative writings on that Black Sunday; 11 each in prose and poetry in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English.

By its very nature, any selection of writings on the Jallianwala Bagh has got to be disturbing. It is not surprising, therefore, that all the 22 pieces in this anthology, as also Jalil’s introduction, are more or less disturbing. What is really surprising, in fact, is that many of these pieces do not move us like we would expect to be moved by any account of the barbarity that was so fortuitously unleashed by Dyer. It means that literary intervention can heighten, as much as mitigate, the effect of real-life events.

Jalil opens her anthology with a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto. Blandly titled An Incident in 1919, the story builds towards a heroic climax where the narrator describes how two beautiful prostitutes avenge the killing of their brother who had bravely defied the English authorities. What actually happens is that the proud nationalist narrator describes what he had wanted the prostitute sisters to do, even as he knows that “those bitches … had defiled the name of their martyred brother”.

Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry. Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil Niyogi Books Pp 227, Rs 495

Not in literal fidelity to reality, but in its imaginative manipulation—transmutation—lies the power of literature. A similar heightening of reality by departing from it is reflected in the excerpts Jalil has included from Abdullah Hussain’s Udas Naslein: The Weary Generations, which she describes, rightly, as an intimation of magical realism. So also in Chaman Nahal’s The Crown and the Loincloth. Hussain recreates the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy by imagining an old hunch-backed fisherman’s wildly meandering eye-witness account of what happened that day. Nahal achieves something similar by bringing in an imaginary assistant commissioner, Kenneth Ashby, as a benign counter-point to the real-life brute, Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. There is also Stanley Wolpert’s Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh which, in contrast to the earlier pieces, derives its power by virtually reproducing Dyer’s testimony before the Hunter Commission.

Disturbing as these works are, what makes the anthology doubly disturbing is the inclusion of a work in which the Jallianwala tragedy of a hundred years ago is not behind but with us. It is integral to people’s, ordinary people’s, lives in independent, democratic India. This work is Navtej Singh’s Jallianwala Bagh Comes to Life. Unrelenting in its search for the dead of the Jallianwala Bagh, it finds that they have since continued to be condemned to being reborn. This impassioned short story also draws pointed attention to the Dyers of today: “A mother rose—a silver-haired mother—‘I am a mother and I have countless daughters. My daughters dwell in several villages and towns of Hindustan; in fact, everywhere. Jallianwala Bagh, my daughters in these villages have been forced to lie naked with the fathers and brothers of the Dyers of today. Their salwars have been stuffed with leeches and crushed chillies. They have been stripped naked for the debauchery of the police and the soldiers.” Also offering other samples of the martyrs—victims—of the Jallianwala Bagh, who are born in different places and differently crushing circumstances, the story concludes: “The scars of the old bullets came to life and began to gaze tenderly at the wounds of the fresh bullets. Blood that had flowed in older times mingled with the blood that flowed now. Blood—true and ruby-red, blood—unique and pure, blood from which a soft scent wafted; an age-old but ever-new fragrance, the fragrance of freedom, wholesome and as ancient and as fresh as humanity.”

You will discover much more in this anthology, and feel obliged to ask: If the colonial past we so condemn really lives on in the present, what does that mean?

Sudhir Chandra is the author of The Oppressive Present: Literature and Social Consciousness in Colonial India (Routledge, 2013)

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