The truth of fiction is different from the truth of history. It searches different registers, touches different chords
Crimson Spring is a liminal novel, on the cusp of fiction, grounded in the horrors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It opens on the 13th of April, 1919, on that fateful Baisakhi day, when the festival of spring, of the success of the harvest, of the new year, was being celebrated across the fertile fields and farmlands of Punjab.
In his prologue, the author Navtej Sarna observes of history that “...its recording and interpretation will differ from soldier to civilian, from brown to white, from ruler to the ruled, from historian to novelist. For every event in history is, at heart, made up of the acts of human beings and its telling is inevitably coloured by the different shades of pride, regret, ambition, love, pain, courage, and longing that human beings carry within themselves”.
Old Amritsar is evoked in melancholy prose; the vibrant city, the seat of the Khalsa, is heavy with a sense of foreboding. The Rowlatt Act — the ‘Qala Kanoon’ or Black Law — has been imposed. Gandhi and his followers advocate peaceful protest. The revolutionary Ghadar party presses for more direct and radical action. General Dyer “the Jarnail who has come from Jalandhar” and his retinue are patrolling the narrow streets. The narrative circles around these events, through the stories of those whose lives intersected in the unquiet heart of the city, in a seven-acre courtyard enclosed by high walls, but a stone’s throw away from the sacred precincts of the Golden Temple. General Dyer, accompanied by two armoured cars and a detachment of 50 soldiers from two units, rained a barrage of bullets upon the innocents gathered there, “as if they intended to bring down the sky”.
Of the people Navtej Sarna writes about in Crimson Spring, some are resurrected from historical records, others imagined and reconstructed from various sources. The moving character of Maya Dei is inspired by the actual figure of Ratan Devi whose testimony was recorded and cited, and also in fragments from Sarna’s father the famous writer Mohinder Singh Sarna’s first novel. The fictional character of Sergeant Nicholas Williams is partly drawn from Sergeant William J Anderson, the personal bodyguard to Dyer, a brief account of whose memories of the massacre, to which he was a direct eyewitness, as related by his family, are part of published history. Gurnam Singh Gambhir is based on the lawyer Gurdial Singh Salaria, who gave evidence before the Congress Punjab Enquiry.
Interwoven with these dramatis personae are the actual historical personages, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, and R.E.H (Reginald) Dyer, the instigator and perpetrator respectively of the brutal massacre, and Udham Singh, who waited twenty-one years to kill Michael O’Dwyer and take revenge for his people.
Crimson Spring is in a sense a people’s history. The book begins with a quotation by the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. “A people’s memory is history; and as a man without a memory, so a people without a history cannot grow wiser, better.”
R.E.H Dyer died of natural causes in the United Kingdom on the 23rd of July, 1927. Bhagat Singh was executed on 23rd March, 1931. Michael O’Dwyer was assassinated on March 13, 1940, by Udham Singh. On July 13, 1940, Udham Singh was hanged to death at London’s Pentonville Prison, and lay buried there until his remains were handed over to India in 1974.
Navtej Sarna’s recreation of Udham Singh’s passionate pursuit of O’Dwyer and his last days in prison is based on letters and historical records, but carries at the heart of it a tender portrait, “literary and not literal”, of a driven and heroic martyr. This is a novel, though it is not a work of fiction. The perfidy, the barbarism, and the conceit of the imperial project were nowhere as emblematically in evidence as on that Baisakhi day at Jallianwala Bagh.
The truth of fiction is different from the truth of history. It searches different registers, touches different chords. The cycles of history have triggers and immediate causes as well as the inexorable mills of memory and retribution.
Navtej Sarna’s book carries the resonances of the Punjabi ‘qissa’ — the powerful folk form of oral history that records and recounts the remembered history of a people and a culture. Its evocation of a vibrant and sacred city, of the vitality and resilience of the Punjab, of the everyday life of its people, their vulnerability and pride and determination to exact revenge — all these elements are presented with passion and conviction in this memorable work of true fiction.
By Navtej Sarna
pp. 312, Rs.899