‘Crimson Spring’ uses fiction to re-examine the imperial ambitions behind Jallianwala Bagh

Even as India enters its 75th year of independence, some long-familiar questions continue to haunt. For example, what is the measure of loss? When an era exerts as much influence on the present as the colonial past does on ours, stories become a means of understanding what clear timelines in textbooks cannot capture. crimson springwritten by Navtej Sarna, is one such attempt to trace a wound that remains open and what has come undone in its wake.

On Baisakhi Day 1919, an eerie calm hangs over Amritsar. The story opens with nine people, their lives loosely interconnected, who somehow find themselves in the city on that fateful day, or see the course of their lives radically altered afterwards. In the chapters that follow, we are introduced to the long journeys that brought them here – by chance and choice, through wars and short-lived marriages.

The ‘Baisakhi Day Holocaust’, 1919

A soldier who has returned from the war where he fought on the British side, a man eager to meet his nephew after countless years, a woman traveling with her husband to Harmandir Sahib to be blessed with a child, a restless young man for a revolution: the mix of people in Amritsar that day is diverse.

Some of them meet at Jallianwala Bagh, the walled garden where a public meeting has been called. That evening, the speakers begin their speeches as planned, but then violence strikes. Brigadier General REH Dyer enters Jallianwala Bagh through the only functional entrance and orders his forces to open fire on the unsuspecting crowd. Later, a witness struggles to find the words for what he saw. “Ghallughara” is all he manages to string together – the holocaust. The ripples are felt across time and space by victims, perpetrators and the nation over whose control so much blood has been shed.

In his description of the territory and popular figures through the eyes of the characters, Sarna evokes an idea of ​​the country without the need to define it through its borders. It is a place made real by the hopes and fears of its people, bound together by their rage and bravery.

The degree of fictionalization differs: Udham Singh, who shot Michael O’Dwyer in 1940, is sketched as closely as possible to the facts about his life that emerged during his trial. General Dyer and Lieutenant General Dwyer also feature in the story, while characters like Hugh J Porter and Gurnam Singh Gambhir are based on real-life characters such as JP Thompson and Gurdial Singh Salaria.

An imagining of what led to the massacre

What viewing an event such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre through the prism of fiction offers is an opportunity to go beyond the numbers of dead and injured, and to imagine the length and darkness of the shadow that loss casts with the fullness it deserves. It weighed heavily on all those affected by an unspeakable tragedy in April, decimating the big and small dreams, plans, worries and beliefs that make up a life.

Sarna does not attempt to rehabilitate those responsible in history as men bound to act cruelly in the service of the Crown, or as impulsive, mistaken and unfortunate decision-makers. Instead, by building their personalities little by little and presenting an imaginary account of the conversations and deliberations that culminated in the actions and official documents following the incident, the book successfully highlights the extent of the moral corruption that imperial ambition demands.

The oppressive colonial tyranny that ultimately culminated in the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh was more than the meeting of a few men’s egos, although of course it was that too. It was, as Sarna’s novel shows, a calculus of power in which Indian lives were sacrificed.

crimson spring is as much a lament for historic Punjab as the tragedy that befell the spring of 1919. In its pages, the boundaries between Sikh traditions followed in the villages and Hindu rituals are permeable, often forgotten; Lahore belongs as much to the Indian people as Amristar. The beauty of this Punjab landscape is palpable, but it also perfumes the air, warms the blood.

As the story unfolds, we realize that what was forged in these turbulent years remains a memory to which we cling – in India in general and in Punjab in particular – not only because of the scale of the massacre that marked him, but also because of the emotional depth of the community that it gave birth to.

One can’t help but notice the air of romance that pervades the book, too – for the past the characters lost when their ancestors were once proud and free, and also the one that feels almost fantastical to readers today. today, as when Gandhi’s appeals in the novel for community solidarity find an answer with Hindus and Muslims drinking from the same pots. It sometimes appears as a rosy re-imagining of the era, but is saved by the fact that it is, ultimately, an imagining of the history of a nation whose main motto is the inconsistencies and contradictions.

crimson spring is a well-researched novel, and while building the world of early 20th-century Punjab, it largely adheres to facts while retaining the reader’s plot. In some ways, perhaps what was lost that day Baisakhi will always remain unfathomable, but storytelling sustains the need to keep asking – what could that deep mark in history be, if such a wound hadn’t been made that day? crimson spring is a serious attempt in this direction.

crimson springNavtej Sarna, Aleph Book Company.