Review: Crimson Spring by Navtej Sarna

Great events that find their way into the history books often remain in public memory afterwards as stand-alone incidents. We remember the single act of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre but know little about the whys and hows that led to it. Inspired by real events and historical figures, Navtej Sarna’s crimson spring recreates a turning point in Indian history and is a detailed look at the cascading effects of a single event on the peoples of India and Britain.

Although a work of fiction, Sarna’s novel is meticulously precise and bases the massacre on the events that preceded it – the Ghadar movement, the deportation of Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, the leaders of the Rowlatt Act protest movement (Kaala Kanun), the return of soldiers who fought for the British in World War I, the patrols of the Danda Fauj and the non-violent shooting hartals in Amritsar. It also features the two men tasked with changing a people’s history, Reginald Dyer and Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. This is a much-needed preamble to the event itself, and the reader gets a glimpse into the playbook of the oppressors. The deportation of leaders to quell unrest, a repeat of 1907, and the comparison between Indian and Irish nationalists are all tremors that precede the eruption. Sarna, the attentive seismologist, measures and records each of them.

311pp, ₹899; Aleph

Through nine intertwined characters and lives, including Dyer, O’Dwyer and Udham Singh, a timeline of events emerges. Others like Gurnam Singh Gambhir and Maya Dei keep track of a way of life. They show the reader what Baisakhi looked like in 1919 — the harvest festival, the cattle fair, the Mithais, ornaments and sherbets, the rise and fall of the Mahants who had turned Sikh shrines into fiefdoms, and the Akali movement which began to regain control of them, especially the Golden Temple. Sarna goes into the details of a tapestry when describing the Amritsar of the time. Another of his characters covers the plague sweeping the interior of Punjab and the attempts of the British to control its spread.

The devastation of a single incident is revealed with the help of several characters from the same village, following separate paths, to be reunited on that fateful day. The reader learns about the identities that faded away and those that merged into a single mass of suffering, the multiple futures that turned to ashes. All individuals are now in mourning as they were children in their common childhood, helpless, together and yet alone. The features of Sarna village life are so broad that the reader sometimes wishes there was a single diagram that keeps track of the many characters and their complex interrelationships.

As for the massacre itself, Sarna presents the level of planning that went into it, which proves that it was not a spontaneous attack as later claimed. Dyer’s entry into Amritsar is well documented, as is the subsequent military takeover of the city and its bridges. It is chilling to read about the surveillance of the area, the use of the regiments most loyal to Dyer, his refusal to use British forces, and the repeated orders to fire.

What follows the massacre and what is perhaps less known, is the attempt of the colonial government to break the soul of a people: establishment of martial law, gallows in public places, hasty trials, mass incarcerations , shootings of civilians, torture, flogging of children, citizens forced to crawl on the road and power cuts. Right now, the Sewa Samiti, which has thwarted the government’s narrative and set the record straight, is invaluable in the quest for justice. The final parts of the novel are, of course, devoted to Udham Singh and the great efforts made by the British system to keep him alive. He is force-fed and the buttons of his clothes are removed to prevent him from cheating on the executioner’s noose.

Author Navtej Sarna (Courtesy of the publisher)

What makes it a novel of great value is that it transcends the mere recording of an event. Instead, Sarna tells the story of a people, a way of life, the heritage of a city and the culture it embodies.

War photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” The joy of the historical fiction format is that it breaks the distance between the event and the reader. Authenticity and wit are not lacking in the characters and pages of this book. This is not a cold, distant look at what happened. Every part of crimson spring is alive and hauntingly close.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two bi-weekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha.