Crimson Spring by Navtej Sarna, centered on the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, is a writing masterclass

Navtej Sarna’s latest book, Crimson Spring, selected for the JCB Prize for Literaturestarts with the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre that took place on April 13, 1919, and goes back and forth in time to bring this era and the consequences of the event to life. After all, as stated in the Prologue, “So those are the facts. Even a hundred years later, the facts speak for themselves. Before and after are just the story…consisting of acts of human beings…”

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Crimson Spring is a writing masterclass that blends history and fiction to portray this critical period in Indian history and the changes taking place in the world during this time. World War I had just ended, Mahatma Gandhi had launched the Satyagraha and the Rowlatt Act had been passed. Known as the Black Act, it included measures such as allowing the government to search homes without warrants, arrest people without trial, stop public hearings and shut down newspapers. As England had emerged victorious during the Great War, his troops – which included soldiers from the colonies – returned home resentful of the lack of appreciation for their efforts and uncertain about their future. In India, the Ghadar revolution had been suppressed, with most revolutionaries arrested, dead or on the run. The Baisakhi festival took off on a low note in Punjab where unrest had previously hit the city of Amritsar. Authorities and crowds were locked in conflict; water and electricity were cut off and protesters arrested.

All of these events are skillfully brought to light through the stories of the nine characters whose lives intersect that day. There is Maya Dei who came to Harmandir Sahib to pray at Baisakhi Golden Temple. The trio of Ralla Singh, his brother-in-law, Mehtab Singh, and his nephew, Kirpal, also plan to meet at the Golden Temple. Kirpal is one of the soldiers who survived the Great War, and the three haven’t met in years. As General Dyer’s army takes control of Amritsar and a column marches towards the hall gate, we meet Sucha, a young man who was part of the Ghadar movement and is now assistant to the retired doctor Hardit Singh. Sucha always keeps an eye on the political pulse of the city. There is also the ailing Gurnam Singh Gambhir, who had worked with British officials and tried to broadcast the confrontation in Amritsar three days earlier, but finds he can no longer sit on the fence and must choose a side. . Last but not the least, Udham Singh, who had participated in the Great War, interacted with Sucha for the Ghadar movement, and now is waiting for something to come along so that he can fight for the country and follow the path of his idol, Bhagat Singh.

The perspective of the Other is also given through British soldier Sergeant Nicholas Williams, Dyer’s bodyguard and ADC, as well as Hugh J. Porter, Esq., the chief secretary, who is based in Lahore and worried about turbulence in India and especially Punjab.

Sarna gives us a glimpse into each character’s mind through a constant filter that is both personal and political. It shows readers how that day affected their lives for years. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was also a turning point movement in the fight against the British, which morphed from talk of “gradual political reform” into a demand for purna swaraj.

The detailed author’s note at the beginning tells us about Sarna’s extensive research and use of diaries, letters and archival accounts, including those of the Hunter Committee and transcripts of Udham Singh’s trial. This makes the book an engrossing read, and the description of Punjab, particularly the story of Maya Dei, is reminiscent of Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind (2016), an extensive saga of Kumaon’s history, beginning in 1856 .

While historical fiction is a popular genre in the literary world, there are still swaths of Indian history that have not been covered by writers, leading to the absence of India-centric narratives. This is because, as a character in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (2011) puts it: “Story is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation. Crimson Spring is therefore an important addition to the recording and storytelling of this vital and complex part of India’s history.

Jonaki Ray is a New Delhi-based poet, writer and editor. Her collection of poetry, Firefly Memories, is forthcoming from Copper Coin.