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In loving memory: Review of Crimson Spring by Navtej Sarna

Traumas Jallianwala Bagh’s martyrs’ well, where victims jumped to escape the bullets.

Traumas Jallianwala Bagh’s martyrs’ well, where victims jumped to escape the bullets.

In a painstakingly detailed Author’s Note that sets up his new novel, Navtej Sarna enumerates the themes that he has long wanted to pursue in his writing: “the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, early twentieth century Punjab, the Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War (World War I), and the revolutionaries who died for India’s freedom”. In  Crimson Spring, he brings them all together, evidently as fiction, but he is careful to explain his adherence to known fact. Sources are listed, the bases on which portraits of the real-life characters are sketched explained, and the inspirations for some of the fictional characters provided.

Sarna also prefaces the novel with a timeline, preparing his reader for the sweep in which he seeks to place the agitation against the Rowlatt Act, passed on March 18, 1919 and the horror a month later, on Baisakhi, April 13, at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, on the instructions of Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer. The first date on his calendar is July 15, 1913, when the Ghadar Party was formed. The penultimate one is March 13, 1940, when Udham Singh assassinated Michael O’ Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, in London, Dyer having passed away in 1927.

Dark night

Cover of Crimson Spring

Cover of Crimson Spring

The early decades of the 20th century were transformational in Punjab, and this transformation is conveyed through the back stories of the men and women in  Crimson Spring who will be touched personally by Jallianwala Bagh. People are on the move, escaping both personal setback and disease, or grabbing the opportunities offered by the colonial administration, canal colonies, education, recruitment for Britain’s overseas wars, etc.

Kirpal Singh, for instance, is just back from the Great War — “a veteran of Flanders and Basra”. “It had been the devil’s war,” he recalls, and now he is in Amritsar to give thanks at the Golden Temple for getting out of it alive and to pray for those who did not. It is a day when he is to reunite with wider family.

Fatefully, Kirpal is caught up in the massacre: “The sun went down in an ocean of blood and the night that enveloped Jallianwala Bagh was death itself, visiting each shadow, teasing out and trapping each escaping life. The stray dogs, too, were soon out, sniffing blood and then warm, unresisting flesh. Kirpal felt his vision darken again and again. He needed water. But he carried on, willing himself on, encouraged by the presence of some others who had appeared. Two men were carrying a charpai on which they were moving the wounded two or three at a time. A young boy of thirteen or fourteen with a small saffron turban on his head was pouring water into outstretched hands from a huge leather mushki, almost as big as himself, on his back. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and the mouthful of water that he gave Kirpal revived him like amrit.”

Finely drawn

South end of Golden Temple Road, Jallianwala Bagh Martyr’s Memorial.

South end of Golden Temple Road, Jallianwala Bagh Martyr’s Memorial. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

This spirit of reaching a helping hand out to the next person pervades the novel, witnessed in cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’ and ‘Hindu-Mussalman ki Jai’ during protests against the Rowlatt Act, the Kala Qanoon or Black Law that allowed for detention without trial; in the aftermath of the massacre; and in the shared horror at the atrocity that gave the freedom movement a determined, united resolve.

Sarna relies heavily on the transcripts of the Hunter Committee and the Congress Punjab Inquiry into the massacre. Two of the ‘fictional’ characters, Gurnam Singh Gambhir and Maya Dei, are inspired by people who gave testimony to the Congress committee. Their life stories are so finely and movingly drawn, as is Kirpal’s, that the novel will nudge many readers to read those transcripts. As it should be.

The last tracts of the novel belong to Udham Singh, one of 20th century India’s most enigmatic figures. He has never been out of sight, moving in and out of the timeline and the lives of some of the other characters. We know how it will end, the assassination, quick trial and death penalty. Sarna admits to taking “fictional liberties… to flesh out the scant details available of his early life and dramatize the other scenes where he appears”. And in doing so he reinforces our overall understanding of the men and women who people this novel: how Jallianwala Bagh altered the political and social fabric of their lives as well as of those who were touched by the massacre at a remove.

Crimson Spring; Navtej Sarna, Aleph Book Company, ₹899


Ziya Us Salam in conversation with Navtej Sarna

Sarna on choosing a novel as a medium for narrating history

Only a novel allows you to explore the inner mind and feelings of people. History does not go into the psychology of common people. It’s only in a novel that you have the freedom of looking at human relationships.

On the importance of history

History is memory. A person without memory is lost. If you don’t know your past you really don’t know where you are going in future.

Interview with Navtej Sarna
Listen as the author speaks to The Hindu’s Ziya Us Salam on ‘Crimson Spring’ and more

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2022 3:44:19 pm |