The book under review is on one such major historical event that set the stage for the Independence movement to gather momentum in Punjab.
As soon as I received the book, with Nanak Singh’s name embossed on it, I was transported to my childhood days, when long summer vacations were spent glued to the works of the father of the Punjabi novel. I had read most of his works and as a child, the titles of his novels, and especially the binary opposition in them, Paviter Papi (Saintly Sinner), Chitta-Lahu (White Blood), Aastak-Naastak (Theist-Atheist), always attracted me.
One can very easily observe a shift in the writings of Nanak Singh — from religious issues to social and then political. The socio-political and religious trajectories, in fact, reflect not only the personality of Singh, though, but offer a historical narrative of our country as well. The book under review is on one such major historical event that set the stage for the Independence movement to gather momentum in Punjab.
Using poetry as a medium of protest, Singh has documented and questioned, rather interrogated, the British rulers for the massacre that happened on the day of Baisakhi, April 13, 1919. All of 22 years of age, Singh had decided to attend the meeting held at Jallianwala Bagh to register a protest against the Rowlatt Act. In this poem on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Singh writes, “Rowlatt Act stirs up a hornet’s nest, gloom spreads like fire across the land… As the clock struck five on thirteenth April, they all gather in the Bagh, my friends… They went to speak, to share their grief… Five-thirty sharp the cloak had struck… Came soldiers thundering down, my friends, at Dyer’s command, those Gurkha troops… opened fire, straight into innocent hearts, my friends.”
Singh, present at Jallianwalla Bagh, collapsed in the stampede and was left under a heap of corpses. He not only suffered mental trauma and damage to his ear but also lost his two friends who had accompanied him to the Bagh. “Those handsome lads of indulgent mothers, now gone, abandoned, their names unknown… says Nanak Singh, every one of them, got a bullet that carried his name alone… Oh Lord! Do listen to our prayer, your gentle flock’s in utter despair, their tears flow without restraint, our postcards of pain.”
Singh, born on July 4, 1897, in Chak Hamid of Jhelum district and named Hans Raj, converted to Sikhism and started writing poetry in praise of the Sikh gurus. The massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh proved to be a turning point and he not only penned this moving narration of the event in Khooni Vaisakhi published in 1920, but participated in the Akali movement. Singh was sent to Borstal Jail in Lahore but this period transformed him as a person and as a writer. While his book, Zakhmi Dil, was an indirect message of protest, in Khooni Vaisakhi the narration was direct and attacked the British without any cover. No wonder, Zakhmi Dil was also banned like Khooni Vaisakhi.
Khooni Vaisakhi, a pamphlet of just 900 lines, was banned and all copies were confiscated and destroyed by the British government. The family was left with not even a single copy. The journey to trace an original copy is no less than a thriller. Navdeep Suri, grandson of Singh, left no stone unturned to trace this little book of great historic value. One can instantly share the excitement of the family members when finally they received a hardbound copy of the Puratan Sikh Likhtian and on page 113 got the first glimpse of the elusive cover which gave May 30, 1920, as the date of publication, Bhai Nanak Singh Kirpal Singh Booksellers as the publishers and Bhai Nanak Singh of Satguru Mahima fame as the author (page 73). The most impressive and historically significant part of the book is a contribution by Justin Rowlatt, great grandson of Sidney Rowlatt. The details provided in a diary and letters written by Sidney Rowlatt to his wife would definitely add to social history of India. In April 1918, Sidney Rowlatt had arrived in Delhi and observed, “We had driven out to see New Delhi where they are going to build a vast official city with a Viceregal Lodge to which Buckingham Palace will be a cottage…There have been seven cities at Delhi and all have perished with the folk that built them-the ruins are all here-and here we go and build an 8th just when our show is tottering! (pages 111-112)”
The book, originally written in Punjabi, has been translated into English, and presented along with the original version written in Hindi. The poem starts with an invocation to Guru Gobind Singh, infusing martial feelings even at the beginning of the poem. A day-to-day account of the events, with a perfect intermingling of emotions, never fails to interest the readers. The description of Ram Navami, traditionally celebrated to mark the birth of Lord Rama, with the equal participation of the Muslims turning it into a festival of unity, stays with you. Singh writes, “A festival of Hindus though it was, Muslims made it just their own, my friends… Dr Saifudin, Satyapal together, tread on a path united, my friends… each Muslim tried to outdo the other, served sweetened drinks to all, my friends. each one stood with their Hindu mate, showering flowers on devotees all, my friends(pages 17-19).”
The use of certain words like anam (reward), manjur (acceptance) and ikkatar (gathered) has a distinctive regional touch. The poem is dotted with Urdu, Persian words, signifying a close cultural bond between the communities. But unfortunately, some of the Punjabi words written in Hindi convey a different meaning altogether. For instance, the use of the word shaher (city) with an extra matra in Hindi becomes problematic (pages 24, 50). Though Navdeep Suri has done a wonderful job and it is a perfect tribute to not only Nanak Singh but also to all those martyred at Jallianwala Bagh 100 years earlier, alas, the original Punjabi version is definitely a better one, with its unique raw flavour.