Baisakhi Day. 13 April 1919. Amritsar was shut. Anger, hostility, and fear had strangled into sullen silence this bustling trading centre that stood on the Grand Trunk Road connecting Delhi to Lahore and Peshawar.

A persistent premonition that something terrible could happen any moment hovered over the city, on both sides of the railway line. On one side lay the crowded walled city with its twelve gates, its sinuous lanes becoming narrower and narrower as they snaked into its crowded interior. Its flat-roofed houses squeezed onto each other, their balconies almost touching, shutting out the light, until the sky was just a sliver above. The suffusion of strong smells, pleasant and not so pleasant, added to the sense of things closing in. At the heart of the old city was the Golden Temple. It sat in its gilded serenity in the sarovar, a pool of water in which the pilgrims bathed.

On a normal Baisakhi day, the temple would be teeming with people; baptism with the doubled edged dagger on that day would be of special significance, for on that day the Khalsa, the brotherhood of Sikhs with a clear identity, had been born, two hundred and twenty years earlier.

Beyond the old walls and on the other side of the railway lines were the leafy green areas of the cantonment and the Civil Lines, the preserve of the British colonial rulers. Here there were
lawns with flower beds, neat hedges, straight roads, the courts, the club, the church and even a golf course.

A two-lane carriage bridge and an iron footbridge over the railway line connected these two worlds.

It was on these bridges that three days earlier, on the tenth of April, the tension that had been building up in all of Punjab for months, had erupted. On that day, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, leaders of the spreading protests against the Rowlatt Act, had been deported to Dharamsala under orders of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the haughty Lieutenant Governor of Punjab.

Crowds gathered on those bridges wanting to cross over to the Civil Lines and appeal to the DC, the Deputy Commissioner, to release their leaders. The authorities panicked and opened fire, killing several people. The angry crowd spilled back into the city’s lanes, setting buildings on fire and killing five Europeans who fell into their hands. Marcella Sherwood, a supervisor of the city’s mission schools was attacked in a side alley off the narrow lane, Kucha Kaurianwala.

More soldiers were rushed to Amritsar. They marched through the lanes and set up pickets. Water and electricity to the city were cut off. Amritsar retreated into an uneasy silence. Its inhabitants were angry; this was no way to celebrate the Baisakhi festival of spring, the success of the harvest, the coming of the New Year.

Maya Dei had managed to pray at the Golden Temple on Baisakhi morning, in the ambrosial hour before dawn. Every day, for the last fifteen days, she had woken up while it was still pitch dark, bathed, and walked barefoot to the gurudwara through the narrow lanes that led from the home of Lala Sunder Das, adjacent to Jallianwala Bagh, where she and her husband Joga Singh were

Each day, particularly after the firing and violence of the tenth, it had got more difficult; the police and military were everywhere, many lanes were barricaded. But Bisheshwar, the
Lala’s younger son, only fourteen years old, was her ally. He would guide her by a new route each morning; waif-like, he could dodge every barrier, criss-cross through private houses, find ways across roofs.

No matter what the risk, the boy had got it into his head that he had to help her fulfil her vow to Waheguru that she would pray at the Golden Temple for forty days. And then He would grant her the only boon she wanted: a child to make her happiness complete; otherwise there was nothing lacking in the life she and Joga Singh had created for themselves in the village of Parhi, on the other side of the river Jhelum, over a hundred miles to the north-west of Amritsar.

For the last three years, without telling her husband, she had tried whatever the older women in the village had suggested, eating what they said, praying in the direction they pointed to,
but nothing had worked. Then someone had told her the ancient story of Dani, the wife of a Sidhu peasant from Ferozepur who had been blessed with a son by Sakhi Sarwar Pir twelve years after

Maya made the same pilgrimage that Dani had made in that legend, joining a group going from Sohawa to the Baisakhi mela at the pir’s shrine at Nagaha. She bathed in the stream that ran below the shrine at the feet of the Sulaiman mountains and then climbed the steep steps to pray, breaking her overnight fast only when she came down. She tied sacred threads on the dead branches of the tree to which the Pir had tied his mare many centuries ago. The next year she had gone to the annual fair at Gujranwala and the next to the famous Jhanda Mela at Peshawar. Joga Singh did not go with her; he did not believe in these pilgrimages. But he didn’t stand in her way.

But this year she had decided that she would not go to any of the Sakhi Sarwar shrines. Her husband’s face had lit up when she told him first thing one morning:

‘This year for Baisakhi we will go to Amritsar. I dreamt of Harmandir Sahib this morning and they say that if you dream of something just before you wake up then it means something special.’

That was why they had locked up the house with the red, yellow, and blue glass windowpanes and taken the lorry to Jhelum and then a train that helped them cross the Jhelum River on an incredibly long bridge and brought them first to Lahore and then to Amritsar, the Guru’s own town. Lala Sunder Das had welcomed them warmly. He was a rich coal merchant and an old friend of Joga Singh who had moved from Rawalpindi to Amritsar in search of better business. That his business had prospered was obvious from his well-furnished three-storey house, the narrow back windows of which, with their painted iron bars, looked over Jallianwala Bagh.

Long after Maya Dei had returned from the Golden Temple and distributed the prasad to the entire household, Joga Singh stood looking down into the Bagh from those windows. Preparations were underway for some sort of event. Some men were hastily fashioning a platform with planks.

Slowly, in ones and twos, people began to come through the only real entrance, from Queen’s Bazaar. Several children were small enough to be carried on the shoulders of their fathers and grandfathers. Joga Singh’s eye caught a strange sight: a smart, tall man of soldierly bearing wearing an army tunic and neat khaki turban was walking in with two bulls. He headed towards the large peepul tree near the samadhi and let the bulls loose to graze in the far part of the Bagh.

Someone tested a megaphone. There would be speeches, Joga Singh realised. Speeches no doubt against the Rowlatt Act and appeals for satyagraha.

Gandhi’s idea of hartals was catching on and Joga Singh was intrigued. On an impulse, he decided he
would step down into the Bagh and listen.

At the Golden Temple, Ralla Singh hadn’t slept well at all; a strange disquiet had been gnawing at him all night. Finally, whenthe clock on the tower across had struck four, he had rolled up the light wool shawl with which he always covered himself, even during summer, and gone to sit cross-legged by the holy pool, eyes closed in meditation. By the time he finished reciting the Japji, the stars had begun to dim and the first gentle rays of light were making their way across the night sky and bowing their heads at the golden walls of the temple, as if seeking Waheguru’s blessings for the day to come.

Crimson Spring

Excerpted with permission from Crimson Spring, Navtej Sarna, Aleph Book Company.