Even as India enters its 75th year of independence, some questions long familiar continue to haunt. For instance, what is the measure of loss? When an era exercises as much influence over the present as the colonial past does on our own, stories become a way of comprehending that which clean timelines in textbooks cannot capture. Crimson Spring, written by Navtej Sarna, is one such attempt to trace a wound that remains open, and what came undone in its wake.
On Baisakhi day 1919, an uneasy quiet looms over Amritsar. The story opens with nine people, their lives loosely interconnected, who somehow find themselves in the city on that fateful day, or have the course of their lives radically altered in its aftermath. In the chapters that follow, we are introduced to the long journeys that have brought them here – of chance and choices, through wars and short-lived marriages.
The ‘holocaust’ of Baisakhi day, 1919
A soldier who has returned from the war where he fought on the British side, a man anxious to meet his nephew after countless years, a woman travelling with her husband to Harmandir Sahib to be blessed with a child, a young man restless for a revolution: the medley of people in Amritsar that day is diverse.
Some of them end up in Jallianwala Bagh, the walled garden where a public meeting has been called. That evening, the speakers start their speeches as scheduled, but then violence strikes. Brigadier General REH Dyer marches into Jallianwala Bagh through the only functional entrance and commands his forces to open fire upon the unsuspecting crowd. Later, a witness struggles to find the words for what he has seen. “Ghallughara,” is all he manages to string together – holocaust. The ripples are felt through time and space by the victims, perpetrators, and the nation over whose control so much blood has been shed.
In his description of the land and popular figures through the eyes of the characters, Sarna invokes an idea of the country without any need to define it through its boundaries. It is a place made real by the hopes and fears of its people, bound by their rage and bravery.
The degree of fictionalisation differs: Udham Singh, who shot Michael O’Dwyer dead in 1940, is sketched closest to the facts about his life that emerged during his trial. General Dyer and Lieutenant General Dwyer are also present in the narrative, while characters like Hugh J Porter and Gurnam Singh Gambhir draw inspiration from real-life figures such as JP Thompson and Gurdial Singh Salaria.
An imagination of what led to the massacre
What approaching an event such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre through the lens of fiction offers is an opportunity to move beyond the figures of dead and injured, and imagine the length and darkness of the shadow that the loss cast with the fullness that it deserves. It hung heavy over all those touched by unspeakable tragedy that April, decimating the small and big dreams, plans, worries and beliefs that make up a life.
Sarna does not attempt to rehabilitate in history those responsible as men bound to act cruelly in service of the Crown, or the makers of impulsive, mistaken, unfortunate decisions. Instead, by building their personalities bit by bit, and presenting an imaginary account of the conversations and deliberations that resulted in the actions and official documents in the aftermath of the incident, the book successfully highlights the extent of moral corruption that imperial ambition demands.
The oppressive colonial tyranny that eventually brought the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh to pass was more than the coming together of the ego of a few men, though it was also, of course, that. It was, as Sarna’s novel shows, a calculus of power within which Indian lives were expendable.
Crimson Spring is as much a lament for the historical Punjab as the tragedy that befell the spring of 1919. In its pages, the boundaries between Sikh traditions followed in villages and Hindu rituals are permeable, often overlooked; Lahore is as much the Indian people’s to claim as Amristar is. The beauty of this Punjab’s landscape is tangible, but it also scents the air, warms the blood.
In the course of the story, one can see that what was forged in those years of turbulence remains a memory steadfastly held on to – in India in general and Punjab in particular – not simply because of the scale of the massacre that marked it, but also because of the emotional depth of community that it birthed.
One also cannot help but notice the air of romanticism with which the book is suffused – for the past that the characters have lost when their ancestors had once been proud and free, and also the one that appears almost fantastical to the readers of today, such as when Gandhi’s calls in the novel for communal solidarity are answered with Hindus and Muslims drinking from the same pots. It sometimes appears a rosy reimagination of the time, but is rescued by the fact that it is, ultimately, one imagination of a nation’s history whose primary currency is inconsistencies and contradictions.
Crimson Spring is a well-researched novel, and while constructing the world of early 20th century Punjab, it broadly adheres to facts while retaining the reader’s intrigue. In some ways, perhaps what was lost that Baisakhi day will always remain unfathomable, but telling stories keeps alive the need to continue wondering – what could this deep mark in history be, if such a wound had not been made that day? Crimson Spring is an earnest attempt in this direction.
Crimson Spring, Navtej Sarna, Aleph Book Company.