It is about those days in 1919, Brother, when agitations against the Rowlatt Act had sprung up all across the Punjab. I am talking about Amritsar. Sir Michael O’Dwyer had forbidden Mahatma Gandhi from entering the Punjab under the Defence of India Rules. Gandhi ji was on his way when he was stopped near Palwal, arrested and sent back to Bombay. As far as I can understand, Brother, had the English not committed this grave mistake, the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, which is the bloodiest chapter in the history of British rule in India, would never have occurred.
Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs – all held Gandhi ji in veneration. Everyone considered him to be a “mahatma”, a great man, a truly evolved spirit. When the news of his arrest reached Lahore, all business came to a standstill. When people in Amritsar heard of this, complete and total strikes paralysed the city within the snap of a finger.
It is said that by the evening of April 9, orders banishing Dr Satya Pal and Dr Kitchlew from the district had already reached the deputy commissioner. However, he wasn’t ready to carry out the orders because he was convinced there was no danger of riots or disturbances in Amritsar.
People had been staging peaceful demonstrations to express their discontent, but there was no question of any sort of violence. I am telling you what I saw with my own eyes.
It was the festival of Ramnavmi on April 9. As always, a procession was carried out but nowhere did anyone take one objectionable step against the wishes of the administration. But, Brother, Sir Michael was a mad man. He refused to listen to the deputy commissioner. He was convinced that the political leaders of the day were hell bent upon overturning the imperial rule at the Mahatma’s behest. And these same leaders were part of a grand conspiracy behind all the strikes and processions.
The news of Dr Satya Pal and Dr Kitchlew’s banishment spread like wild fire. People were sore and heartsick. They were gripped by the fear that something terrible could happen anytime. But, brother, there was no stopping their commitment to the cause. Shops were shut down and the city looked like a graveyard. But in the stillness of this graveyard lay a clamour. When news of Dr Satya Pal and Dr Kitchlew’s arrest reached them, thousands of people gathered so that together they could go to meet the deputy commissioner and petition him to revoke the orders banishing their beloved leaders. But the time, brother, was not right for receiving petitions. A tyrant like Sir Michael was the ruler. Forget accepting the petition, he decreed that the crowd that had assembled was unconstitutional and illegal!
Amritsar – the Amritsar that had once been the greatest hub of the Independence struggle, the city that had proudly borne the wound of Jallianwala Bagh on its chest like a medal – take a look at the state of that city today! Anyhow, let that pass. It pains my heart. People say that the English are responsible for what happened here in this Sacred City five years ago. Maybe so, brother, but if you ask me the truth, I will say that it is our own hands that are sullied in the blood that was spilt here. Anyhow, let that pass.
The deputy commissioner’s bungalow was in the Civil Lines. All the big officers and their self-important toadies lived in this exclusive part of the city. If you have been to Amritsar, then you would know that a bridge joins the city and the Civil Lines, and you need to cross this bridge to come to that secluded haven where the city’s elite have built their piece of heaven on earth.
As the crowd surged towards the gate of the City Hall, they found white soldiers mounted on horses patrolling the bridge. Still, the crowd did not stop. Brother, I was part of that procession.
I can’t describe the passion that raged in every breast. Yet every single man was unarmed; they did not even have a stick among them. They had left their homes and spilled out on to the streets with the simple desire to take their single request to the commissioner to free Dr Satya Pal and Dr Kitchlew without imposing conditions of any sort. The crowd moved towards the bridge without stopping. The white soldiers opened fire. It caused a stampede. The soldiers were no more than twenty or so; the crowd ran into thousands. Brother, you cannot imagine the panic that even a stray bullet can cause. The chaos that followed had to be seen to be believed! Some fell to the bullets; some were wounded in the stampede.
A dirtywater drain ran on the left. A push from the crowd and I fell into it. When the hail of bullets dried up, I climbed out of the drain and saw that the crowd had dispersed. The wounded lay strewn on the road and the white soldiers stood about laughing and cracking jokes. Brother, I cannot describe the state of my mind at that moment. I suspect I was not entirely in control of my senses. I certainly was not fully conscious of anything around me when I had fallen into the drain. By the time I came out, gradually, very gradually, the events that had occurred began to take shape, form and coherence.
In the distance, I could hear shouts – as though a lot of people were speaking very loudly and angrily together. I crossed the drain, skirted the grave of the Blessed Zahira, and reached the gate of the Town Hall. There, I found a group of 30-40 excited youth hurling stones at the gate. When the glass panes in the gate fell in slivers on the road, one youth said to another, “Let’s go and break the statue of the Queen.”
Another said, “No, no, let’s burn the kotwali instead.” A third said, “And all the banks, too!”
A fourth said, “Wait! What good will that do? Instead, let’s go and kill the white soldiers on the bridge.”
I recognised the fourth man. It was Thaila Kanjar. His real name was Mohammad Tufail, but everyone knew him as Thaila Kanjar. He had been born from the womb of a prostitute. And a good-for-nothing he was, too!
He had begun drinking and gambling while still very young. He had two sisters – Shamshad and Almas – two of the prettiest prostitutes of their time. Shamshad could sing very well. Rich aristocrats would flock from miles around to hear her. The sisters despaired of their brother and his feckless ways. Everyone in the city knew that they had given him the boot. Yet, somehow or the other, he managed to extract enough money from them to get by. And not just get by, he ate well and drank well. In fact, he was known to be quite a dandy. He was a raconteur and an aesthete. He knew how to spin a tale and crack a joke. There was none of the bawdiness of someone from his “trade”. A tall man with a strong well-built body, he had a finely-etched face.
The excited youth paid no heed to his words and headed towards the Queen’s statue. Once again, Thaila Kanjar said, “Don’t fritter away your enthusiasm. Come with me. Come, let us go and kill those whites. They have taken the lives of our innocent people and injured them. By God, if we want we can wring their necks. Come! Come with me!”
Some of the young men had already begun to walk away; others stopped. When Thaila began to move towards the bridge, they followed him. I said to myself, why are these poor hapless young men walking towards certain death? I called out to Thaila from my hiding place beside a fountain, “Don’t go. Why are you bent upon killing yourself and these poor innocents?”
Thaila heard me and laughed a strange laugh. He said, “Thaila only wants to prove that he is not afraid of bullets.”
Then he turned towards the crowd and said, “You may turn back if you are scared.”
How could advancing steps retreat at a time like this? That, too, when the man leading them was walking bravely in the face of extreme danger! When Thaila increased his pace, his companions had to perforce do the same.
It wasn’t a great distance from the gate of the Town Hall to the bridge – it must have been no more than 60 or 70 yards. Thaila was leading the pack. Two mounted white soldiers stood 15 or 20 steps from the railings on either side of the bridge. They opened fire by the time Thaila, shouting slogans, reached the mouth of the bridge. I had thought he would collapse in a heap there and then but I looked up and saw he was alive and still walking. His companions had fled by now. He turned around and shouted, “Don’t run away! Come with me!”
He had turned around, facing me, when there was another fire. He turned towards the white soldiers, his hand moved along his back. Brother, I shouldn’t have seen anything but I can tell you I saw bloodstains on his white shirt. He moved swiftly, like a wounded lion. The sound of another bullet rang out. He tottered a bit, then controlled himself and moved sure-footedly towards one of the mounted soldiers. In the blink of an eye, the horse’s back was empty. The white soldier lay on the ground and Thaila was grappling on top of him. The other white soldier, who was mounted on the other horse close by, got over his initial stupefaction, reined in his panic-stricken horse and opened a volley of shots. I don’t know what happened thereafter. I fainted and fell down beside the fountain.
Brother, when I regained consciousness, I was home. Some passers-by, who recognised me, had brought me home. They later told me that the ring on the bridge had enraged the crowd. As a result, the statue of the Queen had been destroyed. The Town Hall and three banks had been set on fire. Five or six Europeans had been murdered. And there had been looting and chaos.
The English officers were not particularly bothered by the loot and arson. The blood bath at Jallianwala Bagh took place to avenge the killing of these five or six Europeans. The deputy commissioner had handed over the reins of maintaining law and order to General Dyer. On April 12, the General had marched through the markets and streets of the city and ordered the arrest of scores of innocent people. About 25,000 people had assembled in Jallianwala Bagh on April 13. General Dyer had arrived with armed Gurkhas and Sikhs and rained bullets upon those poor unarmed people.
No one could tell right away how many lives had been lost that day in Jallianwala Bagh but later, when enquiries and probes were conducted, it was found that a 1000 people had died and 3000-4000 had been injured. Anyhow, I was telling you about Thaila. Brother, I have told you what I saw with my own eyes. Only God Almighty is faultless and pure. The deceased was guilty of all four sins that are banned by the Sharia. He may have been born from the womb of a professional courtesan, but he was a brave man.
I can tell you with complete certainty that he was hit by the first bullet red by the white soldier. When he had turned around and urged his companions to follow him, perhaps in the heat of the moment he had not realised that the hot lead had already pierced his chest.
The second bullet had hit his back, the third his chest. I didn’t see it, but I have heard that when Thaila’s corpse was removed from the white soldier’s body Thaila’s hands were clasped around the dead man’s neck and that it had been difficult to prise them free.
The next day when Thaila’s corpse was handed over to his family for the last rites, his body was found to be riddled with shots. The other white soldier had emptied his entire cartridge in Thaila’s body. But by then Thaila’s soul had departed from his body and the white soldier was merely target practising on a dead body.
I have heard that when Thaila’s corpse was brought home, loud cries of lamentation had rent the neighbourhood. Thaila was not especially popular among his people but the sight of his body, looking like minced meat, had made grown men cry like babies. His sisters, Shamshad and Almas, had fainted. When the body was being taken away for burial, their wailing and weeping had made the assembled mourners shed tears of blood.
Brother, I had once read somewhere that the first shot fired during the French Revolution had hit a prostitute. The late Mohammad Tufail was the son of a prostitute. In this struggle to bring about a revolution, whether it was the first bullet or the tenth or the fiftieth, no one has made any attempt to find out. Perhaps because he had no real social standing. I think Thaila Kanjar does not even feature among the list of those who died in that blood bath. For that matter, no one knows if such a list has ever been compiled.
Those were days of tumult. The army held sway. The ogre called Martial Law went about snorting and bellowing through the streets and alleys of the city. In that free-for-all state of chaos, poor Thaila was buried with indecent haste as though his death was the cause of such a great shame on the part of his relatives that they had to instantly remove every trace of it.
And, brother, Thaila died. He was buried...and...and...” For the first time since he had launched into his story, my companion checked himself and fell silent. The train kept rushing on. The tracks began to sing, “Thaila died...Thaila was buried.” There was no gap, no space, no distance, between his death and his burial. As though he had died one minute, and been buried the next. The rattling tracks and the rhythmic beat of those words were so entirely bereft of feeling that I had to drag my mind away from their staccato beat. And so I said to my fellow-traveller, “You were about to say something when you stopped?”
Startled, he turned around to face me and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, a poignant part of that tale is still left.”
I asked, “What?”
He began to speak: “As I had told you, Thaila had two sisters – Shamshad and Almas – who were extremely beautiful. Shamshad was tall with slender features and big eyes. She sang the thumri very well. People say she had trained under Khan Saheb Fateh Ali Khan. The other, Almas, could not carry a note, but there was none who could match her steps. When she danced, it seemed every pore, every part of her body came alive. Every gesture spoke volumes. Her eyes had a magic that entranced you and caught you unawares.”
My companion was busy heaping praises upon the duo, yet I thought it best not to interrupt. Finally, he emerged from his longwinded eulogies and came to the sad part of the tale. “It so happened, Brother, that some toady had gone to the English officers and told them about the beauteous sisters. An Englishwoman had been killed during the riots...What was the name of that witch?...Miss...Miss Sherwood! And, so it was decided that the sisters would be sent for and revenge would be taken in ample measure. You do understand how, don’t you, Brother?”
I said, “I do.”
My companion took a long, deep sigh. “In some delicate matters, even prostitutes and courtesans are, after all, mothers and sisters. But, Brother, sometimes I think our country has lost all sense of shame. When the order was conveyed from top, the thanedar himself immediately agreed to go. He went to the sisters’ house and told them that the English sahib had sent for them to sing and dance. The soil on their brother’s grave was still fresh. He had been dead for just two days when the orders came: Come! Come, and dance before us! Can there be a more terrifying way of causing hurt? I doubt if there can be another greater example of cruelty. Did those who issued these instructions not stop to consider that even prostitutes can have some self-respect? After all, they can, can’t they?” Evidently, he was asking himself that question even though he was talking to me.
I asked, “Did they go?”
My companion answered, somewhat sadly, after a while. “Yes, yes, they did – and they went dressed to kill.” Suddenly, his sadness acquired an edge of sarcasm. “They went made up to their eyebrows. People say, it was quite an occasion. The sisters were in peak form. Dressed in all their finery, they looked like fairy princesses. Wine flowed like water. People say, at two past midnight, when a senior officer finally gave a signal, the merriment eventually wound up.” The man got up and began to watch the trees racing past the window.
His last two words began to dance to the tune of the wheels and the tracks: “Wound up, wound up, wound up.”
I tried to wrench them free from the rumbling inside my head and asked, “What happened then?”
Removing his gaze from the trees and poles running past, he spoke clearly and firmly, “They tore off their fine garments. Standing stark naked before the English of cers, they said, ‘We are Thaila’s sisters – sisters of that martyr whom you riddled with bullets simply because he possessed a soul that loved his country. We are his beautiful sisters. Come and besmirch our fragrant bodies with the molten lead of your lust. But before you do that, let us spit on your faces – once!’”
And with that, the man fell silent, as though he would not speak again. I asked immediately, “What happened then?”
Tears came to his eyes. He said, “They were shot dead.”
I said nothing. The train slowed to a halt at the station. He called a coolie to carry his luggage. As he prepared to leave, I said, “I suspect you coined the ending of that particular story.”
Startled, he turned around and asked, “How do you know?”
I said, “There was a deep anguish in your voice.”
Swallowing the bitterness in his throat with his spit, my fellow-traveller said, “Yes those bitches...” He checked the invectives that rose to his lips. “They defiled the name of their martyred brother,” he said and got off the train.
(Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil)
Excerpted with permission from Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry, introduced and edited by Rakhshanda Jalil.
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