On 13 April 1919, on the auspicious day of Baisakhi festival, a large crowd of fifteen thousand Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The city had been placed under curfew after a violent confrontation between the police and a local procession protesting against the Rowlatt Act promulgated by the British. The army had taken over. Many of those gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh had come from neighbouring villages and may not have known about the curfew order.

The British saw in the Jallianwala Bagh congregation a great conspiracy being hatched, aimed at toppling their rule. Determined to crush the “conspiracy” before it could develop further, they decided to teach the crowd a lesson. And so, Brigadier General Dyer reached the place with his troops and immediately ordered fire, without giving any warning to the crowd to disperse. The troops fired 1650 rounds, killing hundreds and wounding over a thousand.

Having exhausted the ammunition, Dyer ordered his troops to retreat, leaving the dead and the wounded behind. This ten-minute massacre at Jallianwala Bagh was etched in Indian history as a dark blot on British rule in India and turned into a big spark to ignite the flames of Indian nationalism. How was this episode looked at by historians and creative writers?

The silence of the past

Historians invoked factors such as causes and consequence. They wanted to know what caused Jallianwala Bagh and what Jallianwala Bagh, in turn, caused. The world of multiple subjectivities, of loss and sorrow, feelings and emotions, trauma and anger, often buried deep in the multiple layers of psyche and sub-conscious remained unexplored in such an enquiry.

But a whole field of individual experience and predicament was neglected by the very terms of such an enquiry. Historians generally remained silent about this world of silences. Could these silences be unearthed? How to fill this big gap in our understanding of Jallianwala Bagh?

Pure historical enquiry, rooted in data and records, had another limitation. It could focus mainly on what happened and why it happened, but it could not talk about what might or might not have happened. Historians by training are not very comfortable in the counter-factual zone of enquiry. Whereas this approach may have its merits, there is a whole world of individual experiences, feelings, joy, anguish, anger and so much more that gets left out.

The world of creative writers, however, is free from these constraints. This distinction is of crucial significance if we have to make sense of an episode such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. We know how the historian would look at it. We also know what the historian will not be able to look at. There are obvious limits to how far a historian can see. The important question is: how would a creative mind look at Jallianwala Bagh, both as a contemporary event and from the vantage point of the future?

This is the question the book under review answers. Rakhshanda Jalil, a historian of literature and therefore well equipped to take on this task, has put together works translated from Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi which capture this world beyond empirical investigation for us.

Where history ends

This is the real significance of the book under review. It starts where the historical enquiry ends. It opens up a whole world of imaginative articulations of Jallianwala Bagh, both during its times and subsequently. Jalil has gathered a collection of such writings – stories, plays, passages from books and poems.

The volume contains significant passages from novels by Mulk Raj Anand (Morning Face), the historian Stanley Wolpert (Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh), and Abdulla Husain (Udaas Naslen [The Weary Generations]), among others. There are important stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (An Incident in 1919), Ghulam Abbas (Those Who Crawled) and Navtej Singh (Jallianwala comes to Life), among others.

Manto was a resident of Amritsar and would probably have been a witness to the fateful evening of 13 April when a whole world turned upside down for the people of Amritsar. The best part of the volume, however, is the collection of poems by distinguished poets, in particular Iqbal, Sarojini Naidu, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, and Josh Malihabadi.

Immediately after the massacre, the British passed an extremely humiliating “crawling order”, according to which, all Indians had to crawl on their bellies through the entire length of a particular lane in Amritsar. This was the lane where an English lady, Miss Sherwood, had been assaulted by some local people during a violent altercation three days before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Miss Sherwood was saved by some other local people.

After the massacre on 13 April, the administration passed this draconian order forbidding Indians to walk upright along this lane. Given the extreme humiliation this order entailed, many novelists turned their gaze to it. The famous Urdu writer, Krishan Chander looked upon the lane as a site of martyrdom and supreme courage.

In his story, Four ordinary women – Paro, Zainab, Begum and Sham Kaur – decided to defy the order and refused to crawl. They walked upright as dignified citizens with their heads held high. But they had to pay a price for this display of dignity. They were all fired upon and killed. The women knew that they might have to pay the price for defiance with their lives. But they went ahead to uphold the value of human dignity. The four women belonged to Punjab, the land of five rivers and on that day “added a sixth river to the land of five rivers. This was the river mixed with their blood”.

If these women confronted the inhuman order by sacrificing their lives, some others confronted the order by reducing it to a game. Two friends came to the lane and turned the order into a friendly rivalry over who could crawl through the lane faster. They kept competing with each other by crawling from one end of the lane to the other and then crawling back. This was a game played out by two Indians in which the British were mere spectators.

They could not stop the “game” because it did not entail defiance of their order. It was only after the crawling game had gone on for some time that the authorities realised that their order, far from invoking fear, was being mocked. The volume is replete with immense possibilities and different dimensions, not easily accessible for surface observation. The stories on the “crawling order” give us an eerie sense of a whole range of ways in which the people of Amritsar may have looked at it.

Composing possibilities

The social sciences base themselves on available evidence, procedures of enquiry, and defined methods in order to unravel facets of reality. But while they do enable us to see reality with greater clarity, they actually come in the way of imagining the multiple dimensions and different possibilities connected to the same reality. It is here that a creative mind, free from the shackles of reason and empirical enquiry, can enable us to see beyond the limited horizons constructed by historical enquiry.

An episode like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre does need the rational scrutiny of the social scientist. But more than that, it needs the creative imagination of the poet. This is what the volume under review has brought about.

All of us inherit the world we inhabit and make sense of it with the help of conventional wisdom received from the same world. Some of us try to make this world intelligible by subjecting it to rational scrutiny. Fewer still are able to critique and question the world in new ways.

But it is given to very very few to recreate the world with alternative possibilities and trajectories. This exercise can only be undertaken by minds that are both free and creative. We all need to pay attention to the “world” created by the poet and the fiction writer.

The writer is a historian at the Ambedkar University, Delhi.

Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry

Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, Niyogi Books.