Hundred years after Jallianwala Bagh, a grandson revisits a survivor’s poem about the massacre

14 April 2019

Nanak Singh, a renowned Punjabi poet and author, was present at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April 1919. He was there for a rally against the Rowlatt Act—the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, colloquially called after Sidney Rowlatt, the lawyer who drafted the bill—which empowered the British government to make arrests without a warrant and control the press. Singh had collapsed in a stampede during the civilian shooting and returned to consciousness under a pile of corpses. In May 1920, he wrote “Khooni Vaisakhi”—a poem, nearly nine hundred lines long, which described the massacre in vivid detail and was confiscated by the British authorities after its publication.

In a book published this year, titled, Khoon Vaisakhi: A Poem from the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919, Navdeep Suri, Singh’s grandson, revisits the poem. In an effort to make it relevant to contemporary readers, Suri combines the poem with other materials, including a historical reading of the event and its brutal aftermath following the imposition of martial law, literary analysis by the scholar Harbajhan Singh Bhatia and an account by Justin Rowlatt, Sidney Rowlatt’s great-grandson. The following excerpt from the book lays out biographical details about Nanak Singh’s life and career, looks at the driving impulses behind his writing and contains a poem chronicling aspects of the massacre.

Bauji was born on 4 July 1897 in Chak Hamid, a small hamlet in the Daadan Khan tehsil of Jhelum district. Named Hans Raj, he was the oldest of four children born to Bahadur Chand Suri and Lachchmi Devi. His father had a modest trading shop in Peshawar and Hans Raj was barely eight when he was asked to join his father and help with the business. The rest of the family moved a year later, but the joy of a reunion was short-lived. Bahadur Chand died of pneumonia within a year of their arrival, tragically on the same day when his wife was giving birth to his youngest child. At the age of ten, Hans Raj found himself responsible for the family store, an ailing mother and three siblings. Continuing with school was hardly an option. In later years, he was often asked about his formal education and he would smile in response, “I don’t know if I should say fourth grade pass or fifth grade fail. You decide.” It speaks volumes of the sheer genius of the man whose writings would go on to become the subject of over fifty doctoral dissertations.

He stayed in Peshawar for the next ten years or so, developing a passion for music and demonstrating an early talent for stringing rhymes and verses together into rudimentary poetry. An eight-page booklet of his verses was published in 1909 under the title Seeharfi Hans Raj when he was all of twelve years old. He showed little appetite for managing the store and was happy to leave it in the more capable hands of his younger brother. Going by his own account in his autobiographical work Meri Duniya, his penchant for music and poetry earned him a circle of disreputable friends who sought his company to provide free entertainment at their parties.

He was drifting rudderless until he came under the influence of Giani Bagh Singh, a pious and scholarly figure at the local gurudwara. It was a momentous period for him, and he decided to convert to Sikhism. Hans Raj became Nanak Singh in 1915 and embarked with all the zeal of the recent convert to apply his poetic talents towards writing hymns in praise of the Sikh gurus. The most famous of these was Satguru Mehma, first published in Amritsar in 1918. It sold over a hundred thousand copies during the next few years and became the bedrock of his financial sustenance as he tried to figure out his true calling. It also earned him the monikers of Nanak Singh “Kavishar,” or poet, and of Bhai Nanak Singh—the prefix “Bhai” being normally reserved for individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Sikh faith. “Khooni Vaisakhi,” in contrast, was a mere blip—written in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, published in 1920 and lost for the rest of his life. (We now know that the original edition described the author as “Bhai Nanak Singh.”)

Keywords: Jallianwala Bagh poetry British raj literature