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.”)

But Jallianwala Bagh did prove to be an important milestone in his life in other ways. He was now a staunch supporter of the nationalist cause and a fervent opponent of British rule. Following the advice of his mentor Giani Bagh Singh, Bauji joined the Guru ka Bagh movement launched by the Akalis in 1922. (The Akalis were part of a Sikh reformist movement that sought to free the gurudwaras from the control of mahants, or caretakers, who were seen as corrupt and dissolute, but were friendly to the British. Mahant Sundar Das, of the historic Guru ka Bagh gurudwara located in Ghukkevali village, about twenty kilometres from Amritsar, was a particularly egregious example.) Bauji was arrested along with a large group of protestors that turned up outside the courts every day to register their protest against Mahant Sundar Das’ continued control over land adjacent to the gurudwara. He spent several months in the infamous Borstal Jail in Lahore—a period that he describes as transformational for him as an individual and in his evolution as a writer.

Jail brought him into contact with Pandit Jagan Nath, an influential Congress party activist who had made good use of his influence to bring a trunk-load of books to the jail. The cache included quite a few novels of Munshi Premchand, which Bauji managed to read despite a very rudimentary knowledge of Hindi language and the Devnagiri script. They were to have a defining impact on him as he decided that he had finally discovered his true calling—to write novels that would seek to reform society and make the nation a better place. Enthused by the thought, he started to write his first novel while still in jail, only to have it confiscated and destroyed during a raid on his cell by the prison officials. Spending the severe Punjab winter in a damp cell also meant frequent colds and a complete loss of hearing in the already damaged left ear. His incarceration also had another, rather curious side effect. It became a bit of a sore point in our family and I grew up hearing close relatives lament that Bauji was impractical and perhaps a bit simple-minded when it came to the welfare of his own family. Had he been smarter, they complained, he could have made a very legitimate claim for “freedom fighter” status and received benefits that his family could have enjoyed.

Bauji emerged from jail as part of the general amnesty to over five thousand prisoners who had been jailed for unlawful protests during the Guru ka Bagh movement. And proceeded to publish “Zakhmi Dil,” his next book of verse. “Zakhmi Dil” used the ingenious device of simple fables to drive home the devious and rapacious nature of the Raj and its persistent efforts to divide and rule. The fables had innocent sounding titles like ‘The Traveller and the Djinn,” “The Lion and the Lamb” and “The Cats and the Monkey.” Equally unusual was his use of Urdu in some poems, which offer a searing account of the brutality with which police forces attacked peaceful Akali protestors at Guru ka Bagh and about the way they were incarcerated.

The Raj had already showed that it had little tolerance for such “seditious” literature and, like “Khooni Vaisakhi, “Zakhmi Dil” was also banned and confiscated soon after its publication in 1923. In a striking parallel, it was lost to the world for the next several decades and it wasn’t until 1990 that my intrepid father found a copy with a dealer of old books. Having previously worked with Dr Gupta, he approached him again for a detailed foreword for the new edition that was published almost seven decades after the original.

The Raj continued to keep a close watch on the media even after the Rowlatt Act was repealed in 1922 and the 1920s clearly weren’t an easy time to be a writer, printer or publisher. Printing presses found guilty of printing anything tinged with nationalist or patriotic sentiment were deemed “seditious” and raided by the police. The owners could be jailed for up to three years in addition to being subjected to hefty fines. In Meri Duniya, Bauji has an interesting anecdote of his own experience in setting up a printing press in Amritsar soon after his release from jail. He did this with a loan of 3,000 rupees from Ram Singh—a childhood friend from his days in Peshawar who would now become his business partner. The business took off but the portfolio included a daily and a bi-weekly that always looked like they might invite the wrath of the government. Other presses had found a neat little solution to the dilemma. Since the owner did not want to risk a jail term, he would get a proxy—usually an unemployed soul willing to sign up as the proxy owner for a monthly salary of about twenty-five rupees.

Bauji was reluctant to follow this route but eventually gave in to relentless pressure from Ram Singh, who argued that the nascent business would collapse if he were sent to jail again. So they found Inder Singh, a young man desperate to earn a few rupees and made him the proxy owner. Barely ten weeks had elapsed and the police was at their doorstep, armed with warrants against the press. The poor soul was sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment. Bauji went to see him in jail and was deeply moved by his plight. A heated argument with Ram Singh ensued, but this time Bauji was not backing down. He sold the press at a loss and handed over the proceeds to Ram Singh with a promissory note that he would refund the remaining amount soon. He also kept his commitment to Inder Singh and continued to pay twenty-five rupees per month to his family for the remaining part of his prison sentence.

The printing press was gone but the desire to write socially relevant novels was burning bright and, in 1924, Matrayi Maa received widespread public acclaim as his first novel. After that, there was no turning back and over the next five decades, he pretty much produced a new book every year—mostly novels but occasionally the odd piece of theatre, short stories and even a translation or two. These included Adh Khidya Phul, based around the aborted novel that he had started writing in Borstal Jail in 1922 and was eventually published in 1940. I had the privilege of translating it, as A Life Incomplete, in 2012. Another masterly work, Ik Myan Do Talwaran revolved around the life of Kartar Singh Sarabha and the Ghadar movement and won the Sahitya Akademi Award. The violence that accompanied the Partition in 1947 shook him to the core and he produced a series of novels including Agg di Khed and Khoon de Sohile and Manjdhaar that delved into its horrors.


An excerpt from Nanak Singh’s Khooni Vaisakhi:

Five-thirty sharp the clock had struck
Thousands gathered in the Bagh, my friends.
Leaders came to lament the nation’s woes
Taking turns to speak out loud, my friends.
Voiced grievance, hardship, anger, sorrow
Saying, no one listens to us, my friends.
What can we do, what options left?
Can’t see any ray of light, my friends.
Those words forlorn, they barely voiced
Came soldiers thundering down, my friends.
At Dyer’s command, those Gurkha troops
Gathered in a formation tight, my friends.
Under the tyrant’s orders, they opened fire
Straight into innocent hearts, my friends.
And fire and fire and fire they did
Some thousands of bullets were shot, my friends.
Like searing hail they felled our youth
A tempest not seen before, my friends.
Riddled chests and bodies slid to the ground
Each one a target large, my friends.
Haunting cries for help did rend the sky
Smoke rose from smouldering guns, my friends.
Just a sip of water was all they sought
Valiant youth lay dying in the dust, my friends.
That narrow lane to enter the Bagh
Sealed off on Dyer’s command, my friends.
No exit, no escape, no way out was left
Making the Bagh a deathly trap, my friends.
A fortunate few somehow survived
While most died then and there, my friends.
Some ran with bullets ripping their chest
Stumbling to their painful end, my friends.
Others caught the bullet while running away
Dropping lifeless in awkward heaps, my friends.
In minutes, the Bagh so strewn with corpses
None knew just who was who, my friends.
Many of them did look like Sikhs
Amid Hindus and Muslims plenty, my friends.
In the prime of their youth, our bravehearts lay
Gasping for one last breath, my friends.
Long hair lay matted in blood and grime
In slumber deep they sleep, my friends.
Says Nanak Singh, Who knows their state
But God the One and Only, my friends.

This is an edited excerpt from Navdeep Suri’s book, Khoon Vaisakhi: A Poem from the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919, published by HarperCollins India.