The sparks ignited last month.
Angry crowds gathered on the streets when the sahibs pierced the black sword of the Rowlatt Bill deep in my country’s heart. Riots erupted across the city when Governor Sahib deported Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal to Dharamshala. Hartals continued when the authorities blocked Mahatma Gandhi from entering the Punjab. The agitation swelled when the police shot down some protestors. But when a frenzied mob assaulted a memsahib three days ago, this sacred city of Amritsar became the center of the inferno. Festivities were replaced by funerals of those who were killed – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. And of the Angrez.
An uneasy calm now hangs in the air. But behind the curtains, an evil wind is gathering strength. Laden with rumors and suspicion, it fans a fire so strong that it could alter the course of history.
Dawn has relieved the night. My stomach is empty. All I have is a handful of roasted gram. I place one seed in my mouth. Crunch. It crumbles into a thousand pieces. Then another. Crunch. Since the last harvest failed, grain has become expensive. No, unavailable. But the sahibs’ food has not run out.
My throat is dry as the dust in the city’s streets. During the night, the authorities cut off the light and water supplies. They want to punish the natives. There is also a rumor that the water supply has been poisoned. Sir Rowlatt has caused a raula.
I touch the breast pocket of my tunic. The letter is safe. My eleven-year-old daughter has learnt Urdu. Her handwriting curves like the gentle ripples of a clear river. I have read each word on the postcard over and over again. I have smelt it a hundred times. It has been thirteen months since I saw my family. Their faces have diffused into blots, as if my eyes have cataracts.
England forced us to fight in the Great War. On their side. The village headman enlisted me and a hundred others for the laam in vilayat. Promised us rewards. Property and money and izzat in return for loyal service to the Sarkar in that unfamiliar land. I received nothing when I returned. We won, but I lost. They neglect our needs and treat us as inferiors. We weren’t inferior when we saved white lives in the trenches of France.
An orderly runs toward us, barking out orders. We scramble. Stand ramrod straight in attention. The Jarnail and the Kaptaan emerge from a canopied tent. The Jarnail arrived from Jullundur two days ago. He hasn’t rested, but his gait is brisk, uniform crisp. He is taller than most of us. And although a sahib, his skin is brown like many of us. They say he was born in the mountains of India and speaks our language. He inspects us with a stern eye as he tightens the chinstrap of his sola topi, then enthrones himself in the waiting motorcar. Moments later, a whistle shrieks in our ears, and we march off.
The old city is a network of crooked lanes. At times just wide enough for the car. At a corner, the Jarnail raises his cane. The convoy halts. The accompanying crier beats an oversized drum with the enthusiasm of a buffalo rolling in a mud pond. He hollers in Punjabi and Urdu. Forbids residents from leaving town. Or gathering in processions. A meeting of four people will be treated as unlawful assembly. To be dispersed by force of arms if necessary.
The gathered onlookers don’t seem to listen, many of them visitors from the surrounding countryside. Today is Baisakhi. The auspicious first day of a new year. They are here to celebrate. To bathe in the Golden Temple. To bargain in the cattle-market. To buy shiny trinkets for mothers, wives, and sisters. And wooden toys for children in the fairs. Not to listen to proclamations.
A soldier distributes handbills printed in Urdu. Most bystanders know only Punjabi. They gawk at us. At our Lee-Enfield .303 rifles. They are not my enemies. Nor do they regard me as a well-wisher. Their trust is betrayed too. Some people spit on the ground. The sahibs don’t realize that we Indians spit habitually. It may or may not be insulting.
The morning creeps on. The city heats up like a tandoor. Bazaars and mohallas become mirages. I count the stops. Nineteen times does the Jarnail proclaim. Shortly after noon, he is done. His khaki jacket clings to his back with sweat. He orders us to return. It will be a long parade, longer in the heat.
I am right behind the Jarnail’s car, like a dog tied by an invisible chain to the vehicle. Wherever it goes, I follow. In the webbed alleyways, the cane goes up once more. From an intersecting lane, not even two feet wide, a native man approaches the car. Whispers a message. For a moment, the Jarnail doesn’t move. Then his cane signals the convoy to proceed.
At base camp, the Kaptaan offers a break. A fellow soldier and I trudge to a hand-pump near Ram Bagh Gate. Four Sikh women are drawing water. As we approach, they pause and weigh us up with narrowed eyes. When I tell them we are thirsty, they offer a filled bucket without hesitation. We place our rifles upright beside a tree trunk. Squatting down, I slurp in long gulps, like a parched animal. Splash the tepid water on my face. Streams of reddish-brown dust drip off my bearded chin. It tastes metallic. I wipe my face with my sleeve. Refreshed, I hand the bucket back. Shukriya. The women refill and leave without a word, colorful dupattas fluttering behind their covered heads.
My colleague and I lean against the tree. I ask him what he thinks about the past days. He wishes nothing more than to meet his ageing parents in his village, he says. Then his face clouds over. I may be a spy of the British. The sahibs are like our parents, he reminds me. They guide us righteously, and we must continue the tradition of serving them. They do their work, and we should do our duty. The Indians rebelled. Destroyed post offices, looted banks, and cut telegraph wires. Killed sahibs and humiliated their women. The government’s reaction to crush the sedition is jaiz. I gape at him. Strain to see sense in his rote recitation. Not having the strength to counter, I keep quiet.
We return to the camp and wait. For three days, it has been a cycle. Of patrolling, waiting, shooting, waiting. Across the large garden, army tents are pitched in neat rows. Soldiers catnap on wooden benches. Heads loll. They look like a collection of rag dolls. I walk further and flop down on the grass. A family of sparrows chirp somewhere in the trees. Sleep refuses to come to my aid. I reread the letter. For once, my family’s faces are clear in my mind.
The next orders arrive around three in the afternoon. Pick up ammunition. Check bayonets. Prepare firearms. Assemble on the double. Two armored cars with machine guns rumble in, belching grey smoke. I know this model from the Great War. Rolls-Royce. The protruding machine guns dwarf the serious-looking gunners, whose heads rise above the domed turret. Two chestnut-brown horses fidget behind the vehicles. Mounted by stiff-backed policemen with turbans that make them look even taller. The Jarnail’s open motorcar awaits. It glints. The driver has dusted it off in the break.
Twenty-five of us Baluchis. Twenty-five Gorkhas. Loaded rifles slung around shoulders. Additional bullets in pouches. Another forty Gorkhas carry Kukris stuck in their belts. More troops shuffle and line up. I don’t know where we are going, but armored cars are meant to show power. Perhaps in response to the information the Jarnail received earlier. He dashes out of the tent. The Kaptaan follows close on his heels. They stand in front of us. The Jarnail shifts his weight from one foot to the other, rapping his cane on the side of his leg. He wants to depart soon. The bugle blasts. Long and sharp. I take a deep breath.
The column advances at walking pace. The road is almost straight. The charred building to the right was a bank. Furniture still burns within. A pungent smell of kerosene oil sticks in the air. Books lie strewn outside a shuttered shop. An upturned oxcart blocks a street. Doors and windows of houses remain barred. There is silence. Except for our boots clip-clopping on the cobblestones. Except for an aeroplane droning above. I dare not look up. I will miss my step if I do. A Sikh boy stands in a shadowy corner. He seems around my daughter’s age. Clad in coarse home-spun khadi clothes. An oversized turban atop his head. He jumps aside as we pass. I want to comfort him but have neither words nor the liberty.
The vehicles and horses slow down. The soldiers halt. The path forward is too narrow for the armored cars. Quick as a wounded lion, the Jarnail leaps out of his car. Annoyance and urgency crease his face. He orders the vehicles to move aside. Commands us infantry in. The tube-like entryway is so cramped that we can only walk two abreast. My fellow soldier avoids meeting my eye and stares ahead. Mild sunrays light up our way. It must be five in the evening. The passage opens in the Jallianwala Bagh.
It’s not really a bagh. It’s a desolate yard baked dry by the sun, the square piece of land hedged in with tall brick walls and the backs of houses on three sides. A couple of buffaloes chew cud in a corner. A dense crowd squats in the middle. Thousands. I see kurtas of the Hindus. Turbans of the Sikhs. Skullcaps of the Muslims. Women chatting with friends. Children playing. The whites and blacks of men’s clothes speckled with the vivid yellow and red salwar kameez of women spread out before us like a giant live mosaic. No one seems armed. It’s a peaceful gathering of different faiths and cultures enjoying a religious holiday.
Gorkhas to the left. Baluchis to the right.
The deployment is complete within seconds. The Jarnail is a hawk about to swoop down upon his prey. Hands on his hips, he glowers at the people. They stop whatever they were doing and stare at us, hesitant, alert. A man addresses them from a raised platform. He motions to them with his hands. Remain seated, he urges. The soldiers won’t fire.
The murmurs grow into an unsteady question. Disperse or stay?
Fear grips the bagh.
The next few moments pass in a blur. Orders to fix bayonets. The Kaptaan appeals to the Jarnail: Warn the people. The Jarnail growls: No.
He screams: Fire!
A whistle squeals.
I withdraw the rifle bolt, peer into the breechblock, pull the trigger.
The gunshot shatters me back in focus. I am part of a firing squad. Instead of one condemned person, I am required to shoot at thousands of innocents. At point-blank range. I fire above the people’s heads to give them a chance to escape. Seeing me, other soldiers aim high as well. The crafty Jarnail is quick to observe this. Shoot lower, he roars. Where the crowd is densest. Follow my direction.
His cane turns into the baton of a music conductor. Only, he is directing death.
For ten long minutes, rifle bolts clack back and forth. Hammers hit cartridges with painful clicks. Hot lead whizzes out of muzzles. The rest becomes background noise. The groans of men. The wails of women. The howls of children. Geysers of blood. The severing of body parts. The thuds of tumbling bodies.
Survivors panic. Stampede. They clog the closed exits, try to climb walls, lie down. Throw themselves in the well. Trapped. No way out of this patch of land. Except for the confined passage where we are positioned.
The orders to retreat are abrupt. I slip on a pile of empty cartridges scattered on the ground. The Jarnail forbids to look back. Be fast. Be vigilant. We might be attacked.
By whom? Men, women, and children drowning in their own blood? Perforated bodies? Heaps of corpses? The massacred city.
We rush out through the passageway. The connecting street where the vehicles await is deserted. We assemble in shocked silence, broken by the squealing whistle.
On the march back, I am in the first row behind the motorcade. My heart thumps beneath the postcard from home. With each step I take — clip-clop — the words of my daughter’s letter float before my eyes.
Please forgive my mistakes. This is the first letter I am writing myself.
I saw you in a dream last night. You stood far away, beyond the reach of my hand. I miss you, but I do not remember anymore how you look.
The drought has darkened our village. The Bulbul has stopped singing in the mango tree. Ammi has become thin as a bamboo. Her eyes bulge out like a Tiddi. She coughs all day. I cannot tell whether due to lack of food or if she is heartbroken.
Still, we are safe. Do not be anxious about us. Take thought for yourself. Guard my letter with care and come back home soon.
I pray ever for your welfare.
With each step I take — clip-clop — the images of the carnage push out my daughter’s words. Every muscle in my body aches as I try to hold back tears. Through the haze surrounding me, I see Jarnail Reginald Dyer reclining in the upholstered seat of the open motorcar like a victorious emperor on an elephant. I can imagine him scowling. Thick moustache twitching. Smirking at his handiwork.
Clip-clop, clip-clop. Is it my leaden feet? Is it the horses’ hooves? One bullet remains in my rifle’s magazine. I could squeeze the trigger. Shoot Dyer in the back. I could lunge. Dig the bayonet in the pale, sweaty neck. Or strangle him with my bare hands. It would take but a moment. I could change history. It’s up to me.
I continue to march.
I haven’t slept for three days and nights. I don’t think I will sleep ever again.
Passed on 21st March 1919, the Rowlatt Act gave the British government authority to arrest anyone without a warrant across India. It allowed for cases to be tried without juries and took away people’s right to legal discourse. It also imposed severe limitations on free press and provided the administration sweeping powers in the event of a declared emergency.
The Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919 was a decisive and controversial moment in the history of the British Empire in India. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired 1650 rounds and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians. The incident led to a changed equation between ruler and ruled, master and slave, ultimately serving as a catalyst for India’s freedom struggle against the Raj.
Not much is known about the fifty soldiers who carried out Dyer’s orders. The Jallianwala Bagh remains, over a hundred years later, a symbol of colonial brutality and repression of fundamental human rights.
‘Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification.’
– Rabindranath Tagore, 30 May 1919
‘An episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of British Empire … an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’
– Winston Churchill, 8 July 1920