Home / Lounge / Features /  The talented Mr Udham Singh

Historical books that read like a Frederick Forsyth thriller are rare. Historical books that read like thrillers, but are backed up by meticulous research, are rarer still.

Of the crop of recent books that mark the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, few are as much a page-turner as Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin. It is the astonishing true story of Udham Singh, a revolutionary well known in Punjab but perhaps little known outside it. Singh spent years obsessed with revenge, stalking Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant-governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre. In March 1940, after 21 years of waiting, he shot O’Dwyer in a crowded London town hall. After a hurried and sham trial, he was hanged three months later.

Why is Singh not more widely known? Anand says it is because the British government wanted to distance him as much as possible from the Jallianwala Bagh incident to cover up its own incompetence at a time of war. “Udham was right on their radar for years, and they let him slip through their fingers time and time again," says Anand. Many of the classified documents Anand uncovered have only been available to the public from 2016; others were destroyed. Her investigation shows that both MI5 and the Special Branch tried hard to cover up the “mess that occurred on their watch".

Besides, Singh was discarded by both M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were alarmed by his use of violence at a time when they were involved in delicate negotiations with the British for independence. Gandhi called the assassination “an act of insanity". Singh’s defence lawyer was the wily V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became defence minister of independent India, but he too did little to save him. Singh, a peripatetic orphan, had no family to fight for his name. The confusion between the similar names of O’Dwyer and Brigadier Reginald Dyer—the man who actually carried out the massacre—did not help his reputation.

Both Britain and India were happy to forget Singh until 1974, when his body was brought back with honours to his hometown of Sunam in Punjab by Indira Gandhi, with the backing of Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab . A statue of him now stands at the Bagh, clutching a fistful of blood-soaked earth, and he is revered through Punjab.

Anand describes Udham Singh accurately as “a real-life Tom Ripley", after Patricia Highsmith’s chameleon-like con artist. Part of the same Ghadar Movement as the more famous Bhagat Singh and Madan Lal Dhingra, Singh was a low-caste, barely literate Sikh. By sheer will, he transformed himself into one of Ghadar’s chief operatives. He would work in Africa, Iraq and the US. He would fraternize with the Bolsheviks, the Germans and anyone with a grouse against the British empire, before eventually making his way to the UK. He had a number of aliases, including the memorable “Muhammad Singh Azad" at the time of the assassination.

He was an incorrigible ladies’ man, and, by all accounts, very charismatic. He would marry a Mexican woman, Lupe, and father two children, whom he would ruthlessly abandon in his quest for revenge. He would even work briefly as an “extra" in big movies. After the assassination, he would be used by Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels as propaganda against the British rule in India. All in all, a man worth remembering.

Who: Anand, a British-Indian broadcaster and author, has a strong connection to the massacre. Her grandfather Ishwar Das Anand was at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919. He narrowly escaped being killed, having left the Bagh to run an errand only minutes before the massacre began. On his way out, he would pass Brigadier Dyer and his soldiers. He lost childhood friends in the massacre and would “suffer survivor’s guilt" for the rest of his life (the book’s dedication to Ishwar reads: “No guilt in survival. I wish I could have told you that").

By an amazing coincidence, Anand’s husband, writer and broadcaster Simon Singh, also had an ancestor who went to the UK in the 1930s and lived with Udham Singh. “We, like many Punjabis, were told how Udham, grabbing a clod of blood-soaked earth, squeezed it in his fist, vowing to avenge the dead," writes Anand.

What:The Patient Assassin opens with an unforgettable and brutal scene: famed hangman Albert Pierrepoint going to Pentonville Prison to assist with the hanging of Singh. Singh had been trying to starve himself to death to escape the noose, making estimating his weight difficult. Pierrepoint would go on to hang more than 400 people. As Anand writes, “In death, Udham Singh had inadvertently set Albert Pierrepoint up for life."

Anand also investigates the backgrounds of Sir Michael O’Dwyer and Reginald Dyer, and what drove them to gun down innocent women and children. Being even-handed about the “butchers of Amritsar", she says, was the hardest part for someone who had been brought up to hate them both.

O’Dwyer, for instance, was deeply affected by nationalist violence in Ireland, the stress of which killed his father. His childhood in war-torn Ireland would make him detest all nationalists and calls for self-rule. Dyer, meanwhile, was brought up in Shimla, and grew up on tales of the carnage of the 1857 rebellion.

But Anand does not shy away from the pointless brutality that followed the massacre: the air raids, the floggings, and the torture of innocent Amritsaris, including children. Her previous books, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and Koh-I-Noor (co-written with William Dalrymple), also uncovered the dark side of the Raj. This book goes further. “If I have to read another sepia-tinted Raj nostalgia piece, I will scream," she says. “Because I grew up on that diet of polo matches and maharajas and memsahibs, but that’s not all there was."

As a child in Britain, Anand says she was told about Jallianwala Bagh by her father, but never learnt about it in school. But she always believed there was another, less sanitized, version of history that deserved to be told. “I remember one time I rebelliously referred to the 1857 mutiny as the First War of Indian Independence, and my teacher wrote in the margin, ‘You are very tiresome, Ms Anand.’"

Why: Try this if you want an immensely readable tale, not a string of dates, events and footnotes. But also read this for its painstaking investigation. Anand lays to rest the urban myth that Singh actually wanted to kill Dyer and ended up killing O’Dwyer instead. As she points out, Dyer had died of a stroke 13 years earlier, in 1927, and Singh was well aware of this (the revered Bhagat Singh, in fact, ended up killing the wrong man). “It was in the interests of the British to present him as a bungler," she says.

Anand has an eye for tiny details that make for a great story and humanize Singh. While waiting around in London to kill O’Dwyer, Singh astonishingly took time off to star in the 1936 movie Elephant Boy, based on Rudyard Kipling’s story, Toomai Of The Elephants. “The show-off in Udham simply could not help himself," she writes. At another time, he helped himself to the collection plate of the gurdwara. Keeping a low profile was out of the question for Singh, flamboyant to the last.

Anand also investigates a controversial point: Was Udham Singh actually in the Bagh on the day of the massacre? The residents of Sunam, his hometown, refuse to even entertain the idea that he was not, but after considering various accounts, Anand concludes there is no firm evidence either way. Only Singh knew for sure, and he never revealed where he was. What is true is that he was deeply haunted by the massacre.

I ask Anand if, like many British Indians, she wants an apology from Britain, not the mealy-mouthed expressions of regret by former and serving UK prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May respectively. She takes a moment to answer. “A while ago, I met Brigadier Dyer’s great-granddaughter, Caroline Dyer. She still thinks her ancestor did exactly the right thing and he was just ‘doing his job’. We had a very difficult conversation and then she asked me, ‘What do you want from me? An apology? Because I am not going to apologize.’ I thought about it and then I replied, ‘No, I just want you to understand.’" Anand says. “We have now agreed to make a trip to Amritsar together. I will show her the bullet holes, the narrow entrance. I will have to square it with my family though, who will be very uncomfortable. An Anand going to Amritsar with a Dyer!" she says.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.


Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Recommended For You

Trending Stocks

Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout