History, in its ideal form, is supposed to be an assortment of empirical facts. But our sense of history—what it all means—is almost always informed by who we are and how we are made to look at it. Like photographs and other visual archives, literature opens a window on to history that allows us to put human faces to it. A new anthology, Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses In Prose And Poetry, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, does precisely that, taking us back to one of the bloodiest events in modern Indian history, which shook the nation 100 years ago.
On this day in 1919, Reginald Dyer, a general of the British army stationed in India under British rule, ordered his regiment to open fire on roughly 15,000 civilian men and women who were gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, in the wake of protests against the draconian Rowlatt Act. In the introduction, Jalil writes that between 500-600 people were killed on the spot and another 1,500 wounded. Since there was a curfew from 8 that evening until 6 the following morning, many of the injured could not be rescued, taking the toll even higher. For this nefarious action, General Dyer went down in the annals of history as the villain of Amritsar, though he showed no remorse for his decision.
Jalil, a literary historian who has written extensively on Urdu literature, has put together a collection of responses to the event in prose and poetry by writers who were writing in the early decades of the 20th century as well as those who came later. From Saadat Hasan Manto to Abdullah Hussein, two of the most distinguished names in Urdu writing, to others such as Mulk Raj Anand, Bhisham Sahni, Sarojini Naidu, Nanak Singh and Krishan Chander, her selection reflects a wide range of voices and concerns. In stories, plays and poems, we get glimpses of the imagined victims of the massacre, those who are often forgotten by the grand sweep of history. The vivid accounts of their physical trials, as well as their inner torment, show us truths that other, more impersonal, archival materials fail to capture. If some of the sentiments seem to lack the polish of literary language, they ring even truer.