The book “Crimson Spring” by Navtej Sarna is set against the epic backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, World War I, and the Ghadar movement.
The book brings the horror of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to life by viewing it through the eyes of nine characters—Indians and Britons, ordinary people and powerful officials, the innocent and the guilty, whose lives are changed forever by the events of that fateful day.
This is not just a powerful, unsettling look at a barbarous act, but also a wider meditation on the costs of colonialism and the sacrifices and heroism of ordinary men and women at a time of great cruelty and injustice. It is a book that will leave no reader unmoved or unchanged.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Three days before Baisakhi, Gurnam Singh Gambhir, tall and upright in the saddle of a well-bred white horse, galloped towards a roiling crowd on the bridge over the railway line outside the walls of Amritsar.
‘Wait! Wait!’ a voice hoarse with effort, rose above the din for one victorious moment. ‘Gunnu! On that horse, oye! Wait! Listen!’
Someone had recognized him. Someone who knew him well enough to call him by the nickname that had stuck to him through his childhood, through all the careless afternoons spent in the crowded winding lanes of old Amritsar, playing marbles, spinning tops, eating at street corners; it still surprised him that after wasting so many hours at play, he had done well in his studies at Mission School, well enough to get a law degree.
Even as he rode into the crowd on the carriage bridge, Gurnam recognized that voice. Crazy Bhola. Nobody knew his full name, or even that of his parents. He lived in Amritsar’s galis and katras, eating in any home, sleeping on any porch. One day he would be roaming the crowded lanes of Katra Ahluwalian, another day he could be found across the city hanging around near Lahori Gate. Dressed only in a loose shirt that came down to his knees, he knew neither shame nor embarrassment, and thought nothing of lifting up his shirt to urinate against any wall or into the open drains that ran along the sides of the lanes. But he was unkind to nobody, and ran errands for everybody; it was difficult to imagine those lanes without Bhola. At that moment, Gurnam felt a strange bond with him; the boy was a symbol of this restless, heaving wave of fellow citizens who seemed helplessly lost, leaderless in the midday April heat. He feared for them, with the instinctive, unthinking fear that one feels for one’s own. He needed to do all he could to save them; he was one of the few among the thousands who were out that day, the tenth of April, who could actually do something to help, something that might stop senseless killing.
He had reached the courts early that morning. Normally he would have sat for an hour or two in his small home office meeting the villagers from surrounding areas, some from as far away as the outskirts of Tarn Taran. Even though he was just thirty-four, Gurnam had steadily built up a reputation among them as a patient and understanding pleader. They would spend the night stretched out in one of the sarais around the Golden Temple, say their prayers, and eat at the langar. Early next morning they would land up with their pleas and petitions at the young vakil’s home about a quarter of a mile away in Kucha Peshawrian—the lane of those from Peshawar. This was his family house even though Gurnam had never heard of any ancestor who belonged to Peshawar. But that was how old Amritsar’s lanes and bazaars were named—after communities and professions— Sunehrian di Gali—the lane of goldsmiths, Telli Mandi—the market of oil pressers, Patang Faroshan di Gali—the lane of kitesellers, Mochian di Gali—the lane of cobblers, Nimak Bazaar— the salt bazaar, Kapda Bazaar—the cloth bazaar, Chudi Bazaar— the bangle bazaar….
But that day he had wanted to reach the courts early because these were not normal times. There had been two hartals in Amritsar in the last ten days. Hindus of all castes, Muslims, and Sikhs had joined hands and shut their shops and businesses. A resolute silence, rather than vociferous shouting, had echoed through the lanes. Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, the charismatic Muslim barrister, had read out the message of Mahatma Gandhi, the message of satyagraha.
‘All countrymen should become prepared for resistance. This does not mean this sacred town or country should be flooded with blood. The resistance should be passive. Be ready to act according to your conscience, though this may send you to jail…. Do not cause pain or distress to anyone. Go home peacefully. Take a walk in the garden. Do not use harsh words in respect of any policeman, or traitor, which might cause him pain or lead to the possibility of a breach of the peace or a riot. This is the soul force, the insistence on Truth. It is a process of purification and penance.’
Gurnam had watched with reluctant admiration as that message had gone home and gatherings several thousand strong passed off without incident. He had not been sure this method would work. But then nothing had worked so far—neither the politics of the Moderates, nor the Home Rule that some proposed nor, at the other end, the radical violence of the Ghadar movement. People were tired, frustrated, disappointed. The war had ended and the British, despite rumours of defeat on more than one occasion, had come up victorious.
‘But what has that done for us?’ was the question that he heard wherever people gathered. In courts, in bazaars, in the gurudwara.
‘Just see the price of dal, wheat, jowar…we cannot even think of ghee and gur…how is one to feed the family? And the taxes…the shopkeepers pass them on to us. We were to get more freedom after the war. We were to get more power in our hands. That’s why our young men shed their blood. All we got was the Kaala Qanoon.’
Kaala Qanoon—the Black Law. Named after the president of the Sedition Committee, Mr Justice Sidney Rowlatt, the bill was now an Act, steamrolled through the Imperial Legislative Council. It mattered little to the ordinary person that only one of the two bills had become an Act, and the other had been dropped.
The lawyers had all read the Act threadbare.
‘What was the need for this?’ Lala Duni Chand had asked, polishing his round spectacles for the hundredth time. ‘I can understand they needed the Defence of India Act. Those days there was some Ghadar activity and not enough British soldiers around—they were away fighting in Mesopotamia and France. But now? When the war is over? And when you can’t find a revolutionary worth the name in all of India? This is just repression—martial law without the name.’
Lala Todar Mal, Bar-at-law, was sardonic. ‘The British system needs repressive legislation, you see. They need it. We Indians are so dangerous. They need laws that ensure that we stay quiet, no meetings, no demands, not even thought. Just stay in our homes, mumble our prayers and if we so much as see an Englishman, we should lower our eyes and salaam, salaam, salaam.’
‘And we pleaders,’ Gurnam had added ‘will be out of our jobs. Na daleel, na vakil, na appeal. Trials will be rushed through without proper procedure, the laws of evidence will go out of the window, dead men will be witnesses, and juries will no longer be needed! And, of course, no appeal of any judgement will be allowed. One section says specifically that the person charged will not be represented by a pleader. I’m going back to farming in Tarn Taran.’
‘Not to the farm, my friend,’ Badr-ud-din Islam of the English Bar chipped in, ‘prepare to go to the Andamans. For the rest of your life. If you don’t reach the gallows first, that is. Someone like you will definitely be termed a dangerous anarchist. Tall, strapping Sardar—the very picture of a revolutionary. Ripe to be picked up without a warrant, kept in solitary cell, and not heard from ever again.’
‘And yet,’ Todar Mal continued, ‘blessed is this country that responds only by fasting and prayer. I have become a devotee of this Gandhi. His satyagraha is lighting a fire under the British and they will not know how to deal with it. Hindus being welcomed in mosques! Muslims entering temples! How will Rowlatt handle that?’