Poetic and prosaic responses to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

“How does literature convey history? How do we study history through literature?” – Upama Biswas.

Source : Niyogi Books

While experiences and observations in real life contribute to the creation of literature, be it fiction or non-fiction, literature itself serves as a window to reality—past or present. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, a major turning point in the history of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule, is one such historical event that finds expression in numerous literary forms.

Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry, introduced and edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, a writer, critic, translator from Urdu and Hindi, and literary historian, is a collection of literary snapshots of this horrific event that introduces readers to the world of possibilities that literature offers to reflect, interpret, and occasionally analyse events of momentous historical import.

In the introduction to the collection, Jalil argues,

‘While a great deal of scholarly work has been done on the Jallianwala Bagh, its reflection in Indian literature in the different bhashas and also in English has been overlooked,’ clarifying the impetus behind this book.

The Introduction also traces the history of some of the most potent political events leading up to the massacre—Punjab’s involvement in the First World War (1914–1918); stirrings of the Home Rule movement under the leadership of Annie Besant in 1916; the Rowlatt Act of 1917 and the consequent first satyagraha under Gandhi’s leadership on 6 April 1919; followed by the arrests of Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, two Congress leaders who had been asking for a repeal of the Rowlatt Act, on 10 April 1919, directly resulting in the assault of Miss Marcella Sherwood by an angry mob protesting their arrest.

What happened next, on the ill-fated Sunday evening of 13 April 1919, Jalil opines,

‘Marked a rupture in Indo-British ties and irrevocably shattered the tradition of loyalty towards the colonial masters. …and the nationalist movement received a most unexpected fillip.’

The collection is divided into two sections—prose (including plays, short stories, and extracts) and poetry (translated from Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi). The prose section includes notable works such as Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1919 ka Ek Waqeya, Abdullah Hussein’s elegantly sprawling novel Udaas Naslein (translated as The Weary Generations by Hussein himself), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Inqilab, an extract from Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Morning Face, Bhisham Sahni’s play Rang De Basanti Chola, Navtej Singh’s short story ‘Jallianwala Bagh Comes to Life’, and so on.

The poetry collection includes works of stalwarts such as Sarojini Naidu, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Sohan Singh Misha, Babu Firoz Din Sharaf, Giani Hira Singh Dard, Nanak Singh, Muhammad Iqbal, Zafar Ali Khan, Josh Malihabadi, Tirlok Chand Mahroom, and Ahmaq Phaphoondvi.

The volume offers ways of ‘seeing’ history: How does literature convey history? How do we study history through literature?

Decoding the repercussions of the ruthless butchering of unarmed innocents at Jallianwala Bagh that haunts the human mind even after the lapse of a century, through the literature produced by a generation of writers and poets who had witnessed, in some cases experienced, the horrors of the event, is just a start and paves the way for further research.

Upama Biswas is a copy editor with Sahapedia. A native of Kolkata, she studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and has a certificate in Publishing from the Seagull School of Publishing. She dreams of opening a curio-cum-book shop or a puppy day-care centre and to learn to play the bongo when she retires.


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