NEW DELHI―On 13 April 1919, Nanak Singh, a 22 year old boy, went to Jallianwala Bagh with two friends who were killed in the brutal firing unleashed by General Dyer’s forces. Nanak Singh survived and wrote about his deep trauma through a poem in Punjabi―Khooni Vaisakhi―which was banned by the British in May 1920. Subsequently, the poem was lost. Nanak Singh went on to became one of Punjab’s most celebrated writers but Khooni Vaisakhi could be retrieved and republished by his family only after sixty long years. Now, his grandson and India’s current Ambassador to UAE, Navdeep Suri, has translated the poem into English and published it in a book with the same title.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Suri recalled how Khooni Vaisakhi was retrieved and the importance of preserving history. He shared earliest memories of his grandfather and how the massacre affected the lives of multiple generations.The diplomat also emphasised that, as India observes the centenary year of the massacre, it is time for the United Kingdom to tender a clear apology instead of expressing deep regret like PM Theresa May did recently.
Edited excerpts from the conversation.
Tell us about the journey of this book.
It is a unique work written almost a 100 years back. First published in May 1920, immediately banned by the British, confiscated, then lost for next 60 years until we managed to find a copy by serendipity. It was published in 1980 without much fanfare. Last year in summer when I came to Amritsar with my parents we realised it is the centenary year and it is a unique account, not just poetry but also contemporaneous history that deserves a wider audience. So I decided to translate it. We added three essays including one by me called ‘Book, Bagh Aur Baoji’ (Book, Jallianwalah and my Grandad) which brings out the fact that I was born a stone’s throw away from Jallianwalah Bagh in Amritsar. The poem really paints a vivid picture of the very tumultuous first fortnight of April 1919 in Amritsar.
What are your earliest memories of your grandfather and the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy?
I was only 12 when he passed away. At that time his reputation really was as a novelist. He had written 55 books. We were talking to a 70 year old about an incident that happened when he was 22 years old. He was very reticent to speak about it. Our understanding about his visit to Jallianwala Bagh, his trauma came from our grand mother who is the one he confided in. Perhaps he was so traumatised that he wrote a poem, lost it and that is about it. Except in his own autobiography published in 1949 which has a fleeting reference to Khooni Vaisakhi, if you look at his literary oeuvre it is just a little blip on the horizon. In his lifetime he never saw it again.
Did he choose not to see it?
I don’t know if he made an effort to find it but my father did. Our childhood memories with our grandfather are of going to our village near Amritsar, sitting in his lap , listening to him narrate stories. Did he ever take you to Jallianwala Bagh himself? No. Only my mother did. Jallianwala is right next to Golden Temple. So anytime relatives would come we would go visit.
How do you think the massacre shaped up entire generations?
In terms of my grandfather’s own evolution as a writer and as an individual it had a profound impact. He was born as Hans Raj Suri in a Hindu family in what is now Pakistan. He spent his initial years in Peshawar. When he was about 18 years old he came under influence of a spiritual leader in a Gurudwara in Peshawar and converted to Sikhism and became Nanak Singh. With the zeal of the new convert, much of his initial writing was hymns in praise of the Sikh Gurus. Khooni Vaisakhi is really his piece of secular writing and a very strongly nationalist voice comes through every page of the book.Thereafter he took part in Akali movement. So you could see that post Jallianwala Bagh he became embedded into the nationalist movement, freedom struggle, went to jail, came out, wrote another long poem titled Zakhmi Dil (Wounded Heart) which was also banned by the Brits. Then he set out writing about novels many of which had subtexts of social reform. He drew his inspiration from Munshi Premchand.
How did his journey impact your parents?
My father was born in 1932. What we have are oral histories from within the family. The book is important because in bringing this out we are rediscovering our own family history. If you had spoken to my grand father in the 60s when he was a major literary figure, he would have possibly spoken about partition which had a bigger impact on him and he wrote three novels on its traumas. Either because of the trauma he possibly chose not to speak of Jallianwala or so much else had happened going along in his life that this became one of the many incidents.
Where did you finally find the book copy?
Gyani Zail Singh was Chief Minister when my grandfather died. Zail Singh was a great fan of his writings and came to our house. My father started pursuing that there was such a book and Zail Singh got his people to look into the archives. My father recalls that they got a letter from the Home Ministry subsequently with a photo copy.So either it came from the archives in Delhi or India Archives in London. The Brits would ban things but still keep a copy.
With the kind of political narratives today where history is distorted or brushed under the carpet, how important is it for upcoming generations?
If we do not remember our history we have lost a precious part of our heritage. It is not just the valiant struggle. You have to salute people who were writing so boldly at a time when Rowlatt Act was in force.When penalty of speaking out of turn was to be put in jail or heavy fine. Second is profound message that comes through the book of spirit of communal amity between Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths in Amritsar at that point of time and British whose policies were anchored around ‘divide and rule’ got spooked by this spirit of unity. There is a passage on Ram Nawami being celebrated in Amritsar on 9th April four days before Jallianwala happened and the two tallest leaders were Dr. Saifuddin Kichlu and Dr.Satyapal. Then on 10th April there is firing on a crowd that is going to petition the deputy commissioner to release arrested leaders and 30 people get killed. Next day there is a funeral procession into the main cemetery. There is a remarkable verse on it. How dramatic is it for a poet to be saying in 1920 that Muslims are saying ‘Ram-Ram’ and Hindus are saying ‘Ya Hussein’ as the funeral procession is going on.
UK PM Theresa May recently expressed deep regret but there has been no apology from Britain for the massacre. How important is an apology for healing or to find closure?
It matters for both sides. I served in Australia and I know the debates there before their Prime Minister finally said sorry for all that they did to the indigenous communities in the country. There was intense debate and discussion on the lost generation. Governments find it hard to say sorry but once they do there is a sense of catharsis, there is a sense of closure. Hopefully one of these days, the right thing will be done. In the meantime, rather than wait expectantly for their sorry, we need to do what we can. We should make sure that the sacrifices of those who were at Jallianwala Bagh or other places remain alive; our younger generations must remember our history.
There is an occasion. It is the centenary. It would be appropriate to say sorry. It is a short word. At the end of the day the government of the day has to take its call.
Governor of Punjab recently wrote a letter to the UK High Commission saying that he would not participate in the Queen’s birthday celebration as no apology had ever been extended from UK. Can this kind of a diplomatic protest be effective?
There is an occasion. It is the centenary. It would be appropriate to say sorry. It is a short word. At the end of the day the government of the day has to take its call. There are groups of Indians going to UK Parliament for a debate on Saturday. How the British handle them is up to them. I can say that there is a legitimate expectation in Punjab and India as well as among Punjabi diaspora around the world that this was one of the most egregious events of the Raj and yet they have oscillated between acknowledgement- and writers penning books which are part justification.
Smita Sharma is an Independent Journalist. She writes on Foreign Policy and is Executive Editor (Consulting) for TV9 Bharatvarsh Twitter- @smita_sharma