Anita Anand creates a compelling portrait of Udham Singh, the avenger of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The author in conversation with Nandini Nair
Nandini Nair | 10 Apr, 2019
IN WHAT WAYS CAN events shape a man? How do his actions plague him? What is the nature of patience and retribution? These are some of the questions that Anita Anand answers in her recent book The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj (Simon & Schuster; Rs 599; 373 pages). Anand tells the story of Udham Singh, the man who meticulously plotted the assassination of the former Punjab governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Singh shot him dead in London at a public meeting on March 13th, 1940, 21 years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Singh believed that ‘India would understand’ as killing O’Dwyer, the man he held responsible for the massacre, would ‘unite his people in a full-blown revolution’ and ‘inspire the living’.
The three main protagonists of the book are Udham Singh; a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who ordered his men to shoot at 20,000 unarmed men, women and children, and is said to have died of a broken heart; and the lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who sanctioned the shooting, and never once lost a night of sleep over his actions. Anand goes beyond the ‘marble and myth’ and into the minds and hearts of these men, what broke them down and what built them up.
The Patient Assassin is a sumptuous book—in parts it reads like a psychological thriller; in others, like a bildungsroman , a coming-of-age story, where Singh evolves from a Sikh orphan to a Punjabi revolutionary who flirted with Bolshevism and the Germans, and dies a national icon.
This book is the prototype of ‘show, don’t tell’ writing. Anand builds a tale of flesh and blood, emotions and passions by laying fact upon fact, and cementing it with research. The footnotes and bibliography span 40 pages and reveal the breadth of her investigations—from interviews with descendants, to court and police papers from India and the UK, to autobiographies and memoirs (both published and unpublished).
Anand’s ability to humanise a historical incident is also due to the fact that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is part of her heritage. Her grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, not yet in his twenties, was in the garden on April 13th, 1919. By a quirk of fate or fortune he left the garden minutes before the shooting began. When he returned he found the bodies of friends. He ‘suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his relatively short life’. In The Patient Assassin she uses her legacy to create a full- bodied account of a historical incident with contemporary relevance. As the journalist writes, ‘I found myself left with a surprisingly contemporary story, which resonates with the news I cover today.’ Singh’s tale after all is also ‘the story of buried facts’ and ‘fake news’. Speaking on the phone from London, she talks about the importance of chronicling a story “that has all been there, but just covered in dust, and misunderstanding for a very long time”. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Can we start with your own memories of Jallianwala Bagh? When did you first visit? And how has your relationship with this historic site changed over time?
The first time I went to Jallianwalla Bagh, I was too young to know the importance of it. I would have gone with my parents, maybe when I was 11 or 12 years old. And although my father would have told me the story, the resonance would have been abstract for me.
Then when my first son was born we went to the Golden Temple, when my first child was three years old, so this would have been seven years ago. And then you know, because you think of legacy and your ancestors, then it hit me a lot harder. So after going to the Golden Temple we went to Jallianwalla Bagh to have a picnic, which is exactly what my grandfather would have done on the day of the massacre. And with my child with me, with my husband with me, with my family with me, I think then it became a lot more visceral. I thought this was exactly what people were doing on that day.
And since then, in the course of doing research, and ping-ponging from India, maybe I’ve gone four-five times more. And every time it is a very sobering experience. And every time now I find it has become more an act of pilgrimage than tourism.
Given your legacy, and as the author of The Patient Assassin, how do you understand ‘survivor’s guilt’? What can it do to a person?
I think survivor’s guilt can crush a person, it can lame a person with the sense of randomness and chaos of life. And that is what it did to my grandfather. How was it that he could survive, because of something as banal as going to buy scrap metal? How was that possible? And how is it that people he was breaking bread with just did not? It made no sense to him. And it was quite a sobering, crushing experience. But for others, it lights a fire. That’s unfair. Especially, if you lose your religion. My grandfather was a very religious man. He believed in a karmic cycle of reason. Whereas
Udham Singh lost his religion, like Bhagat Singh, his hero. And therefore, there is nothing. We are here, this is it. And if God wouldn’t settle a score, then you settle the score. That is what drove him. That is what consumed him.
How crucial was it for you to confirm whether Udham Singh was at Jallianwala Bagh that day or not?
There is still a question mark over whether he was in the garden or not. And I am convinced we will never know. He is the only one who will ever know. I am also convinced that he was in India and in the Punjab, definitely, at that time. Because the British, with all their access to records, were desperate to discredit him. And if they had even a scintilla of a chance to say that he was out of the Punjab, or out of the country, they would have said it. And I’ve gone through almost 2,000 documents of highly secret memos and letters between departments, and they’ve never once come close to saying that.
“India is like a train on a fast track to the future. All of these old ghosts of the past are discarded along the way. It isn’t just Udham Singh. It is history itself,” says Anita Anand, author
That is a maddening thing—that we wouldn’t know. I often think that the most banal explanation is often the most credible. And I think the one explanation that I heard when I was doing research was that he was in the Punjab, and was leafleting. And therefore he sent people to the garden. But he himself was not there. He was very close by. So his guilt was of a different kind. It wasn’t that he was passively spared, it was that he was actively involved in sending people to their death. Which may explain why his desire for vengeance was so all-consuming.
Other than in the Punjab, which has ‘never stopped being proud of the avenger of Jallianwala Bagh’, why has much of India forgotten Udham Singh?
India is like a train on a fast track to the future. All of these old ghosts of the past are discarded along the way. It isn’t just Udham Singh. It is history itself.
History has become political football. People are kicking it around. And reshaping it every time they boot it around the field. I think because the connection with Punjab is so strong and because the proliferation of that massacre was so wide… it is almost like an heirloom, the memory of what happened and what was done.
But in the rest of India, people don’t remember maharajas, they don’t remember rajas. These things are kind of blurred—because India is very forward- looking at the moment. And it is head down charging forward. It doesn’t surprise me. I think he is a lot better remembered in India than historical figures are remembered elsewhere in the world. I am sort of thinking about the pantheon of greats in this country. And it revolves around a handful of people. You’ve got Churchill, Queen Victoria and others. And the lower you go down the list of people, people tend to forget. With the fast pace of modernity, very few of us have time to look back. I think it is a human condition, but I think it is more acute in India than anywhere else.
The book opens in London, on July 30th, 1940, with the execution of Udham Singh ‘Prisoner 1010’. It is a hair-raising chapter. Why did you decide to start the book with the mindset of the executioner? What intrigued you most?
I wouldn’t lie. It was one of the things I was proudest of uncovering during my research. This botched nature of the execution was never meant to see the light of day. These were papers that were released only in 2016—and very quietly. The whole discussion [veered around] how the senior hangman at that time had done such a bad job that he has been dismissed from service.
I started thinking there must be records on what went wrong. I went back to the files and I found this name, Albert Pierrepoint, who is the most famous executioner in Britain. And I couldn’t believe he was involved in this. Then I went through Pierrepoint’s memoir, and I found the whole thing: the entry for that day. That was the slipstream into the mind of the man who was part of the execution. And then it led me to all sorts of different ways, who was he working with. And then, how badly it had gone wrong.
I wanted people to see what I had found. And it was just such a good way, to enter not only the mind of the man who was going to kill him, but also the mind of the country that was going to kill him.
“Udham Singh sent people to the garden. He himself was not there. So his guilt was different. Which may explain why his desire for vengeance was so all-consuming”
The assassination is recreated in cinematic detail. What were some of the challenges of recreating that scene?
I went through the eyewitness testimonies of every person who was at Caxton Hall (in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster) at that time. Because the police locked everybody in for hours and wouldn’t release them until they got these first statements. And then I had the later statements that were taken by the prosecution council, when they were preparing their trial. That immediately gave me a sense of the utter courage and the chameleon quality of Udham. Going through these witness statements I saw time after time after time people saying, ‘I did not notice him, until it was too late.’ ‘I didn’t see him.’ Except for a handful of people, who were watching him. I tried to create that scene through the eyes of people who were there. I didn’t want to be removed from it. I wanted to be in it. And the only way to be in it was to show it to you through their eyes. Not to tell you what happened. But to show you what they said. So that is why if it is cinematic, it is because it is through eyewitness testimony.
I wanted to be very true to it, I didn’t want to impose anything of what I thought. Because what I think is not important. But this is what happened. From the sucking of the boiled sweet, to the post-mortem report which told me about the scorch marks on the back of his jacket. You are able to piece together the intimacy and the rage of that final act of killing.
Finally, having written this book and having lived in Udham Singh’s head, what is your definition of patience?
It is not losing sight of your mission. I think that is part of it. And not rushing into action. So waiting until all the stars are aligned before you can make your move. He was in England for an awfully long time. He could have made some kind of botched attempt in the street. But there is a huge potential of missing, or hurting and not killing. It seemed to be that these stars were perfectly aligned.
Some people have put this down to dumb luck of a lone wolf. You know, an almost Walter Mitty kind of character who just lucked upon it. But I hope I’ve shown through the book—with the diaries and notes, and coded references, the journeys, the fact that MI5 knew about him—this was a man who step-by-step- by-step was getting closer all the time. He took his time, and he never forgot.
Excerpt From The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj
Udham took the gun from his overcoat to check it one last time. The cylinder clicked out from its pin position and he looked through its six chambers, making sure they were clean before he dropped in the bullets. This gun was double action, so there was no need to cock it after every shot. He could get off a number of rounds in quick succession.
The size of the revolver was not ideal. His outstretched arm would have to fight gravity to keep the muzzle from drooping towards the floor. It also kicked like a mule. Every time he fired it felt like a cricket ball had been thrown into his hand by a powerful fast bowler.
He would have to focus after every shot, keeping his arm stiff enough to hold his aim, but not so stiff that the shock of the recoil made him drop his weapon. Udham had practised shooting in the woods, but trees did not move. He had to believe that muscle memory would keep his aim true, even as adrenaline coursed through his body.
Udham had waited twenty years for this, and now the day had finally arrived, it required just a little more patience from him. The assassin found he had a lot of time to kill before he would come face to face with his nemesis, but was so relaxed about what lay ahead, he even considered going to the cinema beforehand…
When Sir Michael O’Dwyer eventually rose to his feet to turn and address the audience from the floor, Udham saw his face for the first time. Sir Michael was older, but had lost none of his presence or energy. He captivated the room with his lively blue eyes, speaking animatedly about ‘the riot in the Punjab after the Great War’ and the lessons that could be learned and applied in Afghanistan. It was vintage O’Dwyer: portentous but at the same time humorous and engaging.
It must have taken everything Udham had in him not to reach for his pistol when Sir Michael started talking about Punjab. He inched closer, his back still against the wall. There was only one chance to get this right. Patient… He had to be patient…
To the sound of warm applause, the meeting was brought to a close. The snow of the morning had now turned to sleet and people, Bertha included, began to gather up their things, pulling on coats, buttoning up, reaching under chairs for umbrellas. Sir Michael and the other speakers were out of their seats now, gathered in a distinguished-looking huddle at the front, congratulating each other.
Pushing against the flow heading for the exit, Udham made his move. Sir Michael had turned to speak to Lord Lamington when he first noticed Udham approach him. His hand was extended.
At first Sir Michael must have thought he wanted to shake hands. By the time he saw the gun, it was too late. No time to run, instincts kicked in instead and he turned away from the revolver, hands across his body, protecting his chest. The gun was practically touching his back when it went off for the first time.
Udham’s bullet bored a path through Sir Michael’s 75-year-old body, shattering his tenth rib and slicing through the base of his lung. It travelled through the right ventricle of his heart before emerging out of his left side. A wisp of white smoke and sulphur filled the space between them as Udham’s gun hand reared up towards the ceiling. He brought it down so quickly that Sir Michael didn’t even have time to fall when he was hit again.
The second bullet also flew into the old man’s back, entering at a slightly lower angle than the first. Udham’s firing was precise and deadly. The round followed a path almost parallel to the first: ‘The lower [bullet] smashed the twelfth rib, [and] ploughed up the right kidney, passed through the soft issue of the back of the abdomen.’
Sir Michael crumpled and fell to the ground, in an almost foetal position. He rolled on to his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. It is doubtful whether he even heard the Tudor Room erupt around him. Amid the screams, chairs clattered on the wooden floor as people dived for cover.