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A taste of brutal colonialism: ‘Crimson Spring’ by Navtej Sarna!

Jan 3, 2023

Writers often carry several persistent aspirations in their hearts, not knowing quite what to do with them. In my case, some of the things I have long wished to write about included the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, early twentieth century Punjab, the Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War, and the revolutionaries who died for India’s freedom”: Navtej Sarna.

I begin where Crimson Spring by Navtej Sarna ends. The tail end of a stirring soliloquy by heroic Udham Singh, at the time of his hanging at the Pentonville prison, London: “The hangman is in front of me, He whips out a white handkerchief from his pocket. No, it’s a white sack that he opens out. The sack is over my head even as the priest is saying the prayers. I see nothing more. I feel the noose around my neck, loose at first, and then tight. Then the ground opens under my feet. I have become immortal. I have become one with Bhagat Singh”.

Udham Singh soliloquy in the author’s voice.

Udham Singh was charged with the murder of Michael O’Dwyer, Lt. Governor of Punjab during the brutal Jallianwala Bagh incident, in faraway UK 21 years after the incident. And he had no regrets: “Though I had killed O’Dwyer and I was prepared to hang, I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. I wouldn’t admit my guilt, like they have never admitted theirs. I have seen people starving in India under British rule. All the money only goes to make big estates in England. Growing things only for England. Indigo, tobacco, cotton…what about food for my people? I had to protest against all that. This was my duty, and I am not sorry. I do not mind the sentence you give me, ten, twenty, or fifty years, or hanging…”.

“I have seen people starving in India under British rule. All the money only goes to make big estates in England. Growing things only for England. Indigo, tobacco, cotton…what about food for my people? I had to protest against all that. This was my duty, and I am not sorry”.

Exploring a book, particularly a work of fiction, generally poses two challenges. Unravelling the author’s mind and the book’s soul. Crimson Spring has a third dimension. While the book centres around ‘horror of the atrocity’ at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar – on April 13, 1919 – it is 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’. Navtej Sarna’s works, on assorted themes, span many centuries. Most of these, howsoever diverse, converge into his passion for Punjab. “Thanks to that Island of the soul… an Island where there is peace and writing can be a waking dream” – that leads him to the soul of each of these creations.

Despite being mindful of risking too simplistic an interpretation, I think it is a holy terrain worth treading upon. The jigsaw puzzle, the sum of his works as I deduce, assumes a fascinating form.

In his book Second Thoughts, Navtej dedicates a chapter to Udham’s idol Bhagat Singh.The latter points to the myriad horrors of social and political exploitation to question the existence of a benevolent God and asks why such a being would create a world of ‘woes and miseries, a veritable, eternal combination of numberless tragedies. His cold rational courage has the feel of steel’, describes the author: ‘I know the moment the rope is fitted round my neck and rafters removed from under my feet, that will be the final moment – that will be the last moment. I, or to be more precise, my soul, as interpreted in the metaphysical terminology, shall all be finished there…’. Bhagat Singh gave up his life at 23 fighting the evil colonialist.

Mystic to martial

One may wonder how Baba Farid’s visit to Jerusalem in the 12th century fits in here? Indians At Herod’s Gate is the answer. Soon after landing in Tel Aviv as the India’s ambassador Navtej hears about Baba Farid’s Hospice in Jerusalem. A seed for the next book is safely lodged in the fertile and curious recesses of a creative mind. “History sometimes leaves no traces” and certainly in what seems on the face of it a very mundane theme, the author’s engaging research finds the links and trails that lead us to a fabulous story.

Baba Farid established the Chisti Sufi order in Punjab. His thought and writing, would give birth to the Punjabi literary tradition, would also influence many masters who would follow him including Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. A number of Baba Farid’s verses… are to be found in the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. The holy man incidentally meditated non-stop for 40 days at the site of the present hospice, whilst in Jerusalem.

‘When all has been tried, yet Justice is not in sight It is then right to pick up the sword, It is then right to fight.’

From The Book of Nanak to Zafarnama – marks the evolution of a mystical faith into one that combined mysticism with martial traditions. Its DNA was re-engineered in the face of invasions, persecution and oppression; the use of arms in the righteous defence of the weak became an important dimension. ‘When all has been tried, yet Justice is not in sight It is then right to pick up the sword, It is then right to fight’, wrote Guru Gobind Singh in the Zafarnama, a letter written in 111 exquisite and stirring Persian verses by the Guru to Emperor Aurungzeb indicting the latter for the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of his empire. This evocative translation by Navtej brings to life the valiant voice of the Guru and the power of his poetic genius in a passionate disavowal of tyranny that remains ever relevant.

Origins of Ghadar?

As the British annexed his kingdom, Maharaja Duleep Singh was separated from his mother and his people, tells us Navtej Sarna in The Exile. He was taken under British guardianship and converted to Christianity. At sixteen, he was transported to England to live the life of a country squire – an exile that he had been schooled to seek himself. But disillusionment with the treatment meted out to him and a late realization of his lost legacy turned Duleep into a rebel. He became a Sikh again, and sought to return to India and lead his people. But the attempt only dragged him into the murky politics of nineteenth-century Europe, leaving him depleted and vulnerable to deceit and ridicule. He died a lonely, defeated man in a cheap hotel in Paris.

Navtej’s research unearths Duleep Singh’s voice. A son of the ‘Lion of Punjab’ – Maharaja Ranjit Singh – wouldn’t give up without a fight: “Rebellion seemed to call me from every street corner. I felt free. Free of the terrible ‘Terms of Annexation’ that hung around my neck since childhood, the endless treachery and tricks of the India Office, the deceptive lure of my English life”.

“Rebellion seemed to call me from every street corner. I felt free. Free of the terrible ‘Terms of Annexation’ that hung around my neck since childhood, the endless treachery and tricks of the India Office, the deceptive lure of my English life”

While the Ghadar movement’s birthplace was the Pacific Northwest (US/Canada) – perhaps there is room to credit the Maharaja for sowing its seeds. Duleep reached out to multiple global powers capable of rivaling the British empire. For instance: “I told the Czar that I sought no personal gains but only freedom from British yoke for my countrymen. My brother princes would rise with three hundred thousand men if I were allowed to accompany the Russian Imperial army to the Indian frontier. The Sikh soldiers in the British army would revolt; my people, the brave and proud people of the Punjab would rise to cut railway and telegraph lines. Conquest would be made easy, India would prove to be a goldmine for the Russians, just like it had been for the British”.

Unfortunately, that is not how it turned out to be. The author underlines the tragic finale in his epilogue to the book: “Perhaps our Punjab was to be left only with the memory of a Maharaja-in-exile. Only with a story to be told around winter bonfires”.

Navtej Sarna’s excellent research and brilliant story-telling moves the baton from Bhagat Singh in ‘Cold Courage of a Godless Revolutionary’ to Udham Singh in Crimson Spring. Making sure that future generations stay inspired.

Savage Harvest

Savage Harvest is Navtej’s translation of his father’s moving short stories around the Partition. They trigger several thoughts. How did a social fabric renowned for its ‘unity in diversity’ suddenly hit the boiling point? Why did the colonial masters not think through the end game of the partition? Was it an outcome of poor governance? Or was it a logical extension of the infamous ‘divide and rule’? Thereby, was ‘Radcliffe line’ one of their most callous acts? If the empire failed, why did we choose to behave violently despite ‘an accursed political decision of departing rulers’?

In a story titled ‘Hope’ the author when alluding to the Hindus and Sikhs migrating from the Northwestern part of the then-country makes a very profound observation. “They had been on the wrong side of the line which had been drawn to divide the country. To come from the wrong to the right side, to cross that bloody line, they had to pay a very heavy price; everybody’s fault was the same, but each one paid a different price.”

Jallianwala Bagh was a savage harvest that turned the spring of 1919 crimson. The incident marks the worst form and highwater mark of colonialism.

Jallianwala Bagh was a savage harvest that turned the spring of 1919 crimson. The incident marks the worst form and highwater mark of colonialism. Having secured significant territorial gains in the Indian empire, destroyed its self-sufficient agriculture and small industries, made it a perfect colony which would supply the colonial master all the raw material and become a market for finished goods, supply soldiers for its military conquests between the two great wars – whether they were Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims. The loot impoverished a flourishing domestic economy which became vulnerable to frequent famines.

Under the guise of abolition of slavery, vast number of people were forcibly moved as indentured labour to cultivate cash crops in distant lands. Compulsively feeding the insatiable machinery of industrial revolution. It was ready to use extreme force, divide & rule – against the innocent and loyal when it saw a unified outcry followed by a determined attempt to be forcibly ejected.

The Ghadar movement was a unique multinational endeavour. It rattled the empire to the core. The movement may not be credited for winning us the freedom but cannot be denied the due role in making it happen. It threw up a breed of men and women who were willing to lay their lives quietly with no expectation. We do not even know much of them. ‘When the fate of a country is being decided, the fate of individuals should be forgotten’ was Bhagat Singh’s level of idealism. That should not translate into forgetting such individuals once a country’s tryst with destiny is done, reminds Navtej Sarna.

 “Writers often carry several persistent aspirations in their hearts, not knowing quite what to do with them. In my case, some of the things I have long wished to write about included the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, early twentieth century Punjab, the Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War, and the revolutionaries who died for India’s freedom”. Gladly for us readers, Navtej Sarna’s excellent research and brilliant story-telling moves the baton from Bhagat Singh in ‘Cold Courage of a Godless Revolutionary’ to Udham Singh in Crimson Spring. Making sure that future generations stay inspired.

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing. History belongs to those who live to write it… And unfortunately it was not Indians who wrote and curated most of India’s history, especially for the British era. It is heart-warming to see India’s true history being unraveled by present day authors who are taking the pain to dig deeper and bring up the otherwise lost and forgotten chapters of India’s past.

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