Father of Punjabi novel was present at Jallianwala Bagh on the fateful day, which led to a long poem of sorrow

Khooni Vaisakhi
A Poem from the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919
Book Excerpt 

[From the blurb: The great Punjabi writer Nanak Singh was present at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919 and twenty-two years old at the time. As the British troops opened fire on the unarmed gathering protesting against the Rowlatt Act, killing hundreds, Nanak Singh fainted and his unconscious body was piled up among the corpses. After going through the traumatic experience, he proceeded to write Khooni Vaisakhi, a long poem that narrates the political events in the run up to the massacre and its immediate aftermath. The poem was a scathing critique of the British Raj and was banned soon after its publication in May 1920.]

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[Following is an excerpt from the translator and author's grandson Navdeep Suri's introduction to the book, who addressed the author as 'bauji'.]

Bauji was born on 4 July 1897 in Chak Hamid, a small hamlet in the Daadan Khan tehsil of Jhelum district. Named Hans Raj, he was the oldest of four children born to Bahadur Chand Suri and Lachchmi Devi. His father had a modest trading shop in Peshawar and Hans Raj was barely eight when he was asked to join his father and help with the business. The rest of the family moved a year later, but the joy of a reunion was short-lived. Bahadur Chand died of pneumonia within a year of their arrival, tragically on the same day when his wife was giving birth to his youngest child. At the age of ten, Hans Raj found himself responsible for the family store, an ailing mother and three siblings. Continuing with school was hardly an option. In later years, he was often asked about his formal education and he would smile in response, ‘I don’t know if I should say fourth grade pass or fifth grade fail. You decide.’ It speaks volumes of the sheer genius of the man whose writings would go on to become the subject of over fifty doctoral dissertations.

He stayed in Peshawar for the next ten years or so, developing a passion for music and demonstrating an early talent for stringing rhymes and verses together into rudimentary poetry. An eight-page booklet of his verses was published in 1909 under the title Seeharfi Hans Raj when he was all of twelve years old. He showed little appetite for managing the store and was happy to leave it in the more capable hands of his younger brother. Going by his own account in his autobiographical work Meri Duniya, his penchant for music and poetry earned him a circle of disreputable friends who sought his company to provide free entertainment at their parties.

He was drifting rudderless until he came under the influence of Giani Bagh Singh, a pious and scholarly figure at the local gurudwara. It was a momentous period for him as he decided to convert to Sikhism. Hans Raj became Nanak Singh in 1915 and embarked with all the zeal of the recent convert to apply his poetic talents towards writing hymns in praise of the Sikh gurus. The most famous of these was Satguru Mehma, first published in Amritsar in 1918. It sold over a hundred thousand copies during the next few years and became the bedrock of his financial sustenance as he tried to figure out his true calling. It also earned him the monikers of Nanak Singh ‘Kavishar’ or poet and of Bhai Nanak Singh – the prefix ‘Bhai’ being normally reserved for individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Sikh faith. Khooni Vaisakhi, in contrast, was a mere blip – written in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, published in 1920 and lost for the rest of his life. Although we now know that the original edition described the author as ‘Bhai Nanak Singh’.

But Jallianwala Bagh did prove to be an important milestone in his life in other ways. He was now a staunch supporter of the nationalist cause and a fervent opponent of British rule. Following the advice of his mentor Giani Bagh Singh, Bauji joined the Guru ka Bagh movement launched by the Akalis in 1922. [The Akalis were part of a Sikh reformist movement that sought to free the gurudwaras from the control of mahants (caretakers) who were seen as corrupt and dissolute but were friendly to the British. Mahant Sundar Das of the historic Guru ka Bagh gurudwara located in Ghukkevali village about twenty kilometres from Amritsar was a particularly egregious example.] Bauji was arrested along with a large group of protestors that turned up outside the courts every day to register their protest against Mahant Sundar Das’ continued control over land adjacent to the gurudwara. He spent several months in the infamous Borstal Jail in Lahore – a period that he describes as transformational for him as an individual and in his evolution as a writer.

Jail brought him into contact with Pandit Jagan Nath, an influential Congress party activist who had made good use of his influence to bring a trunk-load of books to the jail. The cache included quite a few novels of Munshi Premchand, which Bauji managed to read despite a very rudimentary knowledge of Hindi language and the Devnagiri script. They were to have a defining impact on him as he decided that he had finally discovered his true calling – to write novels that would seek to reform society and make the nation a better place. Enthused by the thought, he started to write his first novel while still in jail – only to have it confiscated and destroyed during a raid on his cell by the prison officials. Spending the severe Punjab winter in a damp cell also meant frequent colds and a complete loss of hearing in the already damaged left ear. His incarceration also had another, rather curious side effect. It became a bit of a sore point in our family and I grew up hearing close relatives lament that Bauji was impractical and perhaps a bit simple-minded when it came to the welfare of his own family. Had he been smarter, they complained, he could have made a very legitimate claim for ‘freedom fighter’ status and received benefits that his family could have enjoyed.

Bauji emerged from jail as part of the general amnesty to over 5000 prisoners who had been jailed for unlawful protests during the Guru ka Bagh movement. And proceeded to publish Zakhmi Dil, his next book of verse. Zakhmi Dil used the ingenious device of simple fables to drive home the devious and rapacious nature of the Raj and its persistent efforts to divide and rule. The fables had innocent sounding titles like ‘The Traveller and the Djinn’, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, ‘The Cats and the Monkey’. Equally unusual was his use of Urdu in some of the poems that offer a searing account of the brutality with which police forces attacked peaceful Akali protestors at Guru ka Bagh and about the way they were incarcerated. One of these, ‘Mind Your Tongue’, goes a step further and reminds readers of Dyer and of Jallianwala Bagh if they were to speak out of turn.

The Raj had already showed that it had little tolerance for such ‘seditious’ literature and, like Khooni Visakhi, Zakhmi Dil was also banned and confiscated soon after its publication in 1923. In a striking parallel, it was lost to the world for the next several decades and it wasn’t until 1990 that my intrepid father found a copy with a dealer of old books. Having previously worked with Dr Gupta, he approached him again for a detailed foreword for the new edition that was published almost seven decades after the original.

The Raj continued to keep a close watch on the media even after the Rowlatt Act was repealed in 1922 and the 1920s clearly weren’t an easy time to be a writer, printer or publisher. Printing presses guilty of printing anything tinged with nationalist or patriotic sentiment were deemed ‘seditious’ and raided by the police. The owners could be jailed for up to three years in addition to being subjected to hefty fines. In Meri Duniya, Bauji has an interesting anecdote of his own experience in setting up a printing press in Amritsar soon after his release from jail. He did this with a loan of 3000 rupees from Ram Singh – a childhood friend from his days in Peshawar who would now become his business partner. The business took off but the portfolio included a daily and a bi-weekly that always looked like they might invite the wrath of the government. Other presses had found a neat little solution to the dilemma. Since the owner did not want to risk a jail term, he would get a proxy – usually an unemployed soul willing to sign up as the proxy owner for a monthly salary of about twenty-five rupees.

Bauji was reluctant to follow this route but eventually gave in to relentless pressure from Ram Singh, who argued that the nascent business would collapse if he were sent to jail again. So they found Inder Singh, a young man desperate to earn a few rupees and made him the proxy owner. Barely ten weeks had elapsed and the police was at their doorstep, armed with warrants against the press. The poor soul was sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment. Bauji went to see him in jail and was deeply moved by his plight. A heated argument with Ram Singh ensued, but this time Bauji was not backing down. He sold the press at a loss and handed over the proceeds to Ram Singh with a promissory note that he would refund the remaining amount soon. He also kept his commitment to Inder Singh and continued to pay twenty-five rupees per month to his family for the remaining part of his prison sentence.

The printing press was gone but the desire to write socially relevant novels was burning bright and, in 1924, Matrayi Maa received widespread public acclaim as his first novel. After that, there was no turning back and over the next five decades, he pretty much produced a new book every year – mostly novels but occasionally the odd piece of theatre, short stories and even a translation or two. These included Adh Khidya Phul, based around the aborted novel that he had started writing in Borstal Jail in 1922 and was eventually published in 1940. I had the privilege of translating it as A Life Incomplete in 2012. Another masterly work – Ik Myan Do Talwaran revolved around the life of Kartar Singh Sarabha and the Ghadar movement and won the Sahitya Akademi Award. The violence that accompanied the Partition in 1947 shook him to the core and he produced a series of novels including Agg di Khed and Khoon de Sohile and Manjdhaar that delved into its horrors.

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