The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence
By Anita Anand
Amidst the year’s much-touted anniversaries of things like the Apollo 11 mission, the D-Day landings, and the Treaty of Versailles is a far more somber centennial: the slaughter of hundreds of civilian men, women, and children at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919. There have been books, notably Kim Wagner’s magisterial Amritsar 1919, and they have had the same brutal story to tell: On April 13, 1919 the Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer ordered a heavily-armed detachment of soldiers to a dusty, neglected, but nonetheless popular gathering place called the Jallianwala Bagh, which was crammed with people, some of whom were there to attend a political meeting and many, many more of whom were merely relaxing in one of the city’s only respite-spaces away from the press of traffic. The only entrance to the Bagh was so narrow that the mounted machine-guns O’Dwyer’s catspaw, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer (“The Butcher of Amritsar”) brought along couldn’t enter the park, but the soldiers he marched in on foot were heavily armed:
The dramatic entrance of the soldiers had an immediate effect on those inside. Expecting an imminent order to disperse, some started to pack up their picnics as the soldiers spread out on a raised bank of earth along the northern wall. Others stood rooted to the spot, watching as the uniformed men dropped to one knee and took aim. Hans Raj stood on the podium and screamed at all who could hear him to sit down where they were. When they heard him, they believed, as perhaps he did himself, that the soldiers would not shoot.
(“Wherever there was hope, there was death,” Anand writes. “A fanning peepul, an indigenous tree with a broad trunk, became a shelter for dozens of screaming people. Dyer directed his men to aim at the tree. Splinters flew with blood and flesh”).
Anita Anand structures her completely engrossing new book The Patient Assassin around key lives that day: she focuses not only on the biography of Dyer, the but also, even more fascinatingly, on the biography of Udham Singh, the Sikh who shot O’Dwyer dead in London in 1940 (ostensibly in revenge for Amritsar, although his own stories about being there for the massacre changed many times over the years) and thereby achieved a place in the pantheon of Indian national heroes (and martyrs: he was hanged for the murder a few months later). To the extent that the sources will allow, Anand excavates the life of Udham Singh, the “patient assassin” of her title, climaxing of course in the moment when he’s stalking his prey at last: “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,” she writes. “Patient ... He must be patient.”
This biographical approach requires an extra measure of patience on the part of Anand’s readers, but as with her winning 2015 book Sofia, that patience is amply rewarded; the pairing of Dyer’s life and Udham Singh’s (with ample digressions about the author’s own grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, who narrowly escaped being caught in the massacre) serves to create a more personal and immediate portrait of an India boiling with tension and delusion. As with Sofia, so too here: the drama of a nation is skillfully refracted in the details of individual lives.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.