A verse both classic and
What are your views on the poet Nanak Singh being very conscious about reporting what happened at Jallianwalla Bagh and painting a picture in Khooni Vaisakhi?
That is partly his style and partly his conscious endeavour to convey his mood at that time in Amritsar. To the uninitiated in 1920 he is trying to give a perspective about the Rowlatt Act, about the fact that there are protests in other parts of India as well. He looked at it as a legacy; he says that this is an ode to the martyrs who died at Jallianwalla Bagh.
Nanak Singh survived Jallianwalla Bagh but he didn't want to talk about it... There is this thing about trauma that some people withdraw into a shell and refuse to communicate about it.
Growing up, for as long as I can remember there was this knowledge that babuji (Navdeep Suri is Nanak Singh's grandson) went with two of his friends to the Bagh and both of them died, while he lost his hearing. It is a family oral history.
The tone of the book is very visceral, indicating a catharsis
It has to be cathartic for anybody who is subjected to an experience like that. It marked his own evolution as a writer because until then, at 22, he wrote just religious poetry. After this, he became a strong nationalist voice that you see emerge. There are several references to Bharat Mata and patriotism among Indians in Khooni Vaisakhi.
Why does the poem talk about being repaid in such a dastardly way after the First World War?
1914-1918 was a tough period. India contributed 1 million troops during WWI, of which 40-45 per cent were from Punjab. Feudal landlords virtually had quotas and young able-bodied people were rustled up and sent off. There was also the plague and draught. People said enough is enough . There was this expectation that after the war there would be a reward in the form of economic support or a loosening up of the Defence of India Act. Instead of this, the people got the Rowlatt Act. Was it a conscious decision to publish the original in Devnagari? Yes, the idea was to make it more accessible because the universe of people who read Gurmukhi is shrinking but Punjabi speakers and listeners are growing. Its reach extends from Jammu to Delhi and 60 per cent of Pakistan as well where the spoken language is Punjabi. So, it was about access. It does put a little pressure on the writer-translator.
Could you sum up the text's history for us?
It is now what you would call a classic since it is 100 years old. I didn't need to do this, but I did a fair bit of research to understand how much of the first fortnight of April capture by Khooni Vaisakhi is historically accurate. The only omission is that a part of the crowd went on a rampage burning down the town hall building and banks, and killing four Europeans. Khooni Vaisakhi is silent on that. But then, this is the victim's perspective. There are parts of it that are prophetic that General Dyer will forever be condemned as a murderer. There was no memorial built until then and this was built in 1951. Another important thing is that while the Rowlatt Act was still in force, this verse was a major undermining of the Act. That generation took the risk. Hats off to them. Khooni Vaisakhi also became a pioneering text for later protest poetry. The verse is also important in its assertion of patriotism and emphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity.