Book: The Patient Assassin
Author: Anita Anand
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 384 pages
On July 31, 1940, Udham Singh, the moody, dissembling but dogged assassin of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, was hanged in London’s Pentonville prison, and his body buried in a layered grave with the other damned and forgotten in a nondescript patch within the prison. It took another three decades, and a late awakening by the Indian authorities, before the call for the return of his remains to India gathered steam. When this finally happened, a hero’s welcome was accorded to his tricolour-draped casket: in 1940, Mahatma Gandhi had famously decried Singh’s act of revenge for Jallianwala Bagh as an “act of insanity”; in 1974, a high-powered political delegation received his remains at Palam and the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, along with thousands of citizens, paid tribute to the martyr at Kapurthala House. After similar reception in every major town of Punjab and Haryana, Singh’s remains were at last cremated in his home town of Sunam. But things always seem to come late to this brave man: 45 years later, two urns containing part of his ashes still await a memorial bearing his name in Sunam. Another urn lies on dusty display in a dishevelled room at Jallianwala Bagh. A decent biography of the man has also taken its time coming. So far, anybody interested in his journey has had to rely largely on small press, sub-quality publications regurgitating the same mix of part-legend and part-fact gathered from letters, recollections and anecdotal accounts. The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand is a suitable reward for this long wait.
Anand’s effort is impelled not only by her exceptional journalistic curiosity, but also familial passion. Her grandfather escaped death in Jallianwala Bagh only by a quirk of fate that took him away to perform an errand even as Reginald Dyer and his soldiers were heading into the Bagh — he suffered from survivor’s guilt for years. Taking advantage of the fact that her husband’s forefathers belonged to the Punjabi peddler community, among whom Singh lived in his last years in England and whose descendants are valuable sources, she succeeds in piecing together most of a life that appears to have been lived for the sole purpose of evading discovery, then or later. To achieve this, the author has criss-crossed continents much like her protagonist, questioning known sources, digging for new evidence in far-flung archives and mopping up remaining recollections of those with personal or family memories of the man.
Singh is not an easy man to chase; rootlessness was built into his identity, unreliability his preferred art form. Carrying the burden of poverty and “low caste” (he was born into a Punjabi Kamboj family), he lost his parents in early infancy. His elder brother, with whom he grew up in the Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar, was to succumb to illness soon. The following years saw him lurch from indifferent work during the First World War in Mesopotamia to east Africa. Contact with the Ghadar movement — of which he would remain a life-long votary — and a burning desire for revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre ensured that he spent the rest of his life dodging and ducking his way in Punjab, Europe and America. Possessed of considerable charm and persuasiveness, he dropped identities frequently, changed one name for another, loved and left several women. He was truly “a man born with so little, who wanted to be so much.” Only a few things seemed to have been constant in his life: his commitment to India’s freedom, his anger with the British Raj, his focused pursuit of Michael O’ Dwyer and his devotion to Bhagat Singh. His secular commitment to his ideals is perhaps best expressed in the name that he adopted and preferred — Mohammed Singh Azad; he would be first booked under that name for the O’Dwyer assassination.
The narrative pace of The Patient Assassin, does justice to the personality of the protagonist. The book reads for the most part like a spy thriller, particularly when detailing the lone wolf’s successful evasion of powerful intelligence agencies. The historical material that provides a context to Udham’s earlier years does not weigh down the narrative: we get just enough information on the Ghadar movement, India’s involvement in the first World War, satyagraha, the Rowlatt Act and so on. Her treatment of the Baisakhi massacre and the immediate events leading up to it is also balanced and sympathetic, and it’s clear she wears the subaltern Amritsari’s hat; though some minor inaccuracies in these sections would need to be weeded out in subsequent editions.
It would have been the perfect icing on the cake if Anand had also given a definitive answer to the most intriguing question of all — was Singh actually present at Jallianwala Bagh, serving water to the wounded and dying, as popular legend has it? She goes only so far as to say that the massacre fundamentally transformed him, and the truth of his whereabouts was known only to him. For some reason, the author ignores Singh’s statement during his 1940 trial: “At that time I did not know who was the Governor at that time when the shooting took place because I had gone to East Africa at that time. I was not in India at the time.” Even if he was the most unreliable witness of them all, this statement must count for something.
The writer retired as the former Indian ambassador to the US
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