Knowing Bhagat Singh

Madan Gopal Singh, a teacher in University of Delhi, is a renowned singer, musician, cinema scholar and cultural critic. He can be reached at madangopal.singh[at]gmail.com.

Madan Gopal Singh

They live in other young men, o kings!
They live in books again ready to defy you!

(A quote from Walt Whitman – a jotting in Bhagat Singh’s Prison Notebook)

I was born in a street adjacent to the Jallianwala Bagh.

Amritsar was then a sleepy little town steeped in the fug of time. It grew like a tuber out of, what we believed was, the very epicentre of the universe – the Golden Temple. The huge hand-embellished Guru Granth Sahib kept on the first floor of the sanctum sanctorum appeared to us like a sacred narrative of connectivity. Through the spiritual cartography of the Holy Book we began to imagine so many worlds we had faintly heard about. After Guru Nanak’s reflective and wondrous journeys across Arabia and Tibet, the Holy Book became our tangible, lived and ethical contact with the unseen world.

The pristine idea of connectivity was, however, recast in the first quarter of the 20th century. Not that it moved drastically away from a spiritual conviction of the self. It had become mired in a new materiality in order to recover a sense of the self which had remained in a state of effacement for too lon. The Imperial sun had refused to set. The colonial day had become painfully protracted. The indigenous reformist zeal that swept across India in the 19th century was largely a period of preparation preceding the Renaissant moments (and indeed movements) of action that were to follow. The time to challenge the empire had finally come. This was the time to align our thought with all that was radically unfolding elsewhere in the world.

The colonial history had barely left any lasting imprint on the city of Amritsar except for a mandatory Company Bagh and a statue of Queen Victoria. Not until General Dyer was to ruthlessly march into Jallianwala and order fire to be opened on an unsuspecting people did it wake up people from a benign and spiritual interiority. People had gathered there to celebrate the end of a seasonal cycle of bone-breaking labour… The site was only a few minutes away from a holy dip in the pond of eternity! The day was Baisakhi.

Jallianwala stood out like an indelible scar… It forced us to re-align ourselves with the world beyond our self-contained world and not a little differently… The romance of the unseen world across the proverbial seven seas had for once given way to anger and shame. I do not know how and why but I first heard the name of Bhagat Singh – and not, surprisingly enough, of Udham Singh – mentioned within the oral details that got elliptically woven into the never ending tales of Jallianwala. For, his was not eventually a saga of revenge and individual martyrdom even if the invasion of an innocent pastoral festival leading to the massacre of people was too monstrous an event to be forgotten or condoned easily! After all, the garden of freedom had been desacralized, lacerated, irrevocably bloodied.

The story of a 12 year old Bhagat Singh bunking school and visiting Amritsar a day after the Jallianwala massacre was too audacious and too captivating for a child nearing that age not to have left a deep impact on me. The little container he secretly carried with him to the site to gather a little soil from the garden of death shook us very deeply. There was a childlike tenderness about him. He too was born a like any us – callow but poetic; dramatic but wise. And yet a few years later, unlike us, he left the Dayanand Anglo Vedic school to join the larger political unrest. We do not quite know if this step was hastened by Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation which had captured the popular imagination of a resistant India.

Once in a rare while, our mother would take us to Jallianwala to bring us close to the recently lived history of her city. Her pubescent sister and our dearest aunt walked along with the excitement of an irrepressible raconteuse. For us the world had already become much wider and much larger than Amritsar. It extended at least till the backwaters of Karol Bagh and Ajmal Khan Bazaar where we had shifted and where we had picked up an alien lingo, Hindustani, losing in the bargain much of the resonant sting of our mother tongue. We were now more easily swayed by the lure of the moving image than by a visit to a the real site of action. We were beginning to be mesmerized by the idea of the masquerade that became irretrievably attached to Bhagat Singh’s persona in popular perception thanks to the kistch calendar art and a string of jingoistic films in the wake of the post-Chinese war depression. We had seen pictures of him donning a turban with an intriguing loop hanging dropping seductively over his shoulder. We had seen uneven drawings showing him wearing a steel bangle. We had seen him bare headed with his hairy top knot and in chains sitting on a cot. We had seen him in his thin pointed moustaches wearing a hat with a shirt with long collars and a tie.

Which one was the real Bhagat singh? What was he? A transgressive Sikh? An Arya Samaji martyr? The revolutionary was not as yet on the horizon. The answers rested on which school one went to for one’s primary education. I went to a Khalsa School where nobody ever spoke of Bhagat Singh as part of the grand Sikh pantheon. All the heroes and martyrs feted in our dharam pothis (literally, the books of religion) had an umbilical link to the Sikh religion. It was their raison d’etre. Bhagat Singh could never ever be seen to belong to this genre of heroism. Outside the classroom Bhagat Singh was an altogether different persona. He had to be reclaimed one way other as a valient Sikh. Our friends from the DAV (Dayanand Anglo-Vedic) School would always flaunt him with ill-concealed pride as an Arya Samaji who could recite his Gayatri Mantra right. They always carried ‘well-documented’ scrap-books to aggressively claim their ownership. Nobody ever whispered a word about him as an atheist. The ‘cold war’ continued for a considerable length of time till we chanced upon his impassioned advocacy of atheism in one of his seminal essays entitled ‘Why I am an Atheist’. Within the popular imaginations, however, the debate has still not been fully resolved. It keeps getting revived through cinematic, theatric and even poetic reconstructions of his life.

Predictably, I did not discover my Bhagat Singh at School. I discovered him, perhaps, on the occasional long walks I undertook had in the company of my mother or father. Holding onto their protective finger, I would expect them to break the silence now and then. Mother, as all mothers are, was more readily obliging. (Delhi, like Amritsar, was once a city where walks never occurred to us as too long.) On one such walks, along the semiotically pregnant intersection of Delhi’s Gurudwara Road and Arya Samaj Marg, my mother once pointed out to me a small karkhana with all kinds of lethe machines and said,

“This is where Bhagat Singh had once hidden himself.”
“Who was Bhagat Singh? Why did he hide here?” I asked.
“O, he was a young boy. He was hanged by the angrez,” she replied
“Why was he hanged?” I became inquisitive.
“He was hanged because he said Inquilab Zindabad,” she replied clinching the argument.

Years later we would walk with her to Jallianwala. Visibly reluctant, we trudged along in a rebellious sulk. These excursions, ever so rare, invoked in our impressionable minds the image of a trap. We had to pass through a narrow approach before we reached the clearing. The sight of the open space left us thoroughly bewildered. The green of the grass seemed haunted. The field was vast and lonely. Unplayable, almost! We did not ever see a child running in breathless tendem along a group of playmates in joyous abundance. We were reminded of the garden in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ which our eager-to-learn-English mother had so painstakingly read out to us and had at the end made us all so visibly moved at the end of her efforts. Somebody had spoilt Jallianwala perennially. We stood under a crumbling wall riven with bullets like occasional visitors did in mournful reverence and then moved onto the well where people had jumped escaping from a humiliating death. The well with its unusually wide circumference and the dark still water seemed to harbour muffled echoes of life on edge. Jallianwala appeared to us as a proverbial enclosure with no exit – a sort of a destinal huit clos.

That prophetic night as we slept under the canopy of stars on our rooftops, the little recanteuse – more of a friend than an aunt – reeking heavily of pickle, would depart from the unending yarns about the Lal Badshah (the serpent-man with a ruby in his hood and love in his heart) and weave instead a strangely broken and inconsistent story of a young, very young, Bhagat Singh who would defy death to break the unjust enclosure of destiny. The jinx of Jallianwala seemed to lift all of a sudden. The haunted grounds were now abuzz with the cries of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’.

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