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Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Tributes

Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Tributes is a poetic commemoration of the tragic incident that happened in the Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April, 1919. Edited by Gopal Lahiri, a Kolkata- based prolific bilingual poet, critic, writer and translator and published by Virasat Art Publications to mark the 100th years of the incident, this commemorative collection is significantly unique in several ways. First, forty- three poets from India and four poets from Pakistan have contributed to it. Secondly, all their poems are dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Thirdly, it reminds us of the nefarious repercussion of draconian acts or policy of suppression and oppression of the then British Govt. Most importantly, it makes us realize the value of freedom that we attained only after several sacrifices. All the poems are heart-touching, poignant, melancholic, elegiac, reflective, and commemorative; they evoke sense of eeriness in the readers engrossed in the smoke blanket of mass violence. They are about ‘the salute, the tribute, for those martyrs, the dead who still live within us’. As for the relevance of the collection in contemporary time, Gopal Lahiri has rightly pointed out in his Editor’s Note-

“…each poem is a way to summon moments of observation on screeching cries and wounds and brings us back to the poetry’s fierce tenderness that can offer each other’s scars in a seamless manner.’

The collection opens with the poem ‘Blood Festival’ by Asama Tahir, the poet from Pakistan, who airs, here, stirrings of her consciousness shaken by the ‘terrible sound of cold-blooded massacre’. She appeals to the brethren to be ‘friends instead of enemies’ for turning ‘this garden of glittering flowers’ into ‘paradise’. She advocates for the restoration of peace and harmony. She envisions the home- return of those killed in the carnage with the hope

…. The river of peace can wash
All the Blood of Spring Festival away.
And the wounded and dead will ever return home

Another Pakistani poet Ayub Khawar visually presents “The Wounded Vintage: Jallianwala Bagh” that brings to the fore the amity between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, so strong in the name of national unity and struggle for freedom. He perceives the souls of the martyrs ‘dripping from the eyes of time’. He recognizes the ‘blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims/ mingling together in the contest of Freedom and slavery’. One more Pakistani poet Muhammad Azram, in his "O Intruders", makes a scathing critique of the British Empire and its actions on the day and calls this ill-fated incident ‘brutal and barbarous crimes/ Against humanity’ while Muhammad Shanazar’s “The Rubble of Human Bodies” takes to task the usurp policy and attitude of the Imperialist people. He remarks:

The people who always claim to be the pioneer of peace,
They don’t hesitate shedding blood, even for a piece of cheese;
All stones of foundation
Of their progress are soaked in human blood,

With the brief exegesis of poetic utterances of Pakistani poets, now it is high time to turn our attention to Indian poets and their poems, and their perspectives on the incident of Jallianwala Bagh. Amita Ray, in her “Blood bathed Bagh” turns over the gory pages of history and scratches ‘the walls of a bagh’ and finds ‘syllables of atrocity/ oozing wounds, gaping in concrete.’ She remarks;

…the Empire’s (British) legendary sun famed to never set
had dug its own grave
in the fury and wrath of a country
springing from a blood bathed bagh.

The optimistic realism springs from Aneek Chatterjee’s poem “We’re the Baisakhi Crowd” when he envisions the country’s freedom in a new realm:

…from this soil
red flowers will bloom again
in the sun, cheering for liberty
and freedom, and death
to the imperialists

His another poem “Jallianwala Bagh’ records ‘ the greatest human rights violations’ among ‘ cries, gunshots, footsteps, treacherous laughter.

While Anjana Basu’s "Untiled" condemns General Dyer, the prime perpetrator for changing the ‘colours of joy to a crimson sea’, Aparna Singh’s "Jallianwala Bagh" speaks of the martyrs’ ‘vagaries of faith’ that led them to the edge of death as ‘They were as common as /Common can be.’ Avijit Roy, in his poem “On Jallianwala Bagh”, weaves ‘wreath of martyrdom’ as ‘The spilled blood impregnated the earth’s womb’ that ensured the resurrection of freedom ‘in gory blooms’ which immortalized those killed in the Bagh. On the other hand, "Untitled", a poem by Ayaz Rasool Nazki, the poet from Kashmir, captures the soothing song of nature that spreads the glory of her dead ‘children’ for ‘a crop of freedom’. He advocates for the unity of secular forces for the sake of the national integration-

Together we shall stand tall
Asundar we shall never be
and fall apart

Bidur P. Chaulagain’s “Feeding the Selfish Wolf” presents his psychological take on the recurring appearing of tyrants in the world.

Gopal Lahiri’s ‘That Fateful Day” poignantly describes the eerie silence of the blooded ground where the boys and girls, men and women, including children and tiny-tots ‘gathered to celebrate the new year of their own in the form of protest’.In this poem, he narrates the horrendous stories of ‘monsters and massacre’, of ‘cowards’, of ‘hatred and injustice by the rulers’. His description of the carnage that captures ‘each cry, each scream, each valiant face’ is heart-wrenching:

Lying motionless, the bodies on the ground,
On the narrow path, on the grass, on the dreadful well,
The afterlife of homicide engraved in stone.

Jagari Mukherjee, through her “Times”, questions the sanity of the people, exploiters and the exploited. She bemoans the death of the ‘innocent’ and sarcastically digs at the deafness of the people mad with power. On the other hand, Kashiana Singh recollects tears of ‘spewing wails’ in her poem “Phulkari’s in a Well’, counting ‘2000 bullet shells’. Kaustav Bhattacharya’s “Reginald: An Acrostic” acrostically presents his tearful tribute to the victims, hoping for the ‘Amaranths’ to ‘bloom from their blood’. Ketaki Datta’s “Massacre, Stampede and Even More” commemorates the massacre victims of the Jalliawala Bagh , bringing out the brutality of General Dyer to the global condemnation. She calls the martyrs ‘crusaders of Humanity’. Madhu Sriwastav talks of safeguarding the innocence, chastity and secular ethos of her “Desh”. In spite of the freedom of the country, she expresses her concerns for the countrymen, under constant fear of terrorism.

Moinak Dutta’s “Jalliawala Bagh” presents a heart-rending painting of the harrowing massacre. He hears ‘silent screams of millions’ around the wall ‘which stood with pride’. Naina Dey’s“Jalliawala Bagh” underlines the value of freedom that India attained thanks to the precious sacrifices by the millions. She aptly reveals- ‘freedom didn’t come for free/ So history is not a story after all.’ Nishi Pulugurtha, in her first poem “No Lesson Learnt”, speaks of ‘Mayhem and chaos/ Pain, despair and loss’ and the big loss of innocence and humanity. She feels pained to see that ‘Violence goes on even now/ in the name of religion, politics, race, gender.' She condemns the divisive politics of the contemporary time.

In another poem “Past and Present”, Nishi longs for restoration of peace for fostering of freedom in actual terms.

While in the poem “They were but Innocents” Paramita Mukherjee Mullick condemns the massacre as ‘a black day of history’, in “The Memorial Speaks”, she visualizes the horror of that fateful day. She creates the light of hope, zeal and enthusiasm out of the ‘horrible scene’.

Parneeta Jaggi is brilliant in her expression in the poem “You Gave us Enough, Dyer!” when she sarcastically expresses her gratitude to General Dyer as had he not been the culprit, India would not have roused to the extreme for her right. She addresses him:

You gave us a case-
whose trial goes on
in the court of a million hearts,
penalizing you each day
without a judgment.

Another poem of hers “The Witness Bagh” is a remarkable example of personification and presents ‘Bagh” with striking tropes such as ‘Soil’, ‘grass’, ‘overhead sky’, ‘well’ and ‘walls’ as an evocative metaphor. Her bruised ‘Bagh’, as the only witness, is still ready to go to the ‘witness box’ to speak the ‘Truth’.

Probal Basak’s “New Vaisakhi” knocks at the ‘grave’s door’ so that the souls of the dead ‘rise like phoenix’ ‘out of the ashes’ for service of the nation. Pranab Ghosh, on the other hand, terms the incident as a ‘shameful scar’ on history. In his poem “Who will Remove the Blood Stains?” he questions:

Half the tears have been wiped,
But who will remove the blood stains?

Purabi Bhattacharya , in the poem “To the Grave garden”, remembers ‘wails and whimpers, outcries and rebel yells’ and doesn’t want the dust to ‘settle upon horrific historical reverberations’. In another poem “The Ticking Yarn’, she drags out ‘moth-eaten pages’ of history from its ‘hibernation.’ In “The Well”, Rajorshi Narayan Patranabis describes the hapless ‘well’ as a mute witness in a different light while his “I am General Dyer” condemns Dyer and curses him, aptly using hyperbole, to be ‘jailed even in hell’. Rituparna Khan comes up with “Haunted Place” which calls the incident of the Bagh ‘an anathema’ on mankind- 'it bore a testimony to atrocity, a heinous act on humanity.’ Rochelle Potkar, on the contrary, recalls the ballad of “Jallianwala Bagh Mystic” who ‘croons blood from the ink pot of antiquity, to spill for the quill of history.’ Sabarna Roy’s “Jallianwala Bagh- 100 Years” takes us to the fateful Bagh ‘through the condensed memories of sounds of gunshots, wails of children and women’. He calls Dyer ‘a psychopath-soulless’. In his poems he makes a valid question of serious concern:

Are these holocausts of human social design alone
or are there genes embedded,
and evolved in our consciousness structure that guides us to such
Self-extinction massacres

The two short poems of Sanjeev Sethi are remarkable for the brevity and their striking expression. In “Gore” he is critical of violent mode of oppression and declares that ‘Violence has no gender but it guarantees the birth of blood-and- gut’ and ‘Lachrymose stokes future bloodbaths.’ In “Précis” he attempts to decipher the working of a perverted mind and concludes that ‘Choreographed sloganeering with swigs is as worrisome wrongdoings of the establishment.’ This is how he alludes in the poems to the socio-political complex reality of contemporary times. Sanjukta Dasgupta, in “Mass Murder in a Garden”, censures the so-called order of firing at the innocent people for turning the garden into a mass grave-

A Garden of Eden became a Garden of Death
A grotesque garden of Gore out of breath
Groans and gruesome grimacing pain
The aghast sky watched helpless and forgot to rain.

In “Death Figures”, Sanket Mhate tries to figure out the number of deaths, which nobody knows till date, in the massacre as he is apprehensive of the fact that ‘history is mutilated every single day.’ He remarks:

While we are writing poems on the thresholds somebody else's death
Massacres are still kept hidden
and death figures are still 'unknown'
Who says Jallianwala Bagh is over?

“Tears of Blood” by Santasree Chaudhuri is a ‘melancholic throwback’ to the ‘sordid history of atrocities and mass murder.’ Her poignant documentation of the incident is heart-rending.

a deepest scar of colonial barbaric torture

Santosh Bakaya’s “A Threnody” is a lamentation over the mass killing of the innocent people and brings to light the rage and anger of even a non-violent personality of Mahatma Gandhi. However, her “Butchery Unheard” sings the song of freedom even in the throes of ‘many tribulations and pain’ which facilitated the path of luminescent liberation. “It must be so” by Sarala Ram Kamal bespeaks of communal harmony amongst the Hindus and the Muslims who united against the divisive forces of the Brits. She, with conviction, avers

India is not to be peeled in layers of colours of beliefs,
It is a soul survived drawing from the blend of all.
A century of bleeding, reminding us
The cost we paid for our freedom; it must be so!

“Untitled by “Satbir Chadha is conspicuous for the beautiful zeal that the poem shows:

The powerful live in fear
Their skin is too dear
Fearless are the people who have nothing to lose
He downtrodden and oppressed who crave liberty still

Unlike other poets, Sharmia Ray has a different take. Her response to the incident is rather different. She puts in a dock all those who have forgotten the significance of the ‘garden of the country'. She questions, fumes and fumbles at the cold attitude, be it of common people or of the govt. Out of frustration she calls it’ a thorn in History’ and wishes- ‘Rest in peace dear Jallianwala Bagh,/ Be a footnote in memories.’ She also voices her resentment at making it ‘a tourist spot’. However, the real poetic sense that it evokes is palpable in the last three lines of her second part :

But they forget life is a see-saw and time is also circular.
Heroes of today are heaps of sand tomorrow
amid the cheering of the dead from the hades.

While Sonali Sarkar’s poem “Forgive us Brothers and Sisters, Our Fellow Countrymen” satirizes the ‘gora Sahibs Irving and Dyer’ Soumyanetra Chattopadhyay expresses sharp bitterness in the poem “Cruelty, I see you” and uses animal imageries to portray the beastly nature of the sinistrous English officers


Of the Tyger that lives within us
Of hammer and chain and anvil
Shaping the ferocious Tiger elements
In our inherently Lamb-ish souls.

Sridevi Selvaraj’s “Baisakhi” poses serious questions of the innocent people who were killed even before they got alert. Sunil Bhandari remembers 'Daar ji' in his “The Crimson Flower” and in ‘The next Dyer” he bemoans:

In a world growing unhinged by the moment,
We are sorrow’s leftovers, in history dustbin

“Undead Dyer” of Sunil Sharma is sharp and terse, and ‘haunts the collective and individual psyche.’ He wonders that ‘ That day went down as a black day for the ruled and did not matter much for the ‘civilizedBritain and its dead conscience.’ Nevertheless, he feels proud to say:

The shameless butchery, strangely, led to the national awakening of another kind--- and downfall of the Empire, once considered invincible!

Come what may, the cultural and social harmony in India can never succumb to any forces and this is what finds an encouraging and convincing articulation in the poem “Annihilation” by Sutanuka Ghosh Roy. Urna Bose perceives dripping of blood from the ‘walls of our collective memory’ and underlines the significance of ‘actual price of martyrdom’ in her poem “My Mutton Curry”. Vinita Agrawal’s Visiting Jallianwala Bagh” is a reflective take on the incident. She feels so overwhelmed that she finds every particle of the gory garden sacred and sacrosanct. She remarks:

This place is so strong that it leaves me weak.
Every blade of grass whittles time.
Sacrifice stands tall here
Parting my breath.
My puny words quietly fall to the ground.

The appraisal of the book remains incomplete if some words of appreciation are not spared for the design, cover and the symbolic illustrations that carry the meaningful essence of tributory poems. Indeed, Partha Pratim Roy deserves a special mention and accolades for his befitting sketches and cover design, dipped in blood.

Further, short bios of the poets, if given, would have  added another sheen to the beauty of the book.

To sum up, Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Tributes not only reflects the anguish and horror evoked by the incident but also describes vividly and poignantly, with minute detail, the horrific events that even now shake the conscience of thinking people, thus arousing nationalistic consciousness and lead ing us to the realization of value of freedom. In addition to delineating the socio-political context behind the heinous act of British atrocity, the touching poetic offerings of the collection condemn the acts of suppression and oppression and advocate for the restoration of love, peace and harmony- the global gospel of humanity- everywhere in the world..


More by :  Bhaskaranand Jha Bhaskar

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