Book Review: Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Tributes


Edited by Gopal Lahiri

Published by Virasat Art Publication. September 2020



The volume Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Tributes edited by eminent writer and poet Gopal Lahiri and published by Virasat Art Publication is part of the corpus of writing devoted to keep alive the memory of an historical event. A caveat looms ominously in our lives that lest one forgets history, it repeats itself. This poetic tribute is a reminder to an event associated with images of pain, fear, blood and death. The creative impulse often attempts to sublimate suffering into art and the poetic response seen here to a distressing event like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre tries to give expression to those voices that have been scorched forever. The Jallianwala Bagh incident is embedded in our memories as a brutal act that claimed innocent lives. That a group of harmless men and women who had assembled in a park should be targeted and killed point blank, en masse sends shudders down one’s spine. Tagore it may be remembered renounced his Knighthood and the massacre proved to be catalytic to the resistance to British rule. Virasat Art Publications has done a commendable job in compiling this book with writings by 47 poets; 43 Indian and 4 from Pakistan. The Foreword by Baridbaran Ghosh is praiseworthy as it gives the reader a brief but striking history of the carnage in Jallianwal Bagh and developments that followed it. This poetic tribute which is dedicated to “all who died in Jallianwala Bagh Massacre”, is a prism to the many shades of emotions that arise on remembering the incident – its horrors, its pain, its naked brutality -- all creating a synaesthesia of perception through words, colours, tears, emotions and memory.

Early in the Collection, Amita Roy’s verse epitomises the fatal incident of the 13th of April, 1919. How on the ‘sacred day of Baisakhi’, a savage volley of bullets blew off so many lives and how ironically, it signalled the beginning of the end of the mighty colonial empire

 Little did the mighty perpetrators of the carnage know

 that the Empire’s 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 (14)


Gopal Lahiri

In her poem titled, Massacre, Stampede and Even More, Ketaki Datta brings out the feeling of devastation, shock and disbelief still perceived by the people of India in their diverse composition on the incident that shook their lives.

Writers from Pakistan have captured the pain and shock of the incident through images that deeply impact the mind and stir emotions that transcend borders and peoples. Aasma Tahir wonders in her poem titled Blood Festival, “If the river of peace can wash/ All the blood of spring and festival” (13). She shows how there is a subversion of a happy Spring Festival into a blood bath. Muhammad Azram succeeds in capturing the devastation of a simple and holy festival celebrated by innocent people and a draconian face of the Colonizer emerging through it. Muhammad Shanazar powerfully rips through the canvas of memory and lays bare the trauma even as he condemns the colonizer – ‘wherever they ruled, they befooled the nation.’(40) Ayub Khawar and Ayaz Rasool Nazki also successfully bring out the pathos of the tragedy through striking images that haunt the reader. Poets from both sides of the border, cry in unison against the atrocities and excesses committed on the fateful Baisakhi day more than 100 years ago. Their voices fuse in poetic harmony and empathy as they condemn the violators and mourn with innocent sufferers. Sanjukta Dasgupta, says it all when she writes in Mass Murder in a Garden (April 13, 1919):

A Garden of Eden became a Garden of Death (64)

Partha Pratim Roy’s design of the cover deserves special credit as it serves as a prelude to the distressed voices contained in the verses in the volume. Greys, blues and shades of black symbolise the bullet ridden walls of the Bagh and create a picture of the dystopia that the poets have tried to convey through their writings. As one turns the pages of the collection, one notes that Roy’s illustrations accompanying the texts not only complement the poetic echoes but also deepen the pathos that is reflected.

Annapurna Palit
In his Editorial note Gopal Lahiri writes that “memory is achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead”. The poets included in this collection have tried to keep that memory alive by highlighting different nuances of emotion aroused by the memory of the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh. Aneek Chatterjee’s poem, titled Jallianwala Bagh is a stern reminder that one of ‘the greatest human rights violations/took place hundred years ago/before our eyes’ (16) in a garden in this country. Anjana Basu’s poem plays on the word ‘Dyer’ and her choice of colour and images seems to relive the blood soaked evening. She writes, “death knows no language/certainly not that of the iron heel/which recognises spring’s scarlet moment...” (17). In her tribute also called Jallianwala Bagh, Aparna Singh has evoked Tennyson’s famous lines from Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalising the Crimean War to emphasise the dreadful terror of the fateful day.

From anguished descriptions of the tragic event, condemning the coloniser, underlining the gross violation of human rights to saluting the brave souls that fell to thunderous bullets, the volume seeks to reflect multiple dimensions to the tragic event. In his powerful tribute titled, That Fateful Day, Gopal Lahiri, writes how the peaceful protestors were “shredded with bullets and guns”. The image seems to hammer the brutality of the event and the poem ends with a reference to the sky as a silent witness to “each cry, each scream, each valiant face” (27). Jagari Mukherjee’s Times, recalls Bob Dylan as she questions how much a society could endure and how pretentious one could be in ignoring the violations of innocence and humanity. Kashiana Singh’s verse is a haunting tribute that recreates a site where bodies, clothes, turbans, and blood all tumble to melt into an unforgettable rubble of memory. Mallika Bhaumik writes how the horror lives on even a hundred years later. Mandakini Bhattacherya’s poem Gunpowder translated from her original composition in Punjabi, titled, Barood is a chilling reconstruction of the terror filled afternoon.

Rajorshi Narayan Patranobis makes a stark comment on the carnage in the Bagh through a heap of images in The Well. His second poem in the volume titled I Am General Dyer is an imaginative piece on Dyer speaking after death. The concluding words ‘Jailed even in hell...’ (54), perhaps echoes our collective desire to see the man suffer in everlasting agony for the atrocities committed.

Yet the question that evades one is that despite the heroic sacrifice by the innocent, how have we as a society been able to pay rightful respect to their memory? Rituparna Khan’s poem Haunted Place describes the bagh now as a ‘haunted’ space. Pranab Ghosh bitterly questions in his poem, Who Will Remove the Blood Stain,

 Half the tears have been wiped,

But who will remove the blood stains? (49)

Sharmila Ray, in her two poems Jallianwala Bagh 1 and II poses questions that leave one uneasy. In Jallianwala Bagh I she says in an ironic tone

 You could easily become a thorn in History

 Rest in peace dear Jallinwala Bagh,

 Be a footnote in Memoirs (74)

She stretches the tone of irony, smudged with pathos as she bitterly states in Jallianwala Bagh II

 Now you are just a tourist spot, a few lines in history books (74)

Santasree Chaudhuri, Sonali Sarkar and Santosh Bakaya give crushing and calamitous pictures of the carnage in powerful sweeps of the imagination. Soumyanetra Chattopadhyay’s two contributions to the volume are intense and hard hitting pieces. She evokes Blake’s image of the Tyger as she writes how cruelty had unleashed itself – “One death is a tragedy, thousands is statistics” (77) This is the tragedy of the fateful incident where the number of victims was huge and the callous apathy of the perpetrators of the crime unbelieveable. Sunil Bhandari writes, “We merely wait for the next Dyer to show his face” (81)

The Poetic Tributes is an outstanding collection with carefully selected pieces by contemporary poets who have succeeded in bringing alive an incident learnt through the pages of history or from stories narrated by people. The perception and emotional responses of the poets are pointers to the deep hurt one still feels and the magnitude of the crime committed. Poems by Moinak Dutta, Parneet Jaggi, Naina Dey, Kaustav Bhattacharya, Sutanuka Ghosh, Probal Ghosh, and a host of talented writers capture the chilling memory of the Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy and make the Collection a moving tribute to its martyrs. The literary value of the Volume is high. Poetry has complemented History and saluted the memory of the brave martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh. To the collective frightened and anguished cries that were silenced by bullets, this volume makes an attempt to give an assurance that they will never be forgotten and every generation will remember their supreme sacrifice.


Dr. ANNAPURNA PALIT is Assistant Professor in English at Deshbandhu College for Girls, Kolkata. She completed her M.Phil and Ph.D from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her M.Phil dissertation was on playwright Lillian Hellman while her Ph.D thesis was a comparative study of select writings of the Chinese and Japanese Diaspora of Canada. She is a recipient of the Shastri Knowledge Mobilisation Grant and has published articles in reputed journals. She has Chaired Academic Sessions at Seminars and made many presentations at National and International Conferences. Dr. Palit has also taught French language and enjoys reading poetry at events.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you,Anna,for your brilliant review!Your keen eye of a reviewer leaves no aspect untouched!I have only praises for you!


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